It was a crooked path that led me here. The idea for the book came in a dream, though I don’t remember. One morning it was there, like a stray cat on my doorstep and once I fed it the book would not go away.
A few years after we were married, Diana and I spent the down-payment for our first house on a 21-day trip to the Micronesian Islands. We went scuba diving on sunken Japanese warships and ate fish caught fresh with bare hands. Most importantly, we met savvy world travelers who introduced us to a new low-budget travel lifestyle. While we had paid over $100 for our room at the Hilton Hotel our Australian friends paid a mere $8 for a two-room hut on a private local island used to raise pigs. When we visited them the piglets ran around us like puppies!
Again we saved up the down-payment for our own house and considered starting a family. Our careers in corporate photography and advertising were growing. Life in San Diego was good.
But serendipity ruled and we met more people who had traveled the world on the cheap. One couple lived in Africa and another taught English in Japan. They spoke about their experience as if it had been a mystical human quest. Diana and I knew our crooked path lay before us. Within a year we had sold most every possession, canceled the phone, cable and newspaper, gave away the cat and bought two one-way tickets to Tokyo, Japan. For the next two years we circumnavigated the globe, filling our lives with worldly adventures.
Upon our return Diana changed her career path. From now on she would work in the business of travel, “When I’m not traveling I want to work with people who are.” She began as an media assistant for an adventure travel company and now owns her own travel agency, Dimensions in Travel, in Novato, California.
I gave up photography as a business and worked in the printing industry as the digital revolution of the 1980s took hold. I constantly worked on newer computers as Apple’s Macintosh matured. When Adobe released Photoshop 3 I saw the analog world of film was dead and the brave new world of digital communication had arrived. All us technology geeks had the same babble, “Just imagine one day when all our computers will be connected and we will be able to send messages and pictures, maybe even video, to everyone else around the world…”
Since all I needed was a computer, phone line and good printer, I began working full-time as a book designer from my home office. I helped turn writers into authors, made dreams come true and created beautiful books. As a stay-at-home dad I enjoyed coaching my children’s soccer and baseball teams. That’s where I found my enthusiasm for teaching.
When the children got older I went back to college for a California teaching credential in Art and English. I taught technology and media production to Middle School students and began to seriously study art history. The Impressionists fascinated me; so bold, so different, so hated, so revolutionary. This grew into a fascination with Paris and the birth of modern civilization in the 19th century.
I read about the odd life of Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and was deeply moved. I felt he held a secret for me; that his story and my story had a parallel. I wanted to learn more about him, more than books and teachers could tell me. So I took the money saved for the down payment on my new car and spent it on three weeks in the Netherlands and Belgium tramping through every town where Vincent had lived.
It felt so natural to be on the road again. I learned about Van Gogh by talking to the locals, by picnicking next to the canal where he played as a boy and by walking the long backroads that Vincent walked when his mind was filled with trouble. It was a mystical human quest.
Soon after serendipity appeared. The Larkspur Library was hosting a series of talks on travel and invited me to speak about my journey, In the Footsteps of Vincent van Gogh. I didn’t expect much of an audience so was surprised when over 80 people showed up. I rambled on for more than an hour, showing arty photographs from my trip. The crowd loved it. I did the presentation a few more times and the audiences grew larger. At one show all the seats filled up early and the dutiful security officer had to turn people away, including my lawyer who was proud to have arrived 15 minutes early!
I was thrilled to play to a full house. Much more rewarding than trying to instruct bored teenagers in the use of an Excel spreadsheet program.
When Dimensions in Travel hosted a group on a France Riverboat Cruise down the Seine river from Paris to Rouen with visits to Monet’s Giverny and Van Gogh’s Auvers-sur-Oise, I was invited (its all about who you know) to come along as host and expert guide, give my Van Gogh talk and also speak about the Impressionists and Paris. That’s when I first presented the Bridges of Paris.
It began with a question asked during one of my talks, “Michael, which is your favorite bridge in Paris?” I had never thought about the bridges. I answered with “Pont Neuf, because it is the oldest yet called New Bridge,” but truthfully, I couldn’t have named another bridge.
In Paris my curiosity became a quest and soon an obsession. Diana stuck with me on the first day when we traversed ten downstream bridges but after that I was on my own. I crossed 18 more spans over the next two days. With the empirical evidence gained by walking 28 of the 37 bridges, I shared my story with an enthusiastic riverboat crowd.
I did the show a few more times back in California and as sure as Paris rain my path took a crook. It came as advice from a well-dressed woman in the audience, “Your pictures are just lovely. You should really make a book about all this.”
Living in Paris for a year was not a daring decision. It’s more like, just one step in a life oriented to maximize global travel. Our children have grown into adults and moved out. Daniel is teaching in Memphis and April is studying at San Diego State. Diana’s business is strong and now with an empty nest at home, she travels to places like Japan and Alaska regularly. I had set aside enough money to finally replace my 25-year old Honda with a new Toyota Prius, but then there was that dream I don’t remember about the cat that won’t go away.
Last spring I got my old Honda tuned up and then flew to Paris for six weeks. I became a photographer again, this time taking pictures for myself, for my art. I stayed in local apartments, made some Dutch friends, found a research assistant and met an expatriate American with a small studio for rent. Serendipity again: he is a writer with a book he wants to publish independently and I am an independent publisher wanting a home in Paris. With a handshake I am Parisian.
Now I’m living in a tiny walkup studio on an island in the middle of historical Paris. I’ll be back in California for the holidays and Diana is planning her next visit to Paris right after she gets back from Vietnam. I’m guessing the kids show up during the summer school break, when Paris sizzles.
The book should go to press next summer and be published in September, 2014. This autumn I will be photographing the bridges as the tree leaves change color and the sun is low in the sky. In February I’m hoping to capture some snowy or at least moody winter bridges.
Every day is new for me in Paris. It is an adventure just to buy milk. The crooked path continues. My blog tells the story.
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