My next to last day in Paris, Sunday, July 23rd was the final day of the Tour de France. The city had been dressing itself for the occasion with barricades and banners, and it looked like the cyclists would have a beautiful day to fly through the streets of Paris.
That morning, I had wandered down to the Rue St Honore to get some photos of the first pension Cornelia and Emily had stayed in, and the building where the American Drugstore was located (the setting for a hilarious incident involving Cornelia’s bedbugs bite). While I was there, I figured I would slip around the corner to the Rue de Rivoli and snap a few pictures of the racing route, which ran along there on its way to the Champs-Elysees. The cyclists weren’t due in for a good while, but there were already some crowds forming. I found an opening along the barrier railing where I could stand with an unobstructed view, and I spontaneously decided that I would stick around and watch the race. The days of checklists and playing tourist were done with now.
Nearby, stationed on a large concrete block which served as an anchor point for one of the mile marker banners was a group of three friends – Tracy, Jo and Lee. Tracy and Lee were English, while Jo was a transplanted New Zealander currently living in England. They told me that they had staked out the spot on “the island” early in the day, and they had brought a bag of provisions so they wouldn’t have to give up their prime real estate.
We started chatting and having some laughs. Pretty soon, they graciously let me join them on their island, gave me some of their wine and made me their friend. And that’s when my day turned glorious.
We laughed a good deal more as we mused over the parade floats – is it worth it to be in the parade if you have to dress like a giant french fry? – and shared our mutual admiration of the ultra hunky police forces. We joked about our selfishness in not sharing the island with others (I had been their one and only, extremely lucky, exception). And they told me about their crazy bike ride up the Champs-Elysees that morning, with police closing in on them from the front and behind. They were zany and fun, and I found that my spontaneous decision to watch the race had proved to be one of the best of my entire summer, as I ended up spending the rest of the day and evening with my wonderful new friends.
After the race, we walked up to the Place de la Concorde and attempted to catch a glimpse of Chris Froome, the triumphant Brit who had pulled off his fourth win. We ended up getting mashed into a crowd of hot, sweaty fans, a few of whom were rocking some lethal body odor. Even that we found hilarious. We then walked down the Rue Cambon and found a restaurant where we scored some dinner and, far more importantly, used the toilets. Later, we walked up to the Arc de Triomphe as the sun was setting, just as hints of impending rain were starting to appear.
It had been a thoroughly marvelous day, immense fun, and a real high note to go out on. I had made some sensational new friends, the kind I knew I would cross paths with again someday. The trio had an early start back to the UK in the morning, so we snapped a few pics and said our goodbyes at the Arc, agreeing we would keep in touch. Which we have.
I awoke the next morning with a sad, sinking feeling throughout my body, knowing what was in store for today. Though I still had about a week left in London before I made the voyage back to the States, this was the day when my journey with Cornelia and Emily was officially over.
We’d already had plenty of splendid moments together, here in France, but I decided that on this last day, I would spend it visiting some of the girls’ favorite places, just as they had done during their last few days in Paris.
First, I would swing by and at least get a glimpse of the Comedie Francaise, where Cornelia and Emily, and the Skinners, had attended multiple plays. It had been a big part of the girls’ experience, for Cornelia (the budding actress) especially.
I had been avoiding this particular part of the story, despite its significant presence in the book. The reason being, my sense of humor has very little overlap with the French sense of humor, and I was filled with dread at the thought of having to sit through any sort of performance, be it in French or English. So when I arrived at the theatre and discovered that the Comedie’s season had not yet begun, that there was no play on at the moment, I was wildly thankful for it.
Was that wrong of me?
With a new spring in my step, now that I had dodged the Comedie bullet, I proceeded on to the Left Bank and the Gardens of St Julien le Pauvre, and it was easy to see why the girls loved those gardens. They are situated right across the river from Notre Dame Cathedral, and there is something utterly enchanting about the graceful simplicity of their design.
As an added bonus, the gardens are right next to Shakespeare and Company, the English bookstore – which had existed when the girls were there, but not at that location. Thinking about it now, it is surprising that Cornelia and Emily didn’t mention Shakespeare and Co, because they did talk about shopping for reading materials at the book stalls which run alongside the river. Those same permanent, collapsible book stall are still there, although they sell as many souvenirs and prints as books now. As long as they remain. There is something so very Parisian about them.
Stopping in at Shakespeare and Co, I was very pleased to find that it hadn’t changed much since my first visit to the store almost thirty years ago. The place was still teeming with visitors, many making purchases – it was a joy to see that the bookstore was thriving. For one crazy moment, I thought about checking into becoming one of the writers in residence, who are allowed to stay (as in sleep) in the bookshop as long as they put in some hours working there, too. But cooler heads prevailed.
From there, I crossed the bridge and walked over to Notre Dame, where I had started my tour of Paris with the girls just a few short days before. The cathedral was timeless and magnificent against the light gray sky, and for a long time I stood studying the intricate stonework of the façade, and the girls’ much-loved rose window, the jewel in the center of it. And then there was just one last thing I needed to do here at the cathedral.
This was where I had to say goodbye to Cornelia and Emily.
The last illustration in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay is of the girls standing in admiration of Notre Dame. For me, it has always symbolized the end of their journey. And so I had always known, even on that day back in May when I boarded the Queen Mary 2 in New York, eagerly saying, “This is it, girls, here we go!”, that we would eventually come to this moment, in this place. I just hadn’t foreseen that the end of the story would get here so fast.
I sat down on one of the low walls framing the square in front of the cathedral, and I really didn’t care if anyone saw me mumbling to myself, or my tears.
I spoke to Cornelia and Emily, the girls, first. I thanked them for the decades of laughter, for igniting my passion for travel, for being kindred spirits, for sharing their journey with me, for being with me on my first adventure abroad, and for coming along on this journey now. And even though I knew I would see them again at the Grand Hotel in London, and I would bring them along with me on the voyage home, this was where we were really saying farewell, just as the two of them had done with each other ninety-five years ago.
For Cornelia and Emily, there in 1922, it wasn’t goodbye forever, as they would remain lifelong friends. But it was goodbye to a journey that could never be duplicated. Just as it was for us now.
“We would come back again, but it would never be the same. Our breath would come fast and our eyes smart when the Eiffel Tower rose again in the evening mist, but that would be because we remembered it from these months. There would never again be a ‘first time’. Our hearts were young and gay and we were leaving a part of them forever in Paris.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough
I then spoke to Cornelia and Emily, the women. I thanked them for writing a book with wit and style and lyricism that I could only hope to emulate. And I thanked them for buoying my spirits when my faith in my book – or, more often, myself – had faltered. I had often felt their presence along the way, when that crazy symmetry between our journeys had appeared. And numerous times, I had needed the guiding spirits of those two women who were made of guts and sand.
I finished with, “I don’t know how this book will turn out, what it will be. I know it won’t be as funny as yours. It simply can’t be. But I want it to be wonderful in whatever way it can. I want it to be a tribute worthy of everything you’ve given me.”
I sat there, quiet, unmoving, for a while longer after. It had been even harder than I expected.
Anything that happened beyond this point would be anti-climactic, nothing more than a brief mention in a postscript.
Or so I thought…
Top row: Views from within the gardens of St. Julien le Pauvre.
Bottom row: Shakespeare & Co bookstore, stalls and wares line the Seine; a year later in Birmingham, I reunite with Jo (middle) and Tracy (right).