Here we go: let the goodbyes begin

The best part of living in Paris? Without a doubt, it’s the people we’ve met and the friends we’ve made. The hardest thing about leaving Paris? Leaving those friends behind.

Our year in Paris has been a wonderful time of making new  friends: classmates and parents from the girls’ school, people I’ve met playing in a band, and especially those we’ve met through our church, Trinity International.

Yesterday was our last Sunday worshiping there.

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After our last service at Trinity, with our friends, Paco and Leslie.

And not only was it our last Sunday, I also got to preach the message. I hadn’t preached since we moved to Paris (other than giving a brief devotional at a missionary retreat in the south of France last fall), but it went well and I even got a few laughs from my jokes—and if I can get my teenagers to laugh, they couldn’t have been too corny.

(Just a brief aside on preaching in an international context: this was my first time having to prepare for a congregation that had a considerable number of people who don’t speak English as their first language. It meant getting my message ready further in advance than normal so that the French translator could prepare. It meant thinking through the language and idioms I use that might be a bit tricky to translate or that could be confusing to some people—because some might be listening who don’t speak English as their first language but don’t speak French either! All in all, it was a great experience.)

From the first, we were warmly welcomed when we found Trinity last fall. Right away we met other expats as well as French people in addition to people from every continent (well, except for Antarctica).

Obviously, simply being in Paris is a wonderful thing, but it’s even better when it means making new friends to meet for dinner, or coffee, or a picnic. It’s meant getting together for game nights, going for a hike, or having a friend to go to a museum with. The girls have enjoyed the youth activities, we’ve done a treasure hunt that took us all over Paris, and even got to go see the Pentatonix with another family. We were welcomed into friends’ homes for Easter dinner and barbecues and pizza night.

Who knew we’d meet such a great group of avid gamers? Terra Mystica, Blood Rage, Code Names, Dead Men Tell No Tales… We had no shortage of good times gaming.

Creative Nights at the church’s Genesis Center were a hit with the girls. I save my creative energies for writing and music, but I always had fun talking it up with other people.

Food–one of my favorite things…

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…and something that definitely brings people together.

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The fall retreat.

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Carolyn and me singing at Music Night.

Finding Trinity turned out to be another great opportunity for music. With only a year here, there was no time to waste waiting around; after feeling so welcomed, I quickly asked about getting involved in the music. Soon enough I was getting chances to play bass and even serve as one of the worship leaders.

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Most of our songs were in English, but I’m going to miss worshiping in French!

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Thank you for such a wonderful year, Trinity. We’re going to miss you.

 

Drop everything and jam

Another unexpected text? Another unexpected opportunity? This time of the musical variety. Sounds good!

Ten days ago (I’ve been meaning to write this up for a while, but an unexpected trip to Rome and a visit from a college roommate have kept me busy) I was with my writing group at my place for our weekly writing meet up. We’d already done three of our 45-minute timed writing sessions and downed plenty of coffee when a friend who was having her CD release show that night texted me, asking, “How comfortable are you with jazz piano?”

Truth is, long long long ago, I played some jazz in high school and college, but jazz bass, not piano; my piano studies were always classical. And since those days, I’ve played mostly pop music, which is much simpler: simpler harmonically… simpler rhythmically… simpler in every way, really. But hey, I’m not going to say no, right? So I told her, sure, I can fake it–what do you have in mind?

Turns out her pianist was sick and she needed someone to fill in at the show that night. Okay. Sure. No problem. A flurry of texts and emails followed, chord charts got printed, and I managed a quick listen to a few–but not all–of the songs we’d be doing.

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Jenn Whiteman, singing and playing guitar at her Latimer Road EP Release show.

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Highlights from the Doodads

It’s official. The Doodads have wrapped up their season of making music in Paris for this go-round. We had one more gig after Fête de la Musique last Tuesday–playing for the end of the year party at my girls’ school. That was a fun time, but really just a little coda to the great night that Fête was.

Here’s a compilation of moments from the evening. Enjoy!

A little night music

Forty days, including today, till we say goodbye to Paris; and the goodbyes are already piling up. I’ll probably be mentioning that a bit from here on out as we see people and places and experience things for the last time in this season of our lives…

What will I miss most about Paris? I get that question a lot, and there are a lot of things on the list. But right up at the top is playing in a cover band, easily the most unexpected part of living here. (You can read all about how it came about here.)

No doubt about it, a highlight of playing in the band has been all the different venues we’ve played: The Australian Embassy and the Paris Polo Club. The American Cathedral and the American Church. A few different cafés and restaurants. Indoors, outdoors, on a boat–and last night, at La Javelle along the banks of the Seine, a fun venue with food trucks, wood-fired pizza, foosball… and us. It was underwater not that long ago, but you’d never know it now.

