For 20 years, Georges Peltier worked on making the most remarkable map of Paris. Started in 1920 and finished in 1940, and representing 30,000 man hours of research and sketching, the Plan de Paris au Vol d’Oiseau (Map of Paris from a Bird’s-Eye View) is exactly that. You imagine yourself a bird as your eye swoops into the intricate 3D-perspective of the map. The city comes alive in the map’s depth and detail. You can almost feel your feet on the streets.

In 1997, the Paris library system condensed the map and used it to promote the location of its branches throughout the city. We lived in Paris at the time, for about a year and a half, right out of college. When we returned to the United States at the end of that year, the map came with me. And when we began to plan a move back to Paris in 2002, I wore that map ragged, spending hours retracing my favorite footsteps in the city.

For my birthday in 2003, my wife found the full-size version of the map. It is one of the best gifts I have ever received. A majestic 1.86 meters by 1.40 meters in dimension, it has hung on our living room wall ever since.

But I had a shock the last time I looked at the map. It was very much like the experience people often describe of looking in a mirror, feeling like they are in the prime of their lives, and realizing that, no, they have, in fact, grown old.

For me, studying the map the other day, I realized that I am sick. I knew this, of course. But since the beginning of my illness in 2005, I held the disease at arm’s length. I made it abstract. I did the treatments that were required, and whatever pain or suffering I had was linked primarily to secondary effects and the challenges of recovery. I didn’t really feel the disease. What I felt was an energy in my core, a force of life that made it hard for me to fathom that this could potentially lead to my death.

Now, over the past few months, I have been face-to-face with the disease. I feel it. And when I last looked at the map, I saw what I have become. The streets I once trailblazed in search of the apartment we would buy are still there on the map, eloquently drawn and just as beautiful. But my presence on them has grown ghostly.

I have a lot of mental pins poked in the map. Places I’d like to write about, friends I’d like to visit. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance — I may soon need to leave France to try a new treatment — and my movements over the past month have been primarily limited to hospital and home.

So my map, for now, is my only access to Paris. When I look at it, I always seem to go to the same place: rue Tiquetonne, a tiny vein of a street attached to rue Montorgueil in the 2nd arrondissement. Rue Montorgueil, particularly the stretch between rue Etienne Marcel and rue Reamur, burst through a period of gentrification in the late 1990s and is now a teeming pedestrian street of cafes and markets. A Parisian bastion of shabby-chic.

It’s a busy place, particularly on weekends, but the little tributary streets like rue Tiquetonne offer an instant calm, largely spared the tourist crunch.

I had the most exceptional of days on this street a few years ago; I am smiling now as I think about it. Let me set the scene: It was a Sunday near Easter and my wife, 3-year-old daughter and I had just had brunch at Le Loup Blanc, a bistro on rue Tiquetonne. We emerged into a crystalline midday. Crisp, windless air. Warm rays of sunshine illuminated the cobbled mosaic of the street. A little boy in his Sunday best said, “Papa, elle n’a pas de ballon!” and ran over to our daughter and gave her his balloon. I walked the street slowly, hand-in-hand with my wife as our daughter shrieked and laughed ahead of us, trying to catch the balloon before it touched the ground. I felt the perfection of the moment. Something in my mind told me to remember this. Things might get harder, but be sure to remember this. I have never forgotten.

And when my daughter tossed her balloon in the air and succeeded in catching it firmly in her hands, she turned and ran to me. I can see her now, jumping into my arms, and I have but one desire: To freeze that frame. Please, roll the credits. C’est bon. C’est bon comme ça.


I sat in our apartment’s living room in a state of stupor. A woman had just left, and with her went all the air in the room. I felt asphyxiated and paralyzed, except for my hands and knees, which shook and had gone cold. What the woman had said to me was this : that she knew — categorically — the cause of my illness. Our bed, you see, was tucked under the rafters of a converted loft space upstairs and an exposed beam on the ceiling was inconveniently — and possibly fatally — positioned just above my abdomen, the location of my disease. And because we lived across the street from Père Lachaise cemetery, we could either permanently shutter the living room windows with red curtains or, preferably, we should move.

