Getting lost is one of my pet peeves. I suspect it is the same for most, I KNOW it is so with nearly all males! I'm certian you've heard how all men refuse to ask for directions. Alright already, its true...ho hum...
Fact, there are paths leading to everywhere from everywhere, physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. That is a universal fact my friends! Just like day is day and night is night. Whoops, forgot about Alaska, damn it! Stupid land of the midnight sun! Okay, maybe its not a universal fact, but its darn close to it. Perhaps that sort of exception suggests we are capable of blazing our own trails and creating our own paths? I wonder, are there really any paths without footprints left to stumble upon?
In my own life I wpould need several more fingers and toes to count the number of paths I've searched for, missed, and stumbled upon. None of which are unique in and of themselves, except of course when applied to myself. Oh, I forgot to mention the wrong paths I've followed and crossed as well, a regret I'm certian we all relate to.
In this story Noah is on a personal trek of his own making. In the end he learns that where you are is where you're meant to be...for the moment anyways...;)
26 December, Paris
One would think that Christmas Eve or especially Christmas Day would be the loneliest for someone so far from home. That’s certainly what Noah used to think, until this morning that is. Actually, his holiday had been jammed with parties and social invitations from friends and colleagues both days, the 24th and the 25th. He had started referring to the holidays by date instead of nomenclature, right after November 27th (Thanksgiving in the USA) in a childlike attempt to depersonalize the events thereby minimizing thoughts of home and family. It seemed like a good idea at the time, and it worked to some extent when mixed with the avalanche of work and study associated with the end of the Fall term.
Noah Nathan Noel (thanks a lot mom and dad) was in his final year at the Sorbonne Academy in Paris France. His flair for style and elegance had led him to the culinary arts after several detours through the more traditional arts, such as literature, sculpture, and music (still a passion). His first two years at Yale he had been an English Literature major. He wrote well and had even been published once or twice, but the process bored him. He shifted gears and spent the next year as a Fine Art major, focusing on sculpture as his medium of expression. He fancied himself the next Michelangelo, possibly. Actually, he sucked, and his professors wasted no time in encouraging him to redirect his efforts. Finally, in his senior year, he discovered a passion and an unknown aptitude for music. It was a whirlwind romance between Noah and the piano. He took to the instrument like an infant takes to the breast. The sounds and melodies that came alive when his fingers roamed the keyboard cradled him with a blanket of emotions ranging from calm and soothing to wild and vibrant. He reveled in the joy of controlling the level of ecstasy he experienced with the touch of his hands. He loved the power of mastering pieces, and the freedom of being able to play whatever was on his heart on his own time of course. It was liberating, it was exciting, and it launched a career that he thought he wanted.
At the senior recital, his final exam, he managed to impress a visitor from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, so much so that he was offered the opportunity to audition. Unheard of! That wasn’t how things worked in the real world, but Noah’s path was anything but ordinary. And as fate would have it, he landed a third chair position with the famous orchestra right out of university, even without pursuing a Masters Degree in music, also unheard off! Within five years he moved from his rookie position to featured soloist, and a very popular one at that, one with an ever growing fan base. The experience was wonderfully alluring for Noah, at least at first. But the pressures of constant travel, of performing, and the fickle pen of the critics (freaking over educated know-it-alls) took their toll, and over time erased his desire to play, for anyone, including himself. And after five years of carrying that cross, Noah up and quit, cold turkey. He literally ran away from home, leaving behind the music world and the good old US of A for a bohemian life in the city of lights, Paris.
He spent the first couple of months in country exploring the neighborhood around his flat located on the infamous left bank of the old city. He was determined to assimilate quickly, wanting to blend in and earn to speak the language like a native. He wanted to see what fate had in store for him on this new chapter in his life. He made friends easily and he used that talent to establish himself as a regular at the local markets, cafes, and pubs. In no time at all he was exchanging pleasantries with shop owners as he passed by, often times invited in for coffee and a visit. By month three of his stay he was regularly stopped on the street by tourists asking for directions or help with translations.