Yesterday was the longest day of the year, which means Fête de la Musique, which means the Doodads‘ biggest gig of the year. And yeah, it pushed us to #6 on the Paris rock band chart on Reverbnation! (I’m sure Bruno Mars will be calling any minute now to ask us to back him up.)

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Getting ready to rock under grey skies. Only a few drops fell as the rainiest spring in 100 years gave way to summer.

We played a bunch of our standards, including Brown Eyed Girl and Psycho Killer, a few by the Beatles and Tom Petty, and even some songs my kids know, like Price Tag and Uptown Funk.

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A clarinet or two… or eight

The rains are continuing to pour down in Paris this week. Our umbrellas are barely keeping up, the fall sweaters and winter coats are seeing some action, and it’s all comfort food all the time: soup, fondue, duck confit… I feel like I should be out Christmas shopping.

Plenty of rain means finding indoor things to do: how about catching a concert with a clarinet octet? Why not!

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We heard this group at Église Saint-Roch not far from the Louvre, a church  I’ve stopped by to visit a few times. Notice how you can see a sculpture of the nativity as well as one of the crucifixion in another chapel beyond. It’s like foreshadowing in stone!

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We arrived a touch after they started (which was no doubt promptly at 12:30). As we walked to the back of the church, the sound of eight clarinets of various sizes playing together was almost organ-like.

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The free lunchtime concert included pieces by Handel, Mozart, Bartok, and more. A lovely way to spend an hour out of the rain.

 

Move to Paris. Join rock band.

Of all the things I didn’t expect to experience in Paris, this clocks in at number one: joining a rock band.

I mean really, when we talked about moving to Paris, what did we dream of? Picking up the daily baguette from the bakery. Enjoying coffee on the terrace of a café. Strolling the streets, taking lots of pictures, finding hidden corners that don’t make the guidebooks. Visiting the Louvre without the pressure to see everything in one trip. Meeting locals. Learning some French.

But rocking “You Shook Me All Night Long” at the Australian Embassy, complete with a guest didgeridoo player? Yeah, I didn’t see that coming.

It just goes to show what idle conversation can lead to. It was last fall. I was picking up Evelyn from a school trip at the Montparnasse Station and got to talking with one of the other parents. Turned out he was in a cover band–The Doodads–with some other parents, a few teachers, and other assorted expats. I mentioned that I played bass and keyboards. Just making conversation, you know. A few weeks later we met for coffee at one of those café terraces–just what I’d come to Paris for. We swapped stories, told musician jokes, and talked about life in France. Next thing you know, the regular bass player can’t make a gig and they ask me to fill in for the night at the Australian Embassy.

I think that was six gigs ago.

If I had any artistic dreams for my move to Paris, it was to make a lot of progress on writing a novel (what American writer doesn’t want to live in Paris and write? Right?). Even though I love music and still enjoy playing, I gave up the rock star dreams a long time ago. The bands I played in when I was in high school never seemed to manage more than one gig before falling apart–if we even managed one gig. And that summer in college when I travelled around playing with a group? I think I netted maybe a hundred bucks for my trouble (it was actually a lot of fun). Good thing I had a scholarship.

Well, soon enough we were back at that same café where we’d had coffee, but this time packed together in corner playing “Take It Easy” and “Superstitious” till almost two in the morning. Since then, we’ve been back to the Australian Embassy, played at a club on a boat moored on the Seine, been back to the café a few times and even played at the Paris Polo Club.

Honestly, I wavered on whether to say yes to the Paris Polo Club gig. We already were going to be back at the Australian Embassy for their Australia Day celebration the night before. And the last time we played there, it meant not getting to bed till about three. Did I really need another gig on the same weekend?

But what am I doing here anyway? Answer: I’m here to experience Paris. To see and do what this city has to offer. Meet people. See things I can’t see back in Seattle. When am I ever going to get another chance to go to the Paris Polo Club? Answer: Never. So, yes. Let’s do this.

The Polo Club couldn’t have been more different from the Australian Embassy. The embassy gig? Completely casual. Aussies in shorts and sunglasses dancing and drinking Aussie beer. The Polo Club? Parisians dressed to the nines, the Taittinger flowing, people making speeches and giving huge silver trophies to each other. Not to mention the best pre-gig dinner I’ve ever had at a venue (charcuterie, veal, and profiteroles? Bien sûr!). 

There’s a season for everything, it’s been said. And sometimes the season that comes is unexpected, something you didn’t foresee. I didn’t move to Paris to join a band. But I’m glad I said yes.

