"it doesn't matter how well prepared you are for bad news...it always shocks you when it arrives...it always brings a tear..."
Anh yêu em Tuyet...
26 December, Paris, France
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 by name, right after Thanksgiving, in a childish attempt to depersonalize them and thereby minimize thoughts of home and family. It was the old stick your head in the sand approach, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. Actually it worked to some extent given 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 in a blanket of emotions from calm and soothing to vibrant and wild. He reveled in the shear ecstasy he experienced with the touch of his hands upon the keys. He loved the joy that came with mastering complex pieces and the freedom of simply being able to play whatever was on his heart, be it light of dark. It was liberating, it was exciting, and it launched a career that he thought he wanted.
At the senior recital, what amounted to 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 straight away. Unheard of! Extrordinary! That just 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 second chair position with the world famous orchestra right out of university, without even pursuing a Masters Degree in music, also unheard off! Within three 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 it was at first. But the pressures of constant travel, of performing night after night, matinee after matinee for faces that were scarcely more than blurs in the whirlwind that was his life, he was exhausted already at the tender age of twenty-seven. And then there were the fickle pens of the critics (over educated know-it-alls) who had taken their toll over time, erasing his desire to play for anyone anymore, including himself. So, 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 more bohemian lifestyle in the city of lights, Paris, France.
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 learn to speak the language like a native. He wanted to see what fate had in store for him in this new chapter of his life. He had always 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, and often times he was 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. He had the look and air of a true Parisian by now.
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 to dine al fresco and 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 was inspired, a feeling he hadn't had in some time. Perhaps he may have found a new outlet for his artistic expression, one that would please all of the senses simultaneously. He quickly made friends with the shop owner and proceeded to spend the next six months close to 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 listing Harvard as a reference on a Wall Street resume. Plus, he was intrigued by the thought of learning from the grand masters. He agreed to accept a scholarship and began his studies forthwith.
That was more than two years ago, and here he was celebrating another holiday 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 Christmas, he was missing more familiar surroundings just 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. But when the walls started closing in around him, 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, 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 Sacré-Coeur and Montmartre. There was a bistro there 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 enjoyed people watching 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. They didn’t have the air of wonderment associated with age, experience, and 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 nine or ten 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 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, a grey and blue skirt with a starched white blouse. A cream colored muffler dangled from around her small neck while a dark blue beret lay beside her on the piano bench.
Noah figured that she must be home from school and practicing her piece while her parents were in the kitchen preparing for the supper crowd. He took a step closer to the window and pretended to read the menu that was 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 homesick blues on his way to that tasty meal of 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 then 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 now. 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. Why did she speak to him in English, what gave him away he wondered?
“Have a seat anywhere,” she hollered over her shoulder as she pushed through the swinging doors that separated 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 the 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. 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, with a thick French accent.
“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 whatever the fresh catch of the day was, likely some kind of whitefish. He turned to see the elderly couple getting up to leave. The old man helped his partner with her coat and then left 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 thirty 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. But 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 first ivory key he subconsciously inspected. 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 quickly, expecting someone to come 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 keys. 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, pointing at his beverage.
“Merci,” replied Noah.
“Au moment se vu plait,” he added.
“As you wish,” she answered.
“Thank you,” he replied, grateful for the switch back to English.
“Do you play?” Noah asked, pretending not to know.
“I am learning, but it is difficult, no,” she answered.
“It can be at first. At least until you connect with the instrument, make friends with it, make it a part of your own body,” Noah replied, over explaining.
She looked puzzled by his words. He wasn’t sure if she understood his meaning. Noah closed his eyes and played the very piece she had been practicing earlier, the Chopin sonata. His skills had not diminished a bit 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 at a nearby table.
“You teach?” the mother asked.
“I try,” answered Noah sheepishly.
“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 up at him and waited for whatever was coming next. Noah smiled back and then placed his hands onto the keys. He sat motionless for a moment, staring at his hands on the keyboard poised to begin and then saw that the child had placed her hands likewise a register above him, poised to do 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 slightly above the keys, first his left and then his right, and prepared to begin when he had a sudden notion. 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 play Chopin’s music, together. Don’t be afraid,” Noah explained.
The girl looked at the piano and then at his hands and gradually understood what Noah had in mind. She leaned back to look around Noah at her mother for permission. The woman at the table nodded, withholding a smile for the moment. The child leaned forward and clumsily plopped her little hands onto Noah’s causing a missed chord. 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 closed his eyes and took a deep breath then began to play, slowly at first, allowing 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 simultaneously impressed and excited. It was like waking up and discovering that you could fly like a bird. She felt free as if she had no boundaries. Taking his cue, she closed her own eyes, totally relaxing, and let him lead her up and down the keyboard, surrendering to his experience and awesome talent.
From the first perfect chord of 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, he 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 that 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 into the shop window. Nevertheless, he continued unencumbered and unaffected by the impromptu audience, he was in a zone now, a true happy place. He noticed that Giselle was in the zone along him, completely relaxed, her eyes closed, her head resting on his shoulder, her bobbed hair brushing her face as she swayed with the music 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's power guide 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, the end is near,” he said loudly, reassuring her.
She winked back and then smiled, aware of the crowd for the first time since they had begun the piece. Giselle heart skipped a beat, momentarily hit by a little 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 joyous music more powerful than judgment of an audience of strangers. Noah started to hum along with the music. He knew where he was going as he had played this piece a hundred times over the years. He gently nudged Giselle and encouraged 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, they hit the keys harder and harder. They both began to giggle as they neared the end, and the people around them who knew the piece began humming right along with them. They began the last couple of measures reaching the crescendo and sat up as straight as they could, shouting out the final notes of the sonata, ending the piece with a heavy hand as they struck the final chords.
Noah sat motionless letting the notes fade into the air and when the sound had disappeared and become a memory he stood and helped Giselle up from the bench. The two of them turned to face the small crowd and the room exploded with applause and cheers. Noah and Giselle bowed together acknowledging their audience’s appreciation. Giselle’s mother dabbed tears from her eyes with her apron while her father watched proudly from the kitchen door. Giselle and Noah bowed a few 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 kissed her cheek, then walked toward the exit. He paused, turning back to waive goodbye, and then continued on out into the street. It was December the 26th, 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 bistro he had originally been seeking. He smiled, thinking to himself, how wonderful life can be when you appreciate what you do have instead of worrying over what you don’t. He was pretty sure he'd read that somewhere, he had of course…we all have…