I didn’t react when she was still there. I had welcomed her into our home, I had invited her and I was incapable of processing the violence of what she had said. My psyche seemed to be trying to temper the message, to take it with a grain of salt. I think I may have even thanked her before she left.

But now I was being consumed by anger. And though I felt frozen in place, my thoughts chased after her. They tore down the stairs, pursued her on the street and shouted : How dare you?

The woman, I’m sure, would say that she was just doing her job. She is an expert in Feng Shui, the millennial Chinese art of balancing energies to harmonize the architecture and organization of a given space. The woman was a friend of a friend. She is apparently well known on the Paris design scene and when our friend suggested we contact her, I figured it couldn’t hurt.

I have always been receptive to alternative approaches to healing. I dillydallied around yoga for years before I fell ill. And when I was diagnosed in 2005 I embraced healing arts — yoga, meditation, qigong, homeopathy, acupuncture — with a dedication that I now recognize was close to desperation. It took me a long time to begin to accept the cliché — but ultimately true — wisdom that what matters most is the journey, not the destination. My destination was to be well again. I wanted to sign a deal with the Universe : if I meditated for X length of time, if I perfected such and such yoga technique, I would win my health back.

There are, of course, no deals to be made. And the teachers that I have had have never promised me anything. They have guided me to moments of stillness and quiet centeredness. Moments that — no matter how fleeting — have offered a temporary but startlingly clear intuition. The world is suddenly self-evident. And in that moment, everything is okay.

It is ironic, then, that the only person to paint things in black-and-white (life-and-death) came from Feng Shui, the tenets of which I respect but consider superficial to the work and transformative effort required of meditation. Feng Shui, for me, boils down to decorative common sense. What I wanted from this woman’s advice was a new direction to point our couch. Not the equivalent of a spiritual eviction notice from our home.

In illness, our apartment had become my sanctuary. I practiced yoga there, I healed there. I lay on the floor and cried there. And almost every day — and especially after every chemotherapy treatment — I crossed the street and walked in Père Lachaise. The traffic and crowds of the city suffocated my post-treatment brain, but in Père Lachaise — the largest green space in Paris — I found solitude, air and rejuvenation along its cobbled, tree-shaded paths. Yes, it is a cemetery, but as my homeopathic doctor says, Père Lachaise is a place of history. A place of poetry.

About a week after the woman’s visit, I went to a consultation with a nutritionist in the 14th arrondissement of Paris. He had been, in fact, recommended to me by the Feng Shui woman and I had made the appointment before she came to our apartment. I decided to keep the appointment because in the vulnerability of illness I didn’t have the strength to completely disregard what she had said.

What she had done was unconscionable and irresponsible. I wanted to dismiss it as inconsequential bull***. But what if what she said — even just a little bit of it — was true?

And so I went, wary but willingly to meet her nutritionist, a doctor she had longwindedly lauded as a sort of Messiah of cancer care.

He was an older man of Eastern European descent (Hungarian, I think, judging by his accent) and though he lived on the top floor of his building, his apartment felt like a cavern. It was dark and crammed with loose-leaf piles of paper. Bizarre pencil drawings of geometric shapes and elongated, skeletal forms hung on the walls. The apartment, and he himself, oozed a mustiness, as if he hadn’t been outside in a very long time.

I listened to him but I took no notes — I felt no confidence in or affinity for his theories. But I couldn’t help but smile and I was happy that I had come.

Because across the street from this man’s apartment building — this man that the Feng Shui woman so obviously admired — was the green canopy of trees and quiet solitude of Montparnasse Cemetery.

The writing of the last post to this blog was a race between myself and the hospital. I knew they were going to call, but I was anxious to finish writing — to accomplish something — before the phone rang. I won the race, but just barely. The hospital called and announced what I already felt : bad blood. My latest blood test was, as usual, anemic, but this time really low, the worst since this all began in 2005. I had felt the bottom-feeding fatigue settling in over the past few days and I was, in truth, relieved to check into the hospital for a night of re-hydration and transfusion.

