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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Houle

Of Intemporal Connections

Kindred spirits in the Jardins de Luxembourg, Paris

Six days ago, I set out on what I can only call a "literary quest" - traveling to France, Switzerland, and Italy, researching historical women writers/thinkers/artists. I landed in Paris jet-lagged and disoriented, unsure of how I was going to bring all the disparate threads I was pulling on together. My writing process tends to be a bit disorganized, coming together in fitful bursts of determination.

On my first full day in Paris, I had planned to go to Versailles, to immerse myself in the times of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and to contemplate the decadence that had fueled so much revolutionary fervor in the 1780s. I wanted to draw connections between the income disparity of pre-revolutionary France and income disparity today - something I believe is at the root of almost all society's ills. I'm not endorsing a communist vision when I say this. I am talking about income disparity so vast it seems an almost insurmountable divide. Kings and peasants. CEOs who earn more on January 1st of every year than the cream of the middle-class earn all year, and more than enough in an hour to pull a person - a family, even - out of the crushing depths of poverty. That's what I thought I would get from Versailles. An opportunity to ponder. And also an opportunity to see first hand how Louis XVI and his young bride lived. I do not blame them for who they were, or for their wealth. There are always two sides. I also thought I would get a better sense of Jacques Necker, finance minister to the king, and the father of my muse, Mme de Staël.

But when the day dawned, I found myself resisting the idea of going to Versailles, getting on a train and being trapped on the grounds for a prolonged visit. I was still too tired. I decided to let myself off the hook, and simply walk around. I wanted to see the Jardins de Luxembourg, and so I headed off in that direction. As mentioned, I was feeling tired, anxious, and the busy-ness of Paris had me on guard. But the beauty of the gardens disarmed me quite a bit, and I began to relax. I ate something, drank coffee, gazed at the statues of queens that ring the gardens, and began to daydream. I strolled. As I was strolling, I overhead a woman teasing her husband about his hat in such a charming way that I couldn't help but smile at them. They were speaking English, and I thought I detected an East Coast American accent. I'm not sure why, because it really isn't in my nature to approach strangers, but I said something to them, asked them something, and the next thing I knew I had sat down next to them and we were chatting.

It turned out they were from the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Thomas (but originally New Jersey, so my ears did not deceive me), briefly in Paris as part of a cruise. I told them about the research I was in Paris to do, and the man said: "You sat down next to the right people." I gave him a skeptical look. Skeptical looks are also in my nature. "Did I now?" I asked, hoping he would not disappoint, but fully expecting he would. "I'm a historian," he said.

"Are you?" I asked. "A real one, or just a guy who likes to spout off at the bar?" I asked this with a smile. I am descended from barstool historians, so this, to me, was a fair question, if a tad impolite. Luckily, he laughed. His wife said she liked me.

Their names were Vincent and Doris. Vincent told me he wrote for a local tourism magazine in St. Thomas - historical articles. He said he understood my desire to seek out information about a little known historical personage, because he too was interested in a historical figure about whom little is remembered: John Perkins, the first black officer in the British Royal Navy. As he spoke about Perkins, telling his story (which is fascinating), I could see the same curiosity and determination at work in him that I feel when I am researching my subjects. For more than fifteen years now, I have been intermittently researching Mme Germaine de Staël and Maria Maddalena Morrelli, squirreling away every tidbit I learned. But why?

In speaking with Vincent and Doris, the word "connection" kept coming to me. Why had I so easily connected with them? We spoke about our historical interests, but it was also an extremely friendly conversation filled with laughter and understanding. I spoke of my kids, they spoke of their children and grandchildren. No awkwardness.

I began to wonder more about how certain people connect with others. How had Vincent seized on the story of John Perkins, a long ago sea captain, and become determined to learn more about this one man? What was it about 24-year-old me that fell upon a book about an influential salonnière at the time of the French Revolution and became enduringly captivated? It is said that reading, deep reading, is akin to an act of telepathy. I suspect it can be so with any of the arts- connecting deeply with a piece of music, sculpture, architecture, or painting, and feeling an affinity with the artist who created it, feeling you understand exactly what they wanted to convey.

This is just a blog post. How deep can I go? For now, I simply want to acknowledge the great serendipity of my meeting with Vincent and Doris. It brought me back into touch with the important question of ''why'' exactly I am here, in Europe, walking the path I am, carrying the books I am, asking the specific questions I came to ask - and being led on, inexorably, towards questions I never anticipated.

In speaking with this couple, chatting and laughing, and simply having the opportunity to explain to complete strangers what I'm up to, and to be met with such enthusiasm - it pulled me out of my panicky jet lag and put me back on mission. I don't want to wax tooooo poetic about how we are, all of us, angels to one another, but there you have it.

I believe that for the rest of my days, I will be interested in Officer John Perkins. I will look into his history and it will inform my own sense of history. I think that Vincent and Doris were also interested in my project. He wrote down Mme Germaine de Staël's name on a piece of paper, gave me his email address and asked me to please write when the book was published. Doris seconded this. ''Please,'' she said. ''Really do let us know.'' I told them I might blog about it and asked their permission to post their picture.

Here we are. Thank you, Vincent and Doris - Doris and Vincent (I don't like naming the husband first, I just don't), for helping me get my footing on this quest. You did appear as angels. I felt guided and am trying to trust that feeling, as well as my own instincts. This trust has served me well thus far.

I haven't even mentioned how Vincent is Sicilian, and I am part Sicilian, and Sicily seems to have something to do with this book I am writing, something insistent. . . no matter. This is just a blog post. There is a book on the way.

Thank you angels. Journeys are for nothing if you encounter no new friends.

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