On a cabin in the woods

Up in the Air, a movie starring George Clooney, Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick, tells the tale of a guy who’s in-between the plane and the Hilton, all the time. I happened to watch it on a plane, one of the many I would be boarding in a globetrotting game which went on for years, taking me from Paris to Abu Dhabi to Beirut to Moscow to London to Hong Kong to Teheran to Stockholm to Istanbul to Rome to Hamburg to Dallas to Cologne to Milan to Warsaw to Madrid to Amsterdam and back to Paris, many times over and not in the same order. Too many trips to count, some for leisure of course, but most for preaching fintech to financial institutions around the world.

The movie felt so familiar.
Like George, I had more air Miles and Hilton points than I could spend.
Like George, I would be back home every few weeks, for a couple of days, and then back on the road.
And just like George, I had lost touch with most of the people I knew.
Mind you, I was surrounded by people, too many people at times, but still, it felt like being a lone soul in the middle of Times Square at rush hour. Like George.

At some point, Silence and Solitude became lifestyle, and for a while, they became friends. My only friends. They would greet me at the airport when I was back home. No one else would. I would take them out for a walk occasionally having nothing else to do in my free time.

The journey would start around the Place Saint Michel. Pretty lame for a Parisian might you think, but then again, why not? It is close to the Seine and a pretty central part of Paris. I would usually walk up the Rue Saint André des Arts, Solitude on my left, Silence on my right, and get myself a sandwich or a crêpe in one of the many restaurants in this street. I would then bifurcate to the right, through Rue Séguier or Rue des Grands Augustins to reach the eponymous docks, the Quai des Grands Augustins and the Seine river. But most of the times, I would keep walking up the street until I reached Rue de Buci and its many bars. Caipirinha and Mojito were trending back then. My least favorite drinks. There was a bar though, not too far from there, which served a very decent Old Fashioned and some interesting malts, but that’s for another post folks, and besides, I am not a fan of lonely drinking. My peregrinations would then take me south, through the Odéon area, down to the Jardin du Luxembourg where I would spend the rest of the afternoon or the day, not far from a bookshop where time stood still, one which I would be writing about many years later. And what would I be doing all this time? Well, owning time. Taking the time to tame solitude, to savor silence. To reflect on who I am, what I want from life. To think.

One of my fellow authors once quoted Sylvain Tesson, a French writer and traveler, in our e-mail exchanges.

Et si la liberté consistait à posséder le temps? Et si le bonheur revenait à disposer de solitude, d’espace et de silence – toutes choses dont manqueront les générations futures? Tant qu’il y aura des cabanes au fond des bois, rien ne sera tout à fait perdu.

« What if freedom consisted in owning time? What if happiness boiled down to having solitude, space and silence – all of which future generations will be lacking? As long as there are cabins deep in the woods, nothing will be completely lost. »

That walk was my cabin in the woods, in the middle of Paris.

Let the board sound

Rabih

An autumn pilgrim

It would have been a typical French Café, not too far from the Opéra Garnier. Sidewalk terrace, wicker chairs, a small round table, and on it two noisettes, which, for those whom Paris has not had yet the pleasure to greet, consist in espresso coffee with a drop of milk giving it a warm hazelnut color. And two folks, enjoying the pale Parisian autumn sun while sipping their noisettes on a cold November afternoon.

They had not seen each other for years. A lot of catch-up to do, but it would have not been about that, they would have been on a tight schedule. They would have not been there for fun but rather on a pilgrimage.

They would have visited the Carnavalet museum, earlier in the day, in a naïve attempt at grasping, through a specific painting, what they both believed would have been La Belle Epoque, “this stubborn, urgent, romantic, belief in a beautiful world that could really survive, if it fights hard enough“, as one of them once put it.

Since they would have found themselves in the Opéra area after that for a quick noisette, they might have strolled around the Christmas displays at the Galleries nearby. Or would have probably moved towards the Parc Monceau, a 25 minute walk through beautiful streets paved with red and yellow leaves: Rue Auber, Boulevard Haussmann, Boulevard Malesherbes. A walk in the park maybe, or maybe not if time was not on their side, and then past it, walking further north towards a very special chocolate factory… Pilgrimage, again…

They would have wanted to check on an old friend, living in the 5th arrondissement in Rue d’Ulm, not far from the Panthéon. He did not talk much and was kind of lonely but nevertheless, the depositary of a name and a legend which should not go to waste.

They would have ended the pilgrimage in a café in Montparnasse, one of four Art Deco cafés facing each other at the intersection of Boulevards Raspail and Montparnasse in the 14th arrondissement. Which one would it have been? Le Dôme? Le Sélect? La Coupole? or maybe La Rotonde

One of them would have known.

Would have. Could have. Might have. All virtual, all conditional.

Because one of them did not enjoy freedom of movement, was not found worthy of it.

You see, one of them would have come from a small country on the verge of oblivion.

Let the board sound

Rabih

On an encounter, somewhere in Paris

This story takes place somewhere in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, in an area delimited north by the Place d’Italie, and south by the Poterne des Peupliers.

An area less walked by tourists and typical Paris enthusiasts but not less interesting in my opinion. Nothing can illustrate it more than a walk down the typical Rue du Moulin des Prés to the Abbé Georges Hénocque Square and the lovely tiny little house-and-gardens leading to and surrounding it, then west through the Rue de la Colonie and the intersection with the Rue Tolbiac right at the Saint Anne church, and north through Rue Bobillot passing the municipal pool which waters are heated by the data center severs computing below it, up to the Butte aux Cailles and its many small restaurants and alternative bars, where you can finally take a stab at the escalope montagnarde, an institution in its own right courtesy of a cosy and casual dining room from Southwest France, right at the end of the walk. Worth a thousand words.

You will not be walking by famous iron towers or triumphal archs, and even less by paintings of mysterious half-smiling ladies from the Italian renaissance, but the area has a distinctive atmosphere which you can only feel by walking its streets.

Somewhere on this pathway lies a musical instruments shop, held by old school blues musicians, which meant there was no bling there, no fancy useless gimmicks, no lame talking. The guys used to cater for Hugue Aufrey’s guitars. That says it all. I was a regular customer of theirs.

This is where I met her, on a Saturday morning 13 years ago.

She was not thin, at least not in the traditional sense, and she had these shapes and curves which drove me crazy. A dark red belly-shaped maple top on a solid mahogany body, silver hardware, and no compromise on her beauty, even at the expense of ergonomics, especially at the expense of ergonomics actually. And the roar… a creamy roar sending shivers down the spine of whoever would pretend to tame her. She was a hard player, smooth to the touch, harsh on the back, not only because of the weight of the legendary names behind her kind like Jimmy Page, Les Paul or Neil Young, but also because of the 10 pounds of unchambered mahogany straining your shoulders, heavier than any of the other roaring hot rods out there.

I had been fantasizing about her since my early teens.

She was a 1994 Gibson Les Paul Standard in Red Wine finish. A guitar of legends, a roaring beauty. A Rock and Roll icon. The F50 of guitars, like an iconic car which few could tame at the speeds it was supposed to reach on track.

She would follow me to Paris, London, Abu Dhabi, Beirut, any place in which I lived or spent a significant amount of time and for years would be pretty much the only constant in a hectic life spent on roller coasters.

Until I met a girl with a sweet smile and a gentle creamy roar, somewhere in Paris, but that’s another story. Maybe for a later post?

Let the board sound

Rabih