Bonjoie! 7 Lessons I Learned in Paris

“April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom, holiday tables under the trees.” -E. Y. HarburgAfter reveling in a mountaintop experience, it often takes one a couple of days to not only regain altitude and perspective; it takes a little while to fully grasp what–exactly–just happened.Such was our trip to France.Escorting thirty-six young musicians to Paris for a three-concert tour proved to be an amazing experience which I cannot fully communicate in this Newsletter. My words will fall short; our pictures will miss most of it; and stories re-told with enthusiasm to eagerly awaiting family members will only reveal a glimpse of the experience. What happens when vision meets strategy, passion meets energy, and divine inspiration meets faith cannot be comprehended by those missing the mountaintop. But because it is now part of who I am, I feel moved to attempt to share it with you.Paris was, for me anyway, the fruit of nearly fourteen years of musical training in my kids. And it found my heart bursting with joy as I celebrated it. After listening to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” played mostly with less-than-perfect intonation upwards of ten thousand times; of the foot-stomping, the eyeball-rolling, and the ‘I hate the violin’ when my children were too irritable to practice; of the 90-minute roundtrip weekly drives to Westport for lessons: watching not only my own Ben and Cristina, but the orchestra kids aged twelve to eighteen, perform Beethoven’s “Fifth” and Barber’s “Adagio for Strings” in a medieval cathedral in the center of Paris left me ebullient. Tears stained my cheeks as the music moved and carried my soul to a height previously unimagined. Friendships forged with the most unsuspecting partners, as commonalities were uncovered and shared. Barriers erected by political divisions, theological differences, and ideological disparities collapsed under the international love language of music.It was an extraordinary experience, and I learned a few lessons along the way:1) We stand on tall shoulders of the spiritual giants who lived before us. When one visits a city with cathedrals still standing after the frenzy of the Crusades and the numerous battles fought there, one realizes the magnitude of the spiritual convictions of those who came before us. Studying the Chartres Cathedral–and walking the halls of La Trinite and the Magdalena Cathedrals where our children performed–allowed me not only the luxury of admiring stained glass windows depicting prominent Biblical themes; it allowed me to ruminate on the vision, inspiration and dedication with which they were crafted. In earlier times in Paris, religion was not a part of life. It was life.2) Art, music and literature are necessary components for creating a life worth living. As are good shoes, good mattresses, and good books necessary elements of every childhood; good art, good music, and good literature provide needed nourishment for the soul. Wandering through the rooms of the Louvre–and my favorite museum in Paris, the Musee D’Orsay–gave me even greater appreciation for the importance of fabulous art. They don’t call these guys masters for nothing. I am convinced that the world would be both safer and happier if everyone learned to paint, played a musical instrument or sang in a choir, and read classical literature on a daily basis. Music remains the universal language of the heart; anyone who does not understand this had better start listening to Mozart.3) Celebrate serendipity. Already a lesson explored in both my book as well as in earlier Newsletters, it is worth repeating here, as I witnessed, embraced and practiced what I preach. Most of you may know by now that I have an inordinate amount of passion for the color lime-green (or illness, depending on your perspective). It was pure serendipity that, while walking down a Parisian street in search of French ceramics and candles, we stumbled upon a lime-green sofa setting against a bricked store wall. I started laughing hysterically. Where but in Paris would I find a lime-green sofa in the middle of the street? I promptly sat down in it, reveled in the experience, and allowed it to be captured in film. It was serendipity that, while walking around a tony shopping district, I was grabbed from behind, only to find a Parisian lady who spoke no English attempt to communicate to me that her surname was “La Coq” and could I please tell her where she could buy the Vera Bradley backpack I wore which sported roosters and eggs? I happily told her–in English–that it was no longer available but sign-languaged her to get out a paper and pen so I could write down the internet site where she might have some luck. The serendipity of that encounter still makes me smile. Perhaps it was serendipity that our tour guide was darn near perfect; that our flights were uneventful; that our hotel was perfectly situated; and that the Parisian orchestra, which played in a joint concert with us, was well-prepared and delightful. Serendipity or angels watching over us: we celebrated each and every tiny victory.4) Food plays a huge role in the celebration of life. To be French means to have a passion for all things related to food. They unapologetically indulge in the culinary arts and enjoy all of its inherent stress-relieving side benefits on a thrice-daily basis. They endorse a ‘live to eat’ rather than an ‘eat to live’ M.O. And it shows. “Take-out coffee” is an oxymoron. It simply does not exist in France. Coffee is meant to be drunk sitting down, preferably with a friend or two, along with a baguette or a sugar-or-chocolate-filled crepe as well. While French women may not get fat, American women visiting France just might. I embraced the French dining philosophy for eight days and came back with more “wiggle in my waddle,” if you know what I mean. Que sara sara (or is that Spanish?)5) Charm and charisma still work. They are not overrated. From the hotel staff to Parisian waiters to the clerk at the Ralph Lauren store: all met our needs with grace and charm. When an unsuspecting yet magnificent floral arrangement brought a constant tickle to my throat, the “Polo clerk” ordered up a glass of water for me. It was delivered on a cloth napkin atop a silver tray. (When was the last time that happened to you stateside?) When our orchestra met up with the community orchestra for a joint concert, we were–every one of us–enthralled by its Parisian conductor, Sylvan. Young and vibrant, he exuded charm with his humility and gracious behavior toward us; the hot pink tie against his otherwise all-black “uniform” proved once again, the magic of charisma.6) “Bonjour” means something. The French refuse to start a conversation without it. Once, when I barged into my explanation of needing several Eiffel Tower charms for bracelets without the mandatory “Bonjour” opening, the store clerk stopped me mid-sentence, interrupting my banter with “Bonjour, Madame, how can I help you?” How wonderful to be reminded at every turn that today is, indeed, a good day!7) “Bonjoie” means even more. Late on the second night of our trip, bubbling with energy and excitement after traveling to the top of the Eiffel Tower, I accidentally said “Bonjoie” (jwahr) rather than “Bonsoir” (swahr). Sarah, the perfectly-fluent chaperone to which I directed this mis-step, proclaimed: “Happy joy of life to you, too!” Giggling my way up the escalator to my hotel room, I didn’t quite realize the extent of my error. But the next morning on the bus, everyone greeted me with “Bonjoie.” And so it stuck. It became our password for life in April in Paris. I can think of none better.Our children shone like sugar-coated gumdrops sprinkled around the streets of Paris, dotting major landmarks and sweetening each and every meal. I was thrilled and honored to have been part of an event of such historic significance for our young and tiny youth orchestra. They were goodwill ambassadors for our symphony, our town, and our country. Never have I been more proud as a music lover, a parent, and as an American. Perhaps my experience sheds some insight on how you, too, can celebrate life.

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