On one of his walkabouts he had stopped in at a local brassière, compelled by the amazing aroma of fresh breads and pastries. He remembered ordering coffee and spending an entire hour choosing which delectable treat he wanted to sample. He had decided upon an assortment of pinafores and sat outside al fresco to enjoy his selections. There were no words to describe the flavor of these pastries, although taste explosion immediately came to mind. On top of the remarkable experience for his palate, there was this incredible visual experience associated with the presentation of these delicate delights. This was more than food, more than dessert, this was art! When he finished eating he went back into the shop and watched the baker/chef create masterpiece after masterpiece, no two exactly the same, like snowflakes.
Noah felt that he may have found an outlet for his artistic expressions, one that would please all of the senses, individually and simultaneously. He quickly made friends with the shop owner and proceeded to spend the next six months close at the master craftsman’s heels, learning the art form and honing his natural ability to create. He learned fast, totally inspired by the unfamiliar surroundings and the freedom from the pressures of his past life. He experimented and conjured up incredibly delectable pastries of his own design. In no time, almost overnight, he was a neighborhood sensation, drawing crowds every morning as his creations were laid out in display cases and the shop window. Word spread quickly and soon the shop was attracting people from all over the city. The curious and the hungry would line up around the block to see and sample Noah’s handiwork. On one such morning a professor from the Sorbonne Academy stopped in to see what all the local fuss was about. She was instantly smitten with Noah’s untapped talent and his seemingly limitless potential. She insisted that he visit her at the school and look around; perhaps consider pursuing a career in the culinary arts. It was a decision that he agonized over for all of twenty minutes. He was aware of the value of a degree from the prestigious school; it was the same as having Harvard as a reference on your Wall Street resume. Plus, he was intrigued by thought of learning from the grand masters. He agreed to accept a scholarship and began his studies forthwith.
That was two years ago, and here he was celebrating his third Christmas alone. Well, not alone exactly, he had plenty of friends around him. But it had been a long while since he had last been home, and today, the day after Xmas, he was missing more familiar surroundings a wee bit. He awoke early this morning and prepared himself an old fashioned American breakfast consisting of eggs, bacon, hash browned potatoes, French toast (he was in France after all), coffee and orange juice (no pulp), basically the lumberjack breakfast from any diner in the fifty states. He’d taken his sweet time preparing and eating the feast, but still, he ate alone. He left the radio and television off to escape the French language for a little while. And when the walls started closing in he put on his coat and muffler and started walking.
The air was cold and brisk, and he could see his breath as he trod along with no particular destination in mind. He passed the Waldorf Madeleine Hotel and waived at Sophie, the concierge who was standing out in the cold taking a cigarette break and talking on her cell phone. She smiled and waived back as he walked by. Noah picked up the pace slightly in an effort to generate a little heat, man it was cold! As he passed the red post box, he checked traffic before crossing the street to the Metro station. Noah thought that he would head over to Sacra coure and Montmartre. There was a bistro there that he fancied that served the best bouf bourgeonne in the city. The small off beat places were always the best, it was like that anywhere in the world, a universal culinary axiom if you will. Sprinting across the busy street he stopped to help up a toddler who had tripped and fallen beside his overburdened mother. She was struggling with a pram holding a little sister and an arm full of groceries. The little boy giggled when Noah mussed his hair, and then waived bye-bye as Noah descended the stairs to the Metro platform.
He found a seat quickly when the doors opened and settled in for the ten minute ride to the old church in the artist district. He people watched while he listened to the sound of the wheels on the track, a pastime he had come to appreciate soon after arriving in Paris. Having grown up in a typical US suburb he hadn’t experienced the close quarter life of a metropolitan city. Oh he had been to New York and Chicago, but they were new and young compared with Paris, and didn’t have the air of wonderment associated with age, experience, history. He rode in the dark for exactly ten minutes and presently arrived at the Montmartre station. Noah exited the car, and fast walked with the crowd through the winding tunnel leading to the exit. He took the stairs two at a time and drew in a deep breath of cold fresh air as he stepped into daylight. His mind was clearing and the doldrums were disappearing as he walked toward the marketplace. It was a little early for supper and a little late for dinner, but he was hungry and on a mission to enjoy a favorite meal.
