Never be daunted
― Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
The first thing I noticed on the plane to Paris was how similar my wife and her father, Mr. Pei, acted once seated. No slumping or slouching with either of them – they sat like they walked – straight up and down, like exclamation marks in motion. They also fell fast asleep after takeoff and woke only when the stewards came with food or drink. Then they went back to sleep. Neither read anything nor watched television or listened to headphones. It was serene and strange and completely impressive.
Unlike me. I’m a mess on a flight. I fidget and fret, shuffle through newspapers, books, flip channels, watch that little flight checker on the screen incessantly. Seeing the three of us in a row together (I sat between my wife and her father), one might think I was a fugitive being taken into custody by two very relaxed marshals. But of course, we were not heading to anything of the sort, but Paris, a city I had read so much about, including in one of the many books in my carry satchel, The Sun Also Rises.
Now before we get to Mr. Pei, I have to tell you that The Sun Also Rises is my all-time favorite novel. It introduced me to Ernest Hemingway, and made me, in many ways, want to become a serious writer – or more aptly, serious about writing. But it’s a book that helped me see into a writer’s craft – I immediately liked Hemingway’s economic style of sentence, the blunt truth of brevity he employed, and, reading it right after college, connected to a main character enveloped by a close band of seldom-sober friends – both constructive and destructive to his life and his own sodden ways. It was a novel that stayed important to me as I got more involved in writing, using it often, that is reading it over from cover to cover, or select passages, as a model to follow or to remind me what good, sparse, direct prose was all about.
For this trip to Paris, I had marked up in the book all the places in the city the characters had gone, and my plan was to visit these – to see firsthand what Hemingway had described. But like many well-constructed plans, once we got to Paris, situated in our short-term rental apartment, the book and my circled destinations stayed in the satchel. Which was a good thing. Because from the start the fun was to just go out and adventure, to walk to and fro and soak in the life and the beauty of the city without careful or confining plans.
We also were delighted with our accommodations. My wife and I had an upstairs loft bedroom connected to the bottom floor by a black metal spiral staircase, and to my delight, our bathroom had an old-style raised bathtub which I spent too much time soaking after our walks, enjoying the idea of being in an old-style raised bathtub in Paris, and reading a story collection of Somerset Maugham.
Mr. Pei had the ground floor to himself, with a pullout couch for a bed. Unfortunately, the directions were in French and we had to call the landlord the second day to learn how to actually pull it out. But the best feature of the downstairs was its access to a small and quaint and very Parisian-looking outdoor patio garden. Mr. Pei loved to go out and study the plants, taking them in with a measured and patient eye, looking to me as cool and at home as if he was a born Parisian.
On about our third day there we had the pleasure of visiting an American friend’s family who lived close by. They are artistic people and their apartment was chic and we had dinner with some of their friends and it all felt to me like I was in the Sun Also Rises, but without the booze and fighting and discourse. Everyone was nice and interesting and across the hall, as a special treat, the mother of our hostess had an apartment studio where she painted the most striking paintings. I could tell Mr. Pei was impressed, and he studied and admired each painting the same way he did the plants in the garden.
Next to our final day in Paris, we went all out. We decided to do the complete tourist thing and went to Versailles by train first. It was very hot and dusty there but we walked the grounds and saw all that there was to see and then trained back to the city. From there we walked and walked and walked – touring Notre Dame, the Musee d’ Orsay, the Jardin des Plantes and other various parks and gardens. We saw all the “must-sees.” We walked the entire day, dizzied by the sights. Mr. Pei, in his 80’s, was with us every step of the way, just as excited as we were.
We did not get home until late. I went to the bath and Mr. Pei to the patio. Later we ate bread and cheese and meats we had bought and went to bed early. From upstairs, I could hear Mr. Pei’s gentle snores. It was peaceful and comforting.
Later my wife told me that her father, after our trip, had told her he had been having trouble keeping up. He had issues with his equilibrium and was taking medicine that tired him. I could not believe this, as not once did he complain, not once did he not partake in what we were doing, not once did he look pained or anything but happy and interested and focused on where he was, what he was doing. He was almost child-like in his enthusiasm and eagerness to get all he could from the visit. You could see he felt proud to be in Paris, to be traveling, to be touring a place of importance, to be somewhere so special to so many.
I thought later about this – about how he had put aside any health issues and lived completely in the moment and to the hilt. He was tough and strong, and being in Paris made him even more resilient and determined. I realized he was far better than any character in The Sun Also Rises for me to model. And I am lucky that I don’t need to open a book to do so. I can just call him up in my mind whenever I like, see him walking and laughing and marveling at what he was seeing, happy about where he was, proud how far he had come in life. On that trip, he was one of us – three of a kind on a great vacation. Even if one didn’t like to fly.