It was important to me to finish writing because I find it a little incredulous that I still can. For a long time I have been afraid to write. I was sure that the chemotherapy had scrambled my brain. I assumed that the chronic fatigue, the confusion and general fogginess of illness had stripped me of any ability I may have once had.

I’ve recently begun re-reading some of my old writing clips from before my illness, and I have been taken aback by a lot of them. There’s a lot of hyperbole, a lot of flowery phrases and un-tempered enthusiasm. I was trying really hard, and unfortunately you can tell. Still, some of it I think is endearing, and I miss that person. I realized that I wrote as I was : young, a little naïve, eager to succeed.

I suppose I still write as I am, but that person is of course very different : slower, more measured, consciously economic of breath and space. Sadder but wiser.

Through the endeavor of this blog I’ve had the happy realization that my voice is still there. And regardless of illness — and in many ways because of it — I still have something to say.

Which brings me to what I want to say in this brief, blanket post : thank you. I have been very touched by the comments left on this blog. And more so, I have been amazed that the insights offered have echoed so exactly my intentions for this project. It is gratifying to see that people seem to “get it.” It helps me to put a frame around my illness, to believe in my suspicion that I can make some sense out of — and find some calm in — the chaos.

In the summer of 2004, and for the next six years, we lived in a loft apartment in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. It was our first purchase of property anywhere and we were very proud. Not that there was anything particularly extravagant about the building itself. It was book-ended on both sides by apartment buildings sculpted in pierre de taille — elegant facades made from large blocks of homogenous stone, tailored, perfected and then etched above the doorway with the year of construction and the name of the architect. Our building was more modest : a five-floor facade covered in simple white plaster and built, most-likely, around the beginning of the 20th century (the only name or date I ever saw on the entranceway was in graffiti).

But the real-estate agent used the magic word in his description of the apartment : atypique. Unlike a cosy apartment — which can only mean “shoebox” — an atypical apartment can mean many things. In Parisian house-hunting lingo, the word often hints at originality. Something worth a visit. And indeed it was. One of three apartments on the fifth and top floor, ours pushed into the rafters, creating an angled, under-the-eaves second floor well suited for a master bedroom and office. Downstairs was a second bedroom and a large, sunny living room that looked onto a canopy of tall trees bordering the western edge of Père Lachaise cemetery.

After renovations and moving in, I became obsessed with the history of our apartment. Now that I was a homeowner, I wanted to know the genealogy of our home — who had come before, how long had they stayed, and whether, perhaps, they had been happy here.

I didn’t really know where to begin my research. The answers, however — all of them — came to me in the person of Edith Amiot, via the elevator from the first floor.

Madame Amiot was the first to respond to the house-warming invitations we had left in the mailboxes of our new neighbors. She was 84-years-old, very spry, and very determined to see our downstairs bedroom. She stood in the bedroom’s doorway and wrung her hands. “This used to be my room,” she said.

Mme. Amiot didn’t stay long that night. But I barely remember the other guests. All I remember is sitting with her and listening as she told me the outline of her life. She was born in 1920 in the industrial Norman port city of Le Havre. Her parents moved to Paris when she was just 11 months old and rented an apartment — this one — in the 20th arrondissement. She lived here for the next 71 years, through different iterations of family composition (first with her mother, father and brother; then with her husband and her own son, Claude, born in 1952 and who attended the same maternelle school as our daughter, some 50 years prior).

We became friends. And when I learned I was sick I cherished even more my time with Mme. Amiot. I understood that as a homeowner I didn’t really own anything. And in the vulnerability of illness, I realized that my time living in this apartment might be short — just a fraction of the seven-plus decades Mme. Amiot had lived here.

Over the next few years, I occasionally took Mme. Amiot to lunch. And when our daughter was born, she and I were often invited to Mme. Amiot’s apartment for an after-school snack. We talked most often about the weather and neighborhood life. But we also talked about her. I loved hearing what the arc of a full life sounded like. And I wondered if I would be granted the time to have the same.