Noah turned up his collar as he rounded the corner and entered the courtyard of the famous artist’s colony, walking head on into the freezing wind. He shuddered and picked up the pace a little only to stop just as suddenly. He paused for a moment and listened again for the familiar sound that had caught his attention. Turning toward the sound he looked past his reflection in the shop window at the shape of a young girl sitting at an old upright piano. She couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven years old he reckoned; it was hard to tell these days, kids were in such a hurry to grow up. She was waif-like, with a short bobbed hairstyle, short in the back and long in the front, a style popular in the roaring 1920’s. Two long trusses of hair brushed her face as she swayed to the melody she was playing. She was dressed in a Tartan school uniform of grey and blue, a cream colored muffler dangling from around her small neck. A dark blue beret set beside her on the piano bench.
Noah thought that she must be home from school and practicing her piece while her parents prepared for the supper crowd. He took a step closer to the window and pretended to read the menu taped to the glass. He watched her and listened to her struggle with the piece. It was a Chopin sonata, not a difficult one, but clearly it was new for her and obviously beyond her level. Noah watched and listened for a few minutes, remembering the past, the homesick feeling returning in spades. He cleared his throat and walked away quickly, hoping to outrun the blues on his way to the bouf bourgeonne that was waiting for him up the street. But the faster he walked the louder the music became. He couldn’t escape the noise. An urge to go back and help the poor kid get it right consumed him. He paused halfway up the block, sighed, and turned back. The music stopped just before he arrived.
Noah walked into the small bistro and looked around. The girl was gone, and there was only an elderly couple seated in the back. They were chatting and enjoying coffee or tea, obviously finished with their meal. There were a few empty dishes on the table waiting to be collected by someone. That someone walked in before Noah could wonder who or where they were. It was the little girl. She wore an apron over her uniform. She walked to the couple’s table and exchanged a few softly spoken words that Noah couldn’t hear. The old woman smiled at her and touched the girl’s cheek as she collected the empty dishes. She said something that made the girl smile and then went back to chatting with her partner as the child walked away.
“One moment messier,” the girl said to Noah as she passed him on the way to the kitchen, catching him off guard.
“Oh, right, ummm, no hurry,” Noah replied sheepishly. He blushed as if he had been caught eavesdropping.
“Have a seat anywhere,” she hollered over her shoulder as she pushed through the swinging doors separating the kitchen from the small dining area.
“Thanks,” Noah called out, pulling out the chair closest to him and sitting down.
He busied himself nervously, straightening up the table top and rearranging the silverware and salt & pepper shakers. There wasn’t a menu to look at, but he wasn’t there to eat anyways. He wondered if he hadn’t made a huge mistake, and thought about leaving when the girl reappeared. She handed him a small menu and stood by patiently, waiting for him to choose something for her to bring. Noah pulled out a pair of reading glasses from his coat and quickly scanned the menu. It was in French but had pictures of each dish next to the words. That was more of a Greek tendency he thought, and he wondered if her family were immigrants? He glanced up and made eye contact with the child. She smiled sweetly and he smiled back.
“Have you decided,” she asked in passable English, her accent definitely French?
“Café-au-lait si vu plait,” he replied.
“Oui,” she answered turning to fetch his coffee with milk.
Noah exhaled and looked around the room. He could smell some kind of fish stew or soup wafting from the kitchen. The aroma was strong, but pleasant, promising a dish that was seasoned just right with fresh vegetables and a fresh catch of the day, likely whitefish, a local favorite. He turned to see the elderly couple getting up to leave. The old man helped his partner with her coat and then left several a few Euros on the table for the girl to pick up. They ignored Noah as they walked past and left him alone in the room. He looked over at the old piano and studied it from across the room. It was at least twenty years old, a Baldwin according to the nameplate prominently displayed in the center of the instrument. It had been in tune from what Noah had heard earlier, but it needed to be voiced. It was in decent enough shape to learn on he thought.
