Shortly after my departure from J.P. Morgan in late 2007, I boarded a plane to Paris with my camera, a notebook, and a medium sized messenger bag with a couple pairs of jeans & sweatshirts. I didn’t know how long the trip would take, but I wasn’t coming back until I cleared my head. The goal wasn’t to go shopping or to get drunk every night, just to separate myself from girl problems, career issues, and the kind of stuff every man goes through at some point in his life. I’d been to Paris before, but never on my own. Surprisingly, my high school French classes left me well-equipped to communicate adequately upon my arrival. I navigated my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to minimalist hotel in the 18th arrondissement, dropped my bag at the foot of the bed, locked the door, and pounced into the first bakery I could find. Coffee and cigarettes constitute le petit dejuner de champions in Paris – easily the most stereotypical French ritual this American looked forward to.
Every day in Paris started at one of those bakeries or a sidewalk cafe with a pack of Dunhills & a short espresso. I then wandered the cobblestone-lined city without an agenda, stopping only to eat, sleep, shoot, and write. It’s incredible how simple the French have made life for the Parisians: There’s a warm crepe waiting for you at every corner, cheap wine & fresh flowers at every news-stand, and a fresh baguette at any hour of the day or night. It’s as though you have no choice but to enjoy the little things in life; incredibly different values than I was used to as a New Yorker. I ate on-the-go as often as I could, but one evening it began to rain, and I huddled myself into the corner of a smokey bistro on Boulevard Saint-Michel. In walked a tall, handsome, & well-spoken American who didn’t speak a word of French. He approached the bar and asked the bartender for a cigarette, but none of the staff understood him. They collectively pointed at a vending machine where he could purchase a pack, but he insisted he only wanted a single cigarette. I interjected and invited him to sit down. He was grateful that this other American (me) had an extra seat & an open pack of cigarettes waiting for him. We talked about football, politics, and our respective careers. I then asked him what brought him to Paris and the response was a bit more than I bargained for.
His journey started in May of 2007 as a trader at Goldman Sachs. Every year prior to that consisted of a high six figure salary, that soared well into seven figures after his January bonus. The springtime was a bit of a slow season for him, so he made a lunchtime appointment for his annual physical. A few days later, the doctor told him to come back in and regrettably informed him that he had cancer. Here’s a guy with an ivy-league background, my fantasy job (at the time), a trophy wife, and he started every morning at 5:15am with a 6.6 mile run around Central Park while maintaining a fitness guru’s diet. He never smoked a cigarette back then, and he swore he only drank on special occasions. Getting a diagnosis like “cancer” was the most retarded thing anyone with his disposition could fathom. Before listening to the treatment options, he filed for an immediate medical leave from work and flew out to Vegas the same night. He took a few nights to gamble and indulge in various activities to feel what it was like to “live like a degenerate”. When he returned, he told his wife that he didn’t love her anymore, wrote her a check, and told her that he needed to be alone for the next few months. She didn’t put up much of a counter-arguement; he didn’t expect her to. Their marriage apparently only existed at face value and ending it was one of the easiest decisions he ever made. The next morning, he didn’t go for his morning run or answer any of the voicemails/Emails from his friends, parents, or the doctor. Instead, he sat there with a laptop mapping out a trip he wanted to take. By the end of that week, he loaded his backpack with the essentials and boarded a non-stop flight from NYC to Tokyo. A month later he had already visited Thailand, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, and was en-route to Eastern Europe. At this point, he had become a bit of a shepherd/drifter. He’d eaten lots of funky street foods, slept outside, and none of it phased him. In fact, it was liberating to experience things as other people experience them for a change. His upbringing was privileged and his professional life hardly challenged him with less-than-optimal accommodations.
Although he wasn’t Jewish, he traveled to Israel and became fascinated with how people clung to their respective faiths there. He discovered his first kibbutz, proceeding to reside there for the following 3 months; describing how far he ventured from his comfort zone by forfeiting a $10,000 Duxiana mattress back home for a 3 inch thick cushion stapled to a bunk bed, stained with urine from the person who occupied it before him. He lived & worked on a farm in exchange for food and a place to stay like an indentured servant and he insists it was the greatest experience of his life. There were a dozen men from all walks of life sharing the barn where they rested, all sweaty & musky after 12 hours of work in the field. Some moved from place-to-place like this their entire lives, while others were just in transitional periods. They’d laugh and share their life stories in various languages/dialects, while others translated so the remainder of the men could understand one another. He told me about the food; that it was sometimes bland but always fresh, hearty, and he grew to look forward to it. A place like that challenges any man to see what he’s made of. It certainly challenged him. After 3 months to the day he started, he finally realized what it meant to put in a real day’s work. He also learned about true camaraderie with a group of guys that he never would have met outside of this experience, people who genuinely have no ulterior motives besides sharing a laugh and making the time pass. He was finally at peace with his life; it was time to move on, and he was ready.
The last leg of his journey brought him to Italy and along the French Riviera into Paris, where he had his first familiar meals in months. He drank wine directly out of barrels, slept outside on benches when the weather allowed it, and decided that once he got to Paris, he’d visit a specialist and see if it wasn’t too late to get a health evaluation. He had discovered that life was worth fighting for and he would find a way to face the chemotherapy he was originally terrified of.
An appointment with a renowned specialist for this form of cancer was scheduled within a week of arriving in Paris and they ran countless medical tests over the course of two days. In the week that followed, those tests were repeated to insure accuracy. The results were analyzed, and the doctors sat him down to offer-up an even more outrageous diagnosis than the doctor in New York. Not only did he not have cancer, this particular form of cancer was hereditary, and there was nobody in his family that ever had it. There wasn’t much more to discuss or decipher, it wasn’t a mystery, there was no treatment that could make him any healthier than he already was; the original diagnosis had to have been read off another patient’s chart, or originated from a mis-read X-Ray. It’s probably something he would have realized if he checked his voicemail or gotten a second opinion prior to leaving for Asia.
He insisted that being told he was going to die was what it took to start living. Six months after the voyage began, he shed his first tears; and they were tears of happiness. As he finished telling me the story, the emotions came out again. I asked him if he ever spoke to the doctor who misdiagnosed him again, he said “Yeah… I thanked him.”
That rainy evening of our encounter came to an end when we ran out of cigarettes then went our separate ways. I never bargained to hear a story like that by offering someone a cigarette… In fact, if we just argued about baseball for 10 minutes, I would have been totally satisfied with that. Generally, people would say “thanks for the smoke,” and continue about their business. It was one of the most impressionable moments of my life and it offered me the confidence to return to New York and give my career a second chance. I’m certain that meeting this random traveller was fate in many regards. It was a story I had to hear, and a story that was meant to be shared. My only physical memory memory of that night was a photo I took once the rain stopped. It turned out to be my favorite photo from Paris. It’s been something I’ve put off hanging in my apartment for far too long. A mistake I’m going to correct this weekend.