A surprise in Châtelet

A word to the wise: don’t, under any circumstances, if you can at all avoid it, unless your idea of a good time is forgetting what the outside world looks like… use the Châtelet métro stop in Paris. It’s an endless labyrinth of interlaced corridors that go on and on and on–so that you’ll swear you’ve already walked farther than you’re even going to go on the blasted métro (if you ever get to it). And you might be right.

Five métro lines intersect down there and you can also connect to three different RER lines at the Châtelet-Les Halles station (which is technically a distinct station from the métro stop, and is the largest underground train station in the world), that is, if you’re willing to put in the steps.

But sometimes it’s more work to avoid it. And sometimes–like today–it’s nice to get out of the rain. And sometimes, you’re rewarded with something unexpected.

I’ve posted before about the music scene on the métro, both on the trains and in the stations. Today we enjoyed something special:

Four violins. One viola. Two cellos. And some nice resonance in the tunnels. I usually avoid Châtelet; today I’m glad I passed through.

A dream fulfilled

Last Saturday while I was playing tunes at the Australian Embassy with the Doodads (the cover band I’ve been playing with here in Paris–I’ll post about that more soon), Merideth was 5,659 miles away in Temecula, California.

While I was wearing out my fingers on the bass… really workin’ hard… yeah…

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She was leaping over fire!

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It was her second Spartan Race, but this one was a dream come true: running it with her dad.

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Nearly 9 miles and 28 obstacles later, they finished!

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What’s next for her??? Well, there’s a Spartan race in the Paris area coming up in June…

The idea factory

“Do you take drugs to get your ideas?”

Did my ears deceive me? Had she really just asked that? What did she take me for?

No. Yes. And… I’m not quite sure.

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It was a serious question, although one I can’t say I’ve ever had posed to me before. And so once again, living in a new country and meeting people from all over the world has meant having conversations I’ve never had before. (Another time, I met a Moroccan man with an Islamic background who asked me, “Is it easy for you to practice your religion?” But that’s a whole other story I’ll post about sometime.)

It was Saturday night and I was at Matilda’s, a party room/bar-kind-of-place inside the Australian Embassy just around the corner from the Eiffel Tower. It was their celebration for Australia Day and the cover band I’ve been playing with here—The Doodads—was providing the jams for the evening. In between sets I got to talking with one of the guests and we had the usual expat conversation: where are you from, what are you doing in Paris, how long are you here, etc., etc.

When I said I was writing a novel she asked what it was about. Even after all this time, I’m still working on my elevator speech of what the story is. It’s a little bit sci-fi, but without spaceships, time travel, aliens or ray-guns. It’s a little bit thriller and a little bit mystery; it’s character-driven and yet tightly plotted. (At least I hope it is—plot holes are the bane of a writer’s existence. Unless you’re working on a big-budget Hollywood action flick. Then you don’t care.) The most apt contemporary lingo for the genre would be “speculative fiction,” but I haven’t run into anyone outside of writerly circles who’s even heard that term.

So I described the initial set up of the plot, at which point most people say something like “that’s very interesting” and then we move on to other things. But not this time. She asked a few more questions, to the point that I’d have to get into more of the foundational premises of my invented world to even describe the basic workings of the plot. And so I paused and asked, “How deep do you want to get into this?” I didn’t want to start waxing long and boringly if she was only making polite conversation. But she said go deep. Ok. So I briefly sketched my novel-world where crimes and sins are dealt with by purging the memory of them from people’s minds, and where people can go to the black-market to purge their unwanted memories—or even those of other people.

We talked about the central conflict driving the plot and the interests of the main characters. And that was when she asked me the question about where the ideas come from—was it the drugs? Maybe it’s because I was playing in the band and everyone knows rock bands are full of drug heads who are always getting high before going on stage. (That’s a joke. Mostly.)

The idea factory

But the answer to where ideas come from, where the fount of creativity can be found is pretty mundane. Sure, there are those who have gotten inspiration from pills or powder or whatever other mind-altering thing they can find. But for the rest of us, it doesn’t require such extreme measures. It requires something much less exciting.

It’s called hard work.

Edison’s famous line is right on the money: “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration.” I make no claims to genius-hood, but I do know that this is true for any serious creative endeavor.

It’s a curious thing, creativity. It has this air of magic, a kind of mystique that surrounds it. Where does it come from? Is it only for the chosen few? I’d wager that at least as often as people have wanted to talk about what I’m writing, they’ve wanted to talk about how creativity works. How do you get inspired, they ask? Do you have to wait for inspiration to come?

You want the truth? Can you handle the truth?