Noah got up and slowly walked over to the piano. He saw that the girl had left her beret on the bench. He looked toward the kitchen and waited a moment for someone to walk out before reaching down to lightly touch the keys, choosing middle C as the ivory first touched. He let his finger slide across the smooth key, cold to the touch, and then depressed it gently letting the note ring a second or two before removing his hand. He looked up again to see if anyone came running out from the back. Nobody rushed out, the doors remained motionless. He played the single note once more and when no one objected he sat down on the bench. Noah ran both hands across the keys with a gentle touch, enjoying the feel of the cool ivory. And after a second pass along the keyboard he played a C chord with each hand, letting the bass and treble tones mix in the empty room. He was surprised by how good that made him feel, the intensity of the sound that rang in his ears, waking memories he had suppressed for the last three years. He closed his eyes and played the same chord again, then moved to an E, then a G, and then back to C. That brief exercise made him smile. When he opened his eyes the girl was standing beside him. She smiled and pointed at his table where she had placed his drink.
“Messier,” she said.
“Merci,” replied Noah.
“Au moment se vu plait,” he added.
“As you wish,” she answered.
“Thank you,” he replied, grateful for the switch to English.
“Do you play,” Noah asked, pretending not to know?
“I am learning, but it is difficult, no,” she answered?
“It is until you connect with the instrument, make friends with it, make it a part of your body,” Noah explained, sharing his own experience with the child. She looked puzzled by his words. He wasn’t sure she understood his meaning. Noah closed his eyes and played the very piece she was practicing. His skills had not diminished during his absence from the stage, and Chopin’s beautiful melody rose from the old piano, filling the room with music so sweet that all other sounds ceased. He stopped after a few measures and looked at the girl.
“See, just like that,” he said.
“My goodness, I could never do that,” she said, her eyes glistening. Noah picked up her beret and patted the bench beside him.
“Of course you can,” he said smiling.
The child bit at her lip and looked over her shoulder toward the kitchen. She could see her mother looking through the small window on top of the door. Her mother’s eyes revealed more curiosity than concern and the child sat beside him timidly. Noah looked over at the mother in the window and winked. She pushed open the door slightly and smiled, drying her hands with a colorful dishtowel. The mother nodded at him and walked into the room, taking a seat a nearby table.
“You teach,” she asked?
“I try,” answered Noah.
“It’s been a little while though,” he added, more for his benefit than hers.
He looked at the girl again and noticed that she appeared more at ease. She smiled at him and waited for whatever was next. Noah smiled back and then placed his hands onto the keys. He stared at his hands until he saw that the child was doing the same.
“What’s your name,” he asked the girl?
“Giselle,” answered the mother.
Noah chuckled, “Okay Giselle, here we go,” he said. Noah raised his hands and placed them onto the keys, first his left and then his right. He flexed his hands, gently rubbing each note with a fingertip as if to prepare the piano for what was to come. It was sort of like leaning in and whispering giddy-up to your horse before a leisurely ride through the countryside. He sat there a moment in silence. He could feel the anticipation emanating from the child beside him. He could really feel it coming from the mother at the table near the kitchen. He turned his head slightly and spoke to the girl. “Put your hands on mine,” he said softly.
“Pardon,” she replied, glancing over at her mother.
“Sit closer and put your hands onto mine. It’s alright; we’re going to share Chopin’s music, together. Don’t be afraid,” Noah explained. The girl looked at the piano and his hands and quickly understood what Noah had in mind. She leaned back to look around Noah at her mother for permission. The woman at the table nodded her affirmative answer, withholding a smile for the moment. The child leaned forward and clumsily plopped her little hands onto Noah’s causing a missed chord to blurt out. Noah laughed and took her hands in his, squeezing them firmly. He relaxed his hold and rubbed them as if to warm them.
“Let’s try again, but gently this time, okay,” he said making eye contact.
“Oui, okay,” she replied smiling sheepishly.
