Watching The World Go By

Sunday morning I crawled out from under my cozy down comforter into the cool briskness that is my house in the morning. My feet touched the cold, wooden floor, gingerly as they searched for my little silk slippers. I had found the slippers in Chinatown earlier that year. I wrapped my body in my robe and made my way into my closet. As I searched for my fleecy sweat pants and my running shoes I felt the cold nose of my dog, Oscar, nudging my leg. I tossed my hair into a braid headed for the door.
The cool, autumn air woke both of us up as we rushed down the street and along the river, stretching our legs. We quickly came alive. Autumn has always been my favorite time of year. The sun had just come up, shedding its dandelion yellow light over the city. The sparkly dew on the grass was drying. The leaves hanging from the trees were that interesting green color of early autumn. In the summer the leaves look dark, greenish-blue, and glossy. In the autumn, before they turn golden, orange, red, and brown, they become an odd combination of yellowish-green. Once, I hunted through one of those big boxes of crayons to find a name for that color, and the best I could come up with was yellow-green. I thought I’d find a better description than that, but I didn’t.
The morning was quiet, just the way we liked it. I could smell the smoky coffee half a block away. There was never a line this early, on a Sunday, at The Market. Oscar and I found our favorite table on the street side patio. He gnawed on a dog biscuit as I settled in with the travel section of the New York Times. No matter how old I get, the anticipation of seeing a new place for the first time is one of my most cherished emotions. My coffee was particularly strong, so I laced it with cream and stirred it with my biscotti. The smell of that smoky coffee reminded me of the coffee that I found in Rome. Sitting quietly, it was kind of a shame to watch people fretting with life so early on a Sunday. It seems that the pace never slows down in America, not even early on a Sunday morning. What could possibly be so important? I still don’t know.
I went to the same place every morning for espresso, while I was in Rome. The sign in the window said it had been there for nearly two hundred years. I liked the walnut brown, steaming hot liquid, served in tiny, white porcelain cups. I liked the warm brioche globes better. I slathered the bread with butter and fresh lemon curd made from the lemons from the trees surrounding the city. This was the first place I had ever seen beautiful stacks of freshly prepared sandwiches lining the glass display case, ready for the day. I have seen them all over Europe, but I remember seeing them here first. The cases are stuffed full from top to bottom. Sandwiches are pressed against the glass to best display their appetizing ingredients, like sliced proscuitto and mozzarella fresca with basil and tomatoes.
This is also the first time I realized that the price for a coffee at the counter is less than the price for a coffee at a table. I always took my coffee outside. As I sat at a little table, across from the Spanish Steps in Piazza di Spagna, I watched the men in tight-fitting suits gather at the counter for their morning ritual. I could never understand their quick Italian but I imagined that their conversations were about the weather, or the latest conquests of their soccer teams, just like men around the world would be discussing in the morning, over their coffee. They never splashed their espresso with milk, but they always used sugar. The sugar, always real sugar, came in long, paper tubes.
The lemon yellow sun inched its way through the ancient buildings illuminating the street with golden beams of dusty light. The leaves on the trees in the courtyard were a muted yellow-green. Teenagers, babies, and grandmothers dotted the 300-year-old steps. They nibbled on brioche and warmed themselves with their cappuccinos. I wondered to myself what this place was like when the English poet John Keats lived and died in the building just to the right of the steps. Was it as hurried and as cluttered? Did it smell of crushed herbs and rosemary? Did he sit in this very café and gather ideas for his writings? Perhaps. The architecture of the city is hundreds and thousands of years old. The traditions run deep. I wondered, how many artists have been inspired by Rome? I ran my finger through the sugar I had spilled on the table and traced it on the tip of my tongue.
A year later I found myself walking down Rue Saint Germain, smoking a Gauloises cigarette as I looked for a café au lait and a piping hot croissant. I settled into a classic Parisian street side café and proceeded to do what Parisians do; watch the world go by. There is no other place in the world where I’d rather sit and enjoy doing absolutely nothing. Parisian street side cafés were designed to make daily life a spectator sport. The elegant, bent cane, wicker chairs were lined up facing the sidewalk with a gorgeous, wrought iron pedestal table neatly placed in front of each pair. Each table had the requisite ashtray, which was always mysteriously empty but never for long.
