Sometimes it's easy to think that the world's problems are getting worse; gun violence, terrorist attacks, faltering economies, exploding populations, catastrophic weather, and don't forget general rudeness. But if, like me, you've given up most of the mainstream media and get your news from Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me, you might start to believe, as Z likes to sing, Everything is Awesome!
I was reminded of that awesomeness again when I took the train to see my friend Brian, who has settled in Paris on a one year visa. We met in P.A. school in the early 90's and are much better friends now that we're not cramming acid/base equations into our brains. Our birthdays are one week apart and Eurostar tickets were on sale, so it was a no-brainer to go visit him and treat him to a real celebration of his 50-somethingth year (or was that forty-nine, Hon?) as a semi-permanent European resident.
I found a web site called Voulez Vous Diner that connects local cooks, and the visitors to their city, for a meal and conversation. Like Air B&B, you pay through the web site and get to review each other, so it's very much self-policing. If their cooking sucks or you make off with the cutlery, you can bet that feedback will show up on-line. We did something similar in Rome through Eat With and were smothered with hospitality and stuffed full of delicious food and wine.
I didn't tell Brian what we had in store as we made our way to Montmartre, the charming hilly neighborhood in the north of Paris near the Sacré-Cœur. Brigitte's building had a worn door leading into a dark, unwelcoming foyer where stood a locked door. I pressed her apartment buzzer and Brian had a look on his face like, "This is freaking me out but I'm gonna smile because you're my friend...I think." Brigitte added to his anxiety by saying, "Could you please come back in 5 minutes? I need to light the candles." As we walked from the building and down the street, Brian turned to me and pleaded, "I really hope this doesn't involve taking off my clothes."
When we were ultimately escorted into the building we took the stairs to below street level and emerged onto a sunken courtyard, carpeted with pea gravel and dominated by a stately willow which added the impression of pure countryside. Access to Brigitte's house was through giant panes of sliding glass and inside was a mix of the practical, like chairs and tables, and the fantastic; dozens of abstract portraits and canvasses covering the walls and propped against them as well as sitting atop any horizontal surface. On the dining table was spread out a feast of cheeses. Had my son been there, he would have pinched his nose and run screaming from the premises. But, joined by two others who had signed on for the meal, we dipped baby potatoes into the stinky Mont d'Or and sighed. Brigitte then poured the wine and went on the describe the origin of each cheese, all from her beloved local cheese-monger. Around 10pm we bundled up and were guided around Montmartre where Brigitte pointed out the many artist's lofts, still in use, which had once been the hovels of the eventually-famous such as Renoir, van Gogh, and Picasso. At 11, we stood upon the highest point in the neighborhood and watched the Eiffel Tower erupt into it's hourly impression of a Forth of July sparkler.
This evening got me to thinking. Sometimes I assume digital media is usurping our ability and interest in simple face to face communication. Haven't we all seen a family in a restaurant engrossed in the screens of their smart phones? But I could also argue that we are more socially connected than ever before, both physically and virtually, because of the Internet. Anyone can find a tribe on-line these days. Wild about owls? I bet there's a group of owl-lovers meeting somewhere near you. Captain Underpants fan club? You bet. And there's no way I'm gonna let Z find out about it.
Going to a stranger's house for dinner in a foreign city and leaving as a friend is an amazing experience made simple with the help of the computer in my pocket. The day after we had dinner with Brigitte, we struck up a conversation with two Americans sitting next to us at Starbucks. What broke the ice? A question about the WiFi and how to connect to it. We went on to talk with them for nearly an hour which then led to dinner and after that Brian took us all on a tour of his favorite neighborhood of Marais. We convinced them they needed to move to Europe as soon as possible so we could hang out again. Big hugs were exchanged and Facebook friends we've become. Had we not been playing with our smart phones, this might not have happened.
So I'm a big believer that the world is getting smaller, nicer, and more connected. Try turning off your TV for a few weeks, taking a complete break from television media and see if your world view starts to change. But don't forget to look up from your cell phone, share the funny video you just saw on Facebook, or tell a friend about a story you read there. And speaking of Facebook, I used to be a Facebook voyeur, never liking or commenting on anyone's postings, just scrolling through the images for a quick look. But why go there if you're not prepared to be social? Wish someone a happy birthday (Facebook will remind you, unlike the perpetual calendar that hangs on your wall and you never remember to check). Make a comment on a photo. I know whenever someone comments on one of my postings, I get a warm fuzzy feeling knowing that person is still in my life and still interested in mine. There are all sorts of ways to find connection through the web, even if there's no actual meeting. And is that so bad? Isn't it better to have a friend who also has two left feet living across the country than no friend at all who can relate to your unique anatomy? You get what I'm saying.