Noah placed his hands back onto the keys, and the child did likewise, her tiny fingers resting gently atop of each of his. Noah watched her stare at the piano and waited for her to relax. When she did, he began to play, slowly at first, letting her get accustomed to the process, and then faster, keeping in time with Chopin’s intended melody and phrasing. The girl looked up at the sheet music in front of them aware that they had played beyond the pages displayed before them. She glanced up at Noah and saw that his eyes were closed. He was playing this difficult piece from memory, she was impressed and truth be told a little jealous. Taking his cue, she closed her own eyes and totally relaxed, letting him lead her up and down the keyboard, surrendering to experience and awesome talent.
From the first perfect chord to the prelude, a long string of notes beginning the sonata’s expression of the composer’s innermost thoughts and feelings, the atmosphere in the small restaurant changed. You could feel it physically; the beautifully arranged music filled the room, note after glorious note. Giselle felt herself being swept away. She could literally feel the power of the music rising up through Noah’s hands and into hers. She was frightened at first, but that passed quickly, feeling empowered with each passing measure. Noah went from movement to movement without pause, himself swept away by memories of past performances. He hadn’t realized how much he missed this, how much he truly loved music, and the absolute joy it brought to him, that it brought to everyone.
He opened his eyes for the first time in a quarter hour and saw that he and Giselle had drawn a small crowd. There were people at all the tables, as well as several standing in the doorway and peering in the shop window. Nevertheless, he continued unencumbered and unaffected by the impromptu audience, he was in a zone right now, a true happy place. He noticed that Giselle was in the zone with him, completely relaxed, eyes closed, her head resting on his shoulder, her bobbed hair brushing her face as she swayed to the music that they were making. Noah looked over at her mother and winked. She understood his meaning and flashed him the smile she’d withheld earlier. Noah smiled back and turned back to face the piano. They were nearing the crescendo of Chopin’s sonata and he let the music power his movements. The change in tempo and the forceful transitions from note to note, chord to chord brought Giselle out of her peaceful trance. She sat up quickly and looked up at Noah, her expression one of puzzlement and panic.
“Don’t worry honey, it’s just time for the big finish,” he said winking at her.
She winked back and smiled and then gasped when she realized how many people had wandered into the room. Giselle was instantly overcome with stage fright. She shut her eyes tightly and scooted closer to Noah, seeking protection from the curious stares from the room. She kept her hands on his in spite of her terror, the joy of making music more powerful than judgment by an audience of strangers. In less than a minute she had composed herself and relaxed, determined to take this ride to the very end. Noah started to hum along with the music. He knew where he was going, he had played this piece hundreds of times. He gently nudged Giselle with his elbow, encouraging her to hum along with him. She did as she was asked, softly at first and then louder as she and Noah raced for the end of the sonata. They hummed louder and louder, the hit the keys harder and harder. They began to giggle as they neared the end, and the people around them who knew the piece began to hum along with them. As they began the last couple of measures heading into the crescendo, they sat up as straight as they could, shouting out the final notes of the sonata, and then with a heavy hand ended the piece with the final chord.
Noah and Giselle sat motionless, letting the notes fade on the air and when the sound had disappeared totally he stood and helped Giselle stand up on the bench. The two of them turned and faced the small crowd as the room exploded with applause. Noah took Giselle’s hand and they bowed together acknowledging the audience’s appreciation. Giselle’s mother had tears in her eyes, as did her father who watched from the kitchen door. Giselle and Noah bowed several more times, basking in the moment, and then hugged one another like brother and sister. She took Noah’s face in her little hands and thanked him, “Merci,” she whispered, “Merci bécu!” Noah winked at her and helped her down from the piano bench. He mussed her hair and then walked toward the exit. He turned back to waive to Giselle and her parents and then walked out into the street. It was the day after Christmas, and he was far from where he had come from, but he was no longer lonely, no longer homesick. He was home, at last. Noah walked up the street towards the supper he had originally been seeking. He smiled, thinking to himself, how wonderful life can be when you appreciate what you have instead of fretting over what you don’t have. He was pretty sure that he had read that somewhere…he had, we all have…