She told me of the Occupation; how the building shook when a squadron of German tanks rumbled past. She spoke of the paranoia of rationing during the War and remembered desperate lines at the butcher when someone spread the false rumor that a side of beef had arrived in the neighborhood. She reminded me that her family bathed using the kitchen sink. There was no in-house plumbing, and any coal for heating — or food for eating — had to be hefted up the five flights of stairs. But she also spoke of beautiful sunsets behind the Sacré Coeur church, visible from the window of the apartment’s downstairs bedroom. She smiled while telling me about trying on the dresses made by her mother, a seamstress, and the content, 53-year marriage to her husband, a stoic, kind man who had been a prisoner of war for five years.

I learned that he died in 2001 and that Mme. Amiot was convinced that the decline in his health was precipitated by what was essentially a forced eviction from their — now our — apartment. In 1992 a developer bought the building, renovated the whole lot of 15 apartments and parceled them out to new buyers. Priced out of the top floor, Mr. and Mme. Amiot begrudgingly scaled down, buying on the first floor.

It was just a four-floor shift, but the differences were colossal. Instead of an airy view onto Père Lachaise, they now had a traffic-stained street and hot-yeast blasts from the kitchen of the street-level Pizza Hut franchise. But Mme. Amiot always seemed — and I think she was — happy.

Her apartment had a treasure trove of framed pictures. She loaned some to me, so I could study the past-to-present evolution of our apartment. I returned them all and — I don’t know why — I never in those years thought to take her picture. I recently sent her son an e-mail, hoping to fill a long gap in communication. I asked about his mother, but I haven’t heard back from him yet. I fear that she may be gone. And if that’s the case, I regret that I missed her end. That I didn’t say goodbye.

The last time I was in Mme. Amiot’s apartment, I saw a calendar tacked to the kitchen wall. Marked in shaky writing on the box for November 11 was “anniversaire de la petite Taber.”

I was already fascinated by, and a little envious of, Mme. Amiot’s story. And I was very proud to see our daughter’s birthday written into her calendar — proud that I had become a part of this long and very full life.

I don’t orate very well. When I want to express something, I do it better writing than speaking. Writing became my profession, and yet, for the six-plus years that I have been sick, I’ve barely written a word about it.

“It” has been life-shattering and -changing, excruciating and enlightening. It should be good writing fodder, but I’ve chosen to deny it its rights to expression. Mine, I think, is just another cancer story — though I’m starting to change my mind. Maybe something I write could help somebody else. Maybe it could help me. I’ve tried very hard to occult my reality. I do the treatments and I accept the responsibilities of striving to get better. But when I am better — between treatments and on good days — I am fast and talented at pretending that all this isn’t happening. In those good moments, my life is back. I am back. Until, invariably, I am gone again.

I did write — just once — about my illness. The text, which dates to January, 2006, sets the context of my life as I now know it. I’ve decided to post it here, as the sendoff for this blog.


I’m looking at a monitor, scrutinizing a vacillating black-and-white image of our daughter as the doctor says “Everything looks fine” and squeezes more goo onto my wife’s abdomen. This is the second sonogram of my wife’s now 21-week-old pregnancy and I still can’t shake the feeling that this is PlayStation : the doctor with his roller-ball joystick; the targets he ticks off with quick precision (“That’s the umbilical cord. Here’s a foot.”), the whumpa-whumpa techno-paced soundtrack of the heartbeat.

“It looks like she’s sucking her thumb,” the doctor says. “Can you see that?”

“Yes,” I nod, lying. I’ve never been good at video games.

Our daughter’s name, we decided, would be Aleyna Narai Taber. Aleyna because we like it, Taber because that’s our name and Narai because it’s the very pretty name of a hotel we stayed at in Bangkok.

The Narai — a large, corporate-style hotel in the Silom district of the Thai capital — is not where Aleyna was conceived. The timeline of her life began a few weeks prior at our home in Paris, a lucky bulls-eye on an initial attempt at parenthood. The Narai was significant because it was a place of salvation, an oasis at the end of a very strange desert.

