Boulevard Saint-Germain
Boulevard Saint-Germain
On October 30 in Trento my calligraphy teacher walks into the breakfast room frowning at her iPhone: Her husband has texted that their apartment building in Bologna is swaying. At the front desk the hotel clerks’ usually placid faces are fixed anxiously on the overhead TV, with a banner headline “Terremoto” and images of rubble. When I hear that the Trieste area, where I am heading next, is on a major fault line and was the site of one of Italy’s deadliest earthquakes, I decide that after my week there I will leave Italy.

I book an Airbnb next to the Centre Pompidou for a huge photo exposition in Paris, and another on a canal in Amsterdam for the biggest documentary festival in the world.

Ryanair to Paris, not realizing it lands an hour and a half drive from the city. It’s pouring rain, and I am coaxed into a shuttle by seven college-age Italians needing an eighth for the cost to come down to 20 euros. They spend the ride intently scanning maps of the city, collectively looking up to ooh and aah when the lit-up Eiffel Tower appears on the horizon.

No taxis at the drop-off point. I drag my two suitcases, backpack, handbag and calligraphy sack down two flights of metro steps, push them through the turnstile, then up two more flights, and along about six city blocks.

The Airbnb owner reassured me entering her apartment was easy even though there are multiple doors and codes. I scoot in the heavy street door as another person is leaving. Punch in the code to get through a second door. Up the elevator. But the door to the apartment itself is locked. I leave my bags in the dark hallway. Downstairs, the fruit vendor lets me use his phone to call the apartment owner. I get her answering machine. I knock on the window of the concierge, who is thankfully there and tells me the key is under the rug.

Walking out onto the Paris streets at around 9 p.m. to find a bistro, the first two places I see that are buzzing end up being Italian trattorias. I miss the way in Italy, when you leave a business, the owner’s voice follows you out with all possible forms of warm goodbyes: “Arrivaderci! Buona serra! Ciao!”

Videos emailed to me by my daughter’s mother-in-law of our two-year-old granddaughter, Rosa, the latest of her talking into a banana to me, her “Pap Pap,” and then saying with a sad face, “But she’s not here!” push me over into changing my return ticket home. I will be home for Thanksgiving.

So my two-and-a-half month trip ended up less than half that. Lessons learned for the next one: 1) Pack light, then even lighter. I could have made it with three outfits, all black because that is all anyone wears in Europe. 2) Bring a phone. 3) A private room in a hostel is okay, but bed-and-breakfasts are better and a good hotel room is very nice. 4) A month is plenty of time to be away, alone, in strange places, around strange people. There really is no place like home.

In Paris, walking out of a photo exhibit about refugees in Libya, the first thing I see on the Left Bank’s busiest boulevard is a baby and mother both asleep on the sidewalk. It is really cold out. The baby’s mouth is open like Rosa’s when she sleeps. The cup in the mother’s outstretched hand is empty even though she is flanked by two ATM machines with a continuous stream of people taking out money. When the woman wakes up, she says her name is Joanne, she is from Bosnia-Herzegovina, and she has three children. Begging all day nets her eight or 10 euros.

And then I go to a photography museum, more because it is near my apartment than due to the lead exhibitor, because I am not really interested in Andres Serrano, who I know only as the shock photographer of Piss Christ. The exhibit ends up being studio-style portraits of homeless people in New York City and Brussels. The people in the gallery look upset as they take in the life-size figures and the cardboard begging signs Serrano collected from them.

There were beggars from Africa on pretty much every street corner in Italy, and beggars on every corner of the fashionable streets in Paris.

Where we live, there aren’t people sleeping on Main Street sidewalks but there are homeless people — a shocking 400 or so. We, and they, are lucky to have an amazing place called Hospitality House that in the less than three years since it opened under new management has helped 1,400 of our neighbors with shelter, applying for government benefits they are entitled to but otherwise would not know how to access, medical help, job-training, enrolling in school, clothes and food. Please, send as big a check as you can this holiday season to The Knox County Homeless Coalition, P.O. Box 1696, Rockland ME 04841. Or call 593 8151 for more information or a tour.