This morning, as I took a cab from my hotel to the airport in Paris, I passed along the Avenue de la Grand Armee and suddenly remembered that a number of years ago I would walk along that street every morning with my guitar in hand to go busking on the Metro. The reasons for my residency in Paris are too convoluted to discuss here but let?s just say I?d travelled across the briny because of a gas platform in the North Sea, Zola?s L?Assomoir and a long forgotten Hall & Oates album!
I was sleeping on the floor of a tiny bathroom of a friend of a friend who worked in a hotel close to the Place de la Porte Maillot. He would return from duty at 3am with a variety of eager girls who would use the bathroom as I pretended to doze in my sleeping bag before leaving their underwear behind and indulging in noisy sex with my host in the small room next door. It was a less than perfect arrangement to be sure but I was grateful for this stranger?s generosity which enabled me to prolong my time in Paris as I searched for work.
Each day I would find a pitch in the tunnels of the Metro and would sing Buffy St. Marie?s Universal Soldier and Randy Newman?s Mr. President as the passengers hurried by, the centimes trickled into my guitar case, and I kept an eye out for the police. My daily living expenses amounted to 15 Francs and I?d found a Vietnamese Restaurant on the left bank where I could eat a three course meal and get a glass of wine for 6 Francs. Today, as my cab sped smoothly towards the airport, I realized that my hotel bill for last night alone would have kept me strumming in Paris back then for over four months! It was one of many signals I?ve been receiving about how things can change and the relative price of what we value in our lives.
For instance…this morning I ate a hearty breakfast in the warm sun outside a cafe on the Avenue Kleber while I read about thousands of forgotten soldiers starving and freezing to death in Antony Beevor?s fine Stalingrad. I have just read the chapter in which the besieged and desperate General Paulus frustrated by Hitler?s intransigence dispatches a highly decorated tank commander to tell the self appointed military genius the truth about what was happening to his glorious army in the frozen wastes west of the Volga. The young captain eventually realized that Adolf, cosseted in his world of warmth and sycophancy, ?had lost touch with reality…he lived in a fantasy world of maps and flags.? The oddly mustachioed leader?s only concession to his beleaguered troops was an order that champagne be no longer served at his dining table!
A few days ago I ate a delightful lunch in the peaceful town square in Gergy. As I munched on my quiche I studied the war monument and read the names of those from the town who had died in the last two great wars. A fellow rider, whose mother was the youngest survivor to escape from Auschwitz, quietly pointed out a separate carved monument with a list of names upon it and the ominous legend: ?In memory of those who died, victims of Nazi barbarity.? The soldiers who?d died in WW2 were listed on the main monument so one could only conclude that this was a reminder of some unknown civilian atrocity.
What does it all mean? Perhaps it?s just a simple sign that we must be grateful for what we have and remember that all things are relative.
A post script…One day I met Randy Newman. As I shook his hand I told him that by playing his song over and over again on the Metro all those years ago I had managed to pay my rent and buy my evening dinner every day for a couple of months: I wanted to convey my long overdue thanks. He frowned, withdrew his hand from my grasp and turned away without saying a word. Perhaps when being thankful you only have to think about it…not everyone wants to deal with it!