I hope it will happen on every trip. And it always does. But until it does I don’t really believe it will.
It’s that magic moment when you feel you are not just far from home but have transcended the concepts of far and near and strange and familiar and are embraced – just embraced, not immersed – in the place where you are. In 2011, when I was in Zagreb, it happened in a jazz club called Titus. In 2012, my last trip abroad, it happened when I ascended the Arc de Triomphe and bumped into the ghost of my father’s youth, clad in fatigues as World War II drew to a close, on the staircase to the top.
And tonight, as I trudged through the rain, unable, for the second night in a row, to locate a bookstore I wanted to visit, I found it, or rather it found me, wafting on the notes of an Amy Winehouse song (“Back to Black”) that drew me to a small café at the end of a crooked alley near the Seine. I was lost. But then I was found.
I checked the joint out through the window and, seeing there was a small table near the band, unoccupied, I walked tentatively in and sat down and ordered a small glass of the house red. I’m at home by myself, sociable by nature but not really social, so a table for one, pushed into a corner, appealed to me. The young woman singing had a sweet voice and good pitch but not much power. She was obviously new at this and in the process of finding her voice; still, as she finished the song – I gooo baaack to blaaaack – she hit a high note so righteously that she even surprised herself. I caught her eye at just that moment of surprise and tipped my glass in appreciation and she dipped her head shyly and beamed, and then tuned back in on the two guitarists who, with her, comprised the trio.
The guitarist closest to me, just a few feet away, and who was very young, had played a skillful solo and I assumed he was the engine of the trio. I was wrong. The other guitarist, older with a sly smile, picked up the solo in the next song. And the next. And the next. And the one after that. I watched his right hand pick and his left hand caress the fret bar with a supple and almost sensuous dexterity that seemed almost impossible – let alone the two hands, in tandem. The complex emulsion and propulsion of his playing emanated from a completely relaxed physical style. He never looked down at his strings. He smiled at the crowd, glanced at his younger counterpart and smiled at the singer, nodding encouragement. He was amazingly skilled and blended a wide, wide, range of styles and technique: He conjured Kenny Burrell, George Benson and Chet Atkins all at once – and yet he was utterly himself.
The trio ran through a mostly American playlist (setting hands clapping with “Rollin’ on the River”) but when the singer broke into a French song about discovering resolve in the flotsam of betrayal (funny how the key words seem to sound the same in every language) the crowd let loose. Across from me was a table ringed by women of a certain age and one leapt up and grabbed a young man who may or may not have been part of her group and danced like no one was watching – but of course we all were. Her friends hooted and hollered and sang along and it seemed to me that the woman, who was probably my age – nevermind — seemed to morph back into a teen-ager. Then another couple, also older, leapt up and began to dance a variation of the Tango with such lustful intensity that myself and a few other guys quickly plucked unoccupied chairs and moved them out of the way to expand the dance floor for them.
I was here. Utterly and completely here. Not of it, but in it. Not texting or tweeting or formulating a story I would tell later, but here. Completely.
The performance concluded but it took very little urging for our trio to agree to an encore. And the two songs they chose had special meaning for me, who has recently been compelled to re-examine the idea of spirituality and its role in my life. First came Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” and everyone sang the chorus with boozy enthusiasm. And next came “Stand by Me.”
And I realized that in many ways and on many levels, sitting by myself but surrounded by people I could tell were good people, thinking about people close to me I wished were with me at this moment, enveloped completely in an ineffable vibe of human communication no machine can hope to hum, that I was not alone. I was here. I was unexpectedly experiencing my own satori in Paris. The thing I had hoped for had happened.
That magic moment.