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75–On the Rue de Rome.
His letters pull me from the sea like a line from a fishing pole: there’s a wrenching, a pulling back, a removal from the comfortable, from home, from an unthinking way of just being.
In my first weeks in France, I read the letters exactly as they were written.
In Paris, I travel to the apartment he stayed in and sit in the cafe across the street and read while staring up at the window behind which he may have sat when he started writing.
I know some things: the letter tells me it was a top floor apartment, that there was a small balcony—I can see there are only so many options, so I can easily enter the imagined flat, sit with him as he writes, as he looks out the window down at me, here; I can even place him at this cafe (if it existed!) looking back up with the same eyes I am seeing.
After a week in Paris, I start to change the narrative—but only to the degree necesary.
They hitch down to Antibes, where Maurice‘s family has a boat. So I travel to Antibes (by train). He mentions church steps he sat in front of when writing a letter: I find a church (there aren’t many) and sit on its steps. There, I read what he wrote where it may have been written.
In another letter, he mentions a park overlooking the sea; I find a park overlooking the sea and I sit there. I read another letter where and how it may have been written (and I look at the sea—the same sea, of this at least I can be sure).
Later, he writes of walking by the water with a beer, sitting on the wet rocks; I head toward the water (no beer, though I consider it) and walk along the wet rocks. I wonder if his feet trod here or elsewhere; these rocks or others. The town isn’t that big, I think. I can’t be too far off.
From Antibes, they sail to Nice—I take the train and walk to the port where they likely docked. In each cafe where I stop to take a rest, drink a coffee, and eat a pastry, I wonder if he stopped there to do the same (he certainly mentions many; “coffee with me is like a religion”).
In Nice, in Antibes, in Cannes, I walk along the seaside and watch the yachts, the carriers, the sailboats: how big was the boat they used? What did it look like? How long did they stop and at which ports? How long did they sail and how often?
He hardly mentions details; only that there was a lot of sailing, and that he did everything he could (within the constraints of politeness) to avoid having to re-embark.
Then, after some time, the letters loose their direct alignment and I begin to read them anywhere—anywhere pretty, with a view, or a comfortable chair, or a friendly waiter, or a clear menu. Anywhere I can sit, and read, and daydream, and journal. And then sometimes even where I can’t: I tuck a letter inside my moleskin and carry it onto the train, slip one in between the pages of a book while I circumnavigate the peninsula by foot on my way to a coastal path. I have a letter with me always: at each restaurant, each market, while I walk along each beach.
It’s hard to stay present and stay open to the past. It’s hard to experience being here as a place I am in, and to remember that my father was also here all those years ago. Or, it’s not hard to remember—I always remember—but it’s hard to stay present to that memory in the moment I am in. (Is that ironic? That it’s hard to stay present to the past?)
In reality, the two experiences are disconnected at their core: he was a young man on a walkabout, and I’m a middle-aged man working remotely. He was a young man living a gap year, and I’m an older man grieving a death. He was a boy becoming a man and I am a man following a boy into cafes, onto church steps, and along the shore. He was curious, insecure, just beginning; I’m listless, unsure, and halfway done with life (or more).
His letters pull me from the sea like a line from a fishing pole (he does go fishing, and likes it): there’s a wrenching, a pulling back, a removal from the comfortable, from home, from an unthinking way of just being.
These surroundings only connect me to him if I let them. If I seek out the overlap. If I manufacture it with observation, purpose, planning, words.
In Paris, the street he stayed on (Rue de Rome) is filled with musical instrument shops—luthiers. It seems poetic for a man whose three children learned to play stringed instruments (viola, cello, violin), who spent thousands of dollars buying instruments for each, on weekly private lessons, for youth symphony memberships, and at rehearsals, masterclasses, academies, who drove them on weekends to LA for special lessons, and brought them all to concert halls around the world to hear the great players play and see the great repertoire performed.
Yet in his letters, he never mentions this detail.
Perhaps the street was not the same in 1968. Or he, at 17, a self-professed artist of the material sort (painter, print-maker, drawer, etc) did not feel such a connection.
Perhaps that’s a connection for this moment only—just for me, looking back from the present toward him in the past.
And now for you, reader, as well.
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