The key to creativity isn’t about living in Paris, as lovely as this city is. It’s not about waiting for inspiration to strike. It’s not about orchestrating the perfect circumstances—as much as I like to do my writing in a historic library or a comfortable café, listening to the perfect music (like Brahms or Palestrina or Sigur Rós), sipping a robust, not-too-bitter beverage. No, it’s about going to work. Opening the document. Picking up the pen. Putting in the time.

One time when someone asked me if I waited for inspiration to come, I asked in reply, “Do you wait to be inspired before you go to work?” Creative ideas don’t fall out of the sky fully-formed, to be found only by the lucky privileged elite. They’re fashioned and forged, tested and refined.

A practical example: J.R.R. Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy Stories,” points out that it is one thing to imagine a world with a green sun—after all, anyone can write “the green sun”—but it is an entirely different matter to create a secondary world where such a green sun is “credible, commanding Secondary Belief.” And what, Mr. Tolkien, is the key to such an achievement? “Labour and thought.”

How true this is. My novel is set in a world in which the contemporary religious climate arose in a technologically advanced culture; and as well, their foundational “exodus” experience involves a catastrophic stellar event much nearer and more devastating than anything that’s ever happened to our planet. But just like it’s easy to say “the green sun” yet hard to make it fully believable, so it’s easy to dream up an exploding star and yet something else entirely to make it all actually work in the story. Making it work takes work. If you wait for inspiration, you may wait a long time.

So for me, this hard work has meant asking lots of “what if?” questions. What if a religion developed in an advanced culture? Right there, you’ve got a hundred implications, no shortage of possibilities. Asking the question is easy. Now comes the hard part—thinking it all through.

So much more could be said about creativity: how to be on the lookout for ideas, how to be attentive to the world around us for possibilities, how to test ideas to see if they’re worth exploring… for however long it’s going to take to flesh them out, whether it’s a novel, a painting, or a business proposal, or anything else. Yes, so much more could be said, but I’ve got work to do.

One last thing: I told the woman at the embassy, no, it wasn’t drugs. But I’m taking her question as a compliment. I’m going with the idea that the story I was telling her sounded compelling, like something hard to believe anyone could have come up with—in the amazing/wow/whowouldathunkit kind of way.

Yeah. I’m going with that.

Music on the métro

After yesterday’s account of a mugging on the métro, how about a happier story today. Yes? Okay. Cue the music…

It’s not uncommon to hear musicians on the métro. Both on board and in the tunnels. On the line 6 we get plenty of accordion players (all playing the same five songs), often accompanied by little karaoke rigs blaring out their back-up tracks. For me, the novelty has pretty much worn off. But there are musicians we do enjoy hearing.

Like the soprano sax player who often plays unaccompanied in the evenings at the Charles de Gaulle Étoile station where we catch the 6 to get home. Some good resonance there for his sultry renditions of mellow soul hits from the 70s, like “Killing Me Softly with His Song” (the guy really digs that one–and he plays it well).

Or the young guy with the low-slung guitar on the line 2 late at night when Carolyn and I were coming home from the Simple Minds concert a week after the Paris attacks (yes, at the venue where they recorded their live album back in the day—gotta relive the 80s when I get the chance!).

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Usually people barely acknowledge the musicians and try not to make eye-contact when they walk up and down the aisle with their cup held out for spare change. But that guy had the whole car singing along, taking pictures (like me), capturing some video (like the woman in the picture), and even crossing the length of the car to give him money. Are you kidding me? You definitely don’t see that every day.

This morning, two older, vaguely Spanish-looking guys got on (just a guess—there are people from all over the world on the métro, and these guys didn’t look or sound particularly French) and made their little announcement they they were going to entertain us and hoped for some coins. Some of the buskers will say this kind of thing before they get started, others just get on and crank up their accordion without any introduction. Now, they’d gotten on behind me, and at first I didn’t turn around. But then they started playing.

First off, it was something other than the usual: clarinet accompanied by guitar. Nice. And second: they were good. The clarinetist’s fingers must have been smoking, the keys melting, he had so many notes blazing out of that thing. (The last time I heard such a flurry of notes from a woodwind was at a jazz festival in the 80s with Kenny G, who never plays five notes when he can play a hundred-and-five.) But more than that—it was tasteful. Not just an athletic display of virtuosity, it was musical. And the guitarist was keeping up with his friend, strumming away on his Glen Hansard-esque, almost-worn-through-the-soundboard classical guitar.

When the clarinetist came by with his paper cup, I gladly fished through my pocket for some change for these guys who’d definitely livened up the quiet ride to the Opéra stop.

Yesterday I saw a mugging on the métro. Thankfully, what I saw today is much more common. Granted, it’s usually the accordion guys, not Spanish Kenny G trading his sax for a clarinet, but that’s okay.