We had been on vacation in Vietnam for five days, and over those five days I felt as if I had aged 50 years.

I was wracked by phenomenal fatigue; the smallest staircase sent an ocean’s roar of blood to my ears. My sense of balance was failing and my eyes had pooled with a jaundice-yellow hue.

I thought it was the flu, but the diagnosis was “hemolytic anemia of an unknown cause.” My immune system had become a vampire, destroying its own red-blood-cell supply to the point of warranting an emergency blood transfusion — an unsanitary and unthinkable procedure in Vietnam.

After an interminable 17 hours of administrative and insurance haggling we left Hanoi aboard a private air ambulance bound for Bangkok. I was 17 hours weaker, 17 hours during which I didn’t dare close my eyes. Gurneyed and E.K.G’d on the plane, however, I felt the safety net of modern medicine. I slept, leaving my wife clutching my hand, wide-eyed and watching my stomach to make sure it still rose and fell with breath.

For the next two weeks, Bangkok General Hospital was home. I would eventually be alright, the doctors said, preparing me for what would be months of medication and a sluggish recuperation of my former self.

I slumbered in a hole of self-pity, ruminating a whole host of black thoughts until one day when my wife emerged from the hospital-room bathroom with a peed-on dipstick in her hand. “I’m pregnant,” she said.

The situation was surreal and almost ridiculous, worthy of the worst television daytime drama. My wife took the elevator to her first sonogram appointment. “Where are you staying in Bangkok?” the secretary asked her, taken aback by her reply : “Uh, the 14th floor.”

Eventually we were released to the Narai hotel. We taped the sonogram image to our hotel room’s window, thought up baby names and puttered around Bangkok. The Narai was our oasis, a four-star holding cell as we waited for my hemoglobin levels to climb to travel-safe levels.

When they did we went home to France. My wife’s stomach grew rounder and I went back to work. A few months later a painful mound began to push at the base of my neck. It was a blood clot that required a few days of hospitalization. A CT scan showed abnormalities and a biopsy considered and then confirmed the “C” word.

The Narai hotel was not an oasis. It was a mirage and the desert still stretches to the horizon.

Our daughter’s name, we decided, would not be Narai. She is Aleyna Sage Adeline Taber and she is almost two months old. A week ago, on the day before my latest chemotherapy treatment, I sat in bed with Aleyna propped on my knees. I gazed at her and she smiled. It was the unfettered, pure-eyed smile that only babies can do. I smiled back. And through my tears all I could see was her.

Paris, it turns out, is a good place to be sick. In addition to France’s enviably subsidized healthcare system, the city — in its layout, design and nature — can promote healing. Parks and gardens that, for most, might be a quick sandwich-eating stop on a work day become quiet retreats for rest and recovery. The palatial movie theaters around Grands Boulevards seem open just for you at the 1 p.m. matinee. And at the corner table of many cafes, you can wile away whole afternoons with a thé verveine and your thoughts.

I saw this compassionate side of Paris in late 2005, when I was diagnosed with cancer. As happens to anyone with a serious illness, my life did an about-face. The momentum of my life was cut. At 31, I was caught in a whirlpool cycle of chemotherapy and recovery. Paris became my buoy. I walked its quietest streets to clear my head. I found sustenance — both edible and moral — in the nonchalant discretion of cafes and restaurants. I met holistic healers and teachers, who pointed me in enlightening directions.

I have two goals for this blog. First, to tell my story. To get it off my chest. It’s an odyssey now, still ongoing, six-plus years after my diagnosis. Secondly, to offer an admittedly very-alternative guide to Paris. Not a guide to “Paris for the sick,” but a resource (restaurants, quiet walks, hidden parks) for those looking to se ressourcer, a French verb for taking life out of the fast lane and focusing instead on rest, relaxation and the quality of life.

Paris is a big city. But in its heart is a meandering pace and many places of compassion. Sometimes, I think it can fix anything.

A bientôt.