The architecture and the grand boulevards in the chic neighborhoods along the Seine River were designed primarily by Baron Haussmann at the request of Napolean III at the onset of the 1860’s as a way to modernize and beautify Paris. The avenues were lined with stoic old trees. The leaves were just beginning to lose their waxy, bluish-green hue for a recognizable yellow-green tint. It was the Paris of photographs and of films. It was breathtakingly beautiful. Just to the north of the Seine River, is Montmartre. Best known as the Bohemian and Artist district of the city, Montmartre is home to the Moulin Rouge on scandalous Rue Pigale, hundreds of bistros, and the famed Basicilica du Sacré Coeur. Climbing the hundreds of steps to the Sacré Coeur for the first time was monumental. I dropped a coin into the viewer at the top of the stairs and I could see the whole of Paris behind me, and it took my breath away.
I walked a few blocks to the famed, open-air artists market on Place du Tertre and browsed through the paintings. I always enjoy watching the artists at work. I slid into a chair on the patio of Le Sabot Rouge and watched the sunset, as the artists packed up, and the glass lamps warmed with light. A fussy woman of a certain age was perched at the table next to me with her French Bulldog sitting at her feet. She was sipping on a glass of red wine and puffing on a cigarette. The ash on her cigarette was very long and the smoke rose in a curlicue into the brisk evening air. The Parisian sky became the legendary violet it is known for, dotted with the golden globes of the gas lamps and the electric lights of the city. As I ordered a glass of Chinon and a bowl of onion soup, I slipped my little notebook out of my shoulder bag. This was a perfect time to record my thoughts of my day as I watched Paris slow down and melt into the night. I wondered if Oscar Wilde had scribbled musings at that very spot? Maybe Ernest Hemingway penned a draft of The Movable Feast from the table where I sat? The square was bustling as the cafés and bistros filled with people. The same scene was being played all over Paris. People were joining friends and family to relax, converse, dine, drink, laugh and debate the news of the day.
Sipping on my glass of red, wine I remembered that there was a vineyard just a few blocks away. The Parisians had been making wine on Montmartre for two thousand years. From the Middle Ages, the Cloistered Nuns of Saint Pierre’s Church owned the lands surrounding the church. Every year in October, the citizens of Paris celebrated the wine with the popular Fête des Vendanges (harvest festival), which I hoped to attend one of these years. Winemaking has such a lengthy and rich history in France. Wine has been considered France’s national treasure throughout the ages. There is nothing quite like French wine and there is nothing quite like visiting a vineyard at harvest. The earthy, dusky smell of the soil married to the lush ripeness of the swollen fruit can be enchanting.
The muted Californian sun was streaming through the sheers of my window tickling my eyes open. The previous night was a blur of begging a waiter to serve one last smoky wood-fried pizza as he was closing for the night, followed by a freezing cold dip in an ancient stone pool surrounded by poplar trees, the scent of honeysuckle and night blooming jasmine, and then a scorching hot bubble bath. I slept like a baby, but perhaps a little too late. I flew down the stairs of the bed and breakfast I grabbed a coffee and some fruit before the car arrived. The air was already humid and hot. Some friends were taking me deep into the Russian River Valley for a private tour of several exclusive vineyards. I’d never seen the vineyards in this part of California. We drove for what seemed like an eternity. As the miles clicked by, we passed some of the most coveted and brightest stars of California wine. Finally we arrived at the highest peak in the area. From there, I could see the Pacific Ocean through the clearing fog. Miles and miles of vineyards surrounded me. The leaves on the vine were signaling an early autumn and the fruit hung heavy and ripe on the vine. In some parts of the region this would be the first day of harvest for the season.
I listened carefully to the vineyard manager, and tasted grapes from each row. It was interesting to taste what he tasted. The grapes from the north side of the vine were not as sweet and ripe as the grapes from the south side. I crushed the pips on my tongue, and I realized that they were just reaching phenolic ripeness in some vineyards but were days even weeks away in others. We grasped handfuls of soil to analyze scents, taste, and quality together. We tasted the soil, just a little bit. I wandered toward the edge of one of the vineyards to inhale the smells and snap a photograph and I realized that the leaves on the vine had and interestingly familiar color, a simple yellow-green of autumn that I had observed all over the world.

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