I have reached the point in life where for every question anybody asks me, I don’t know the answer, I’ve forgotten the answer, or I’m tired of being asked. However, somebody came up with a new one. It was my wife:
“Want to go to Paris for Christmas?”
Why would we do that? We don’t have any family over there. Would “Adeste Fideles” be in French? Helas, my command of the French language is nearly as limited as every French person I have tried it out on has pretended to believe it was. How should I respond to them? “Ne donnez-vous pas a moi ce ‘regard blanc’ la” seems about right, but can I pretend to be quite certain it is? And do they have cranberry sauce?
That was four or five years ago. This year, we’re doing it. Going there. For Christmas. It’s not how I was raised. I can tell what people are thinking: “You’re going to Paris? For Christmas?” I feel like I have to come up with some good Southern reason.
The last time I saw France was close to thirty years ago. Not at Christmastime, but in August, to report on how the French go on vacation, for National Geographic. And a miracle happened.
My then partner and I got our reservation in Saint-Tropez wrong, so we had to spend one night in a hotel in the hills above. The next morning, about to check out, I stepped onto the terrace of our room to look at the pool below. I wanted to see, for journalistic purposes, what French folks were wearing by way of bathing suits.
Nobody in or around the pool. I took a note: The French, on vacation, do not bathe before noon.
Then came a voice, familiar though tentative, from above. In the sort of hushed tone one might use in wonderment over whether alternate universes might have accidentally overlapped or something, the voice said:
I looked up. I said, in the same tone, no doubt: “Jim?”
An old and thoroughly Southern friend: James Seay, Mississippi-born poet, essayist, and professor of English and creative writing. He and his then partner had taken a notion to visit the South of France. Neither couple had any earthly idea that the other was even overseas, much less in the same obscure French hotel with terraces we could see each other from while taking a quick look at what folks were wearing down at the pool. Every element, aside from Jim’s and my concurring interest in swim togs, was random. It turned out our respective rental cars were next to each other in the parking lot.
“What are the odds!” Jim exclaimed. And on down into très chic Saint-Tropez, old home week.
You never know. Eudora Welty was in Paris over Christmas, 1949. She and a friend found a party hosted by three African American (better not tell folks in Jackson, she wrote home) singers, the Peters Sisters, whose mother had made eggnog, chicken salad, and potato salad. Then to a bohemian brasserie, for champagne at three in the morning.
Ray Charles’s first trip abroad was to Europe, in 1961, and it was in Paris that he laid down “What’d I Say?” for six thousand deeply turnt jazz lovers who joined him on oooooonh, ahhhhnnh—all those French vowel sounds.
William Faulkner reveled in Paris as a young unknown, growing a beard and improving his conversational French: “only I find after about 5 minutes that my opponent has been talking English to me,” he wrote.
That sounds familiar. Is there some nexus the missus and I can happen upon between Faulkner and French Christmas?
Oh! In Light in August. The most wildly conflicted of all Faulknerian characters: Joe Christmas, left at an orphanage door on Christmas Day. His adoptive father, trying to beat puritanical family values into him, turns him, with society’s help, into a rapist murderer arsonist who looks white but insists self-hatingly on having black blood, who lusts after women but finds femaleness abhorrent—
What if we walk into a joint and find Joe Christmas (or Joseph Noel) about to embark on a horrible spree? And we can straighten him out. If dissuaded from actually doing anything tragic, he might find a niche, these days, as a doom-ridden stand-up comic.
Too far-fetched? Okay, say it’s not Joe himself we happen upon, but a seminar on Light in August. With simultaneous translation. If you find your old Georgia self in Paris, France, for Christmas, how can you rule anything out?