Monday, October 26, 2009

"I love Paris. Why, oh, why do I love Paris?"

I think that musical question was posed by Cole Porter, and it's Maurice Chevalier who sings the song in my head. Rather than writing a traditional, chronological account of my most recent visit, I'll attempt to answer that rhetorical question in this post.

It turns out my answer is important. I learned that when it was posed quite seriously to me on my final night in Paris by Saïd, a born-and-bred Parisian of Arab origin, at a sidewalk café on Rue du Bac. Saïd works there at "my" regular neighborhood Rive Gauche café and he sat drinking a pastis with me to pass the time until the bus that would take him home to Clichy arrived.

The first reason I love Paris came to mind immediately as I began to try to respond to Saïd's question. Paris, for me, is about language. I get to wrack my brain to summon forth everything I ever learned in Sallie Jones' high school French class in Texas, to put into play all the advanced, nuanced college French I learned from Madame Sanger and Monsieur Bleau, both native speakers, and to put to use the years of effort I've put in to keeping my French up by reading constantly in French and watching French movies with the subtitles turned off. Still, in Paris, I am always a foreigner deprived of her mother tongue. I am always a little at a loss for words in Paris. I, who, back home, speak a mile a minute and use vocabulary people complain sends them scrambling alternately for the dictionary or Wikipedia, have to slow down and respond thoughtfully, simplify my ideas, condense everything down to its essential meaning. And speaking French causes me, philosophically, to become a Zen master. Rather than work mentally through conjugating twenty verb tenses, in Paris I live primarily in the moment. Everything for me in Paris occurs in the present tense. The most complicated my own life story can become in Paris is simple past. In Paris, for me there is no "would have," "could have" or "should have." There is no "if this happens, then I will do that." I find that fact remarkably freeing. I'm always happiest in Paris and I am beginning to believe language is one of the reasons that's so. I leave so much mental and emotional baggage behind without language to describe past traumas, hurts and disappointments and without the stress of imagining things I cannot know or control that may happen in the future.

So, in French, I told Saïd I would try to explain why I love Paris, and what keeps bringing me back. I said, "It's the ambiance, the light quality, the architecture. Everything is new in Texas where I come from and Paris is so evocative of past times to me." He said, "Oh, all of that is manufactured. Paris was designed to have that effect on visitors. That's what keeps Paris solvent. So what is it really that you love?" I had to stop then, and think harder. Saïd was telling me, basically, that Paris is only a Disneyland for adults -- just as is my beloved Venice -- and that we visitors pay a price for admission. And I know he's right. Because I realize I am always drawn to cities that are all manufactured atmosphere and make good movie locations: Paris, Venice, New Orleans, Las Vegas. He's got me there. I love Paris, then, because of its calculated, self-conscious artifice. I am an artist, after all. Paris is successful in her artistic endeavors, for which she charges tickets. And I believe she is fully within her rights to do so.

I tried to defend myself a little by explaining that Paris is not Notre-Dame, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triumph for me and that I always venture out into neighborhoods where tourists don't normally go. As an American, I love seeing how every quartier, every carrefour, every plâce, seems to be a tiny but completely self-sufficient city unto itself. Every neighborhood has its own bakery, cafés, bars, tabac, newsstand, market, pharmacy, shoe repair shop, dry cleaner, churches, schools, metro stop. It's easy to see how some Parisians never venture far outside their own neighborhoods during an entire lifetime. I love to see how these hundreds of neighborhoods differ from one another in color, texture, pace and atmosphere. When I explained this, Saïd said, "Oh, then you must have begun to be aware of the real people and the real problems of Paris."

And then he spoke eloquently to me about his frustration, as an Arab Parisian, at the lack of opportunity he's felt all his forty-four years. He says he finished school, but has spent his life working in cafés because of discrimination against people of Arab extraction. He spoke of the ethnic ghettos of Paris. He spoke of his life-long dream of moving to New York, where he felt his daughter would have the opportunities to create a better life for herself than he'd ever had in Paris. I knew my French wasn't going to be up to the task of taking on this issue with the dignity it deserved or telling him that many of the same issues exist in New York, so, instead, I told him a little about how it is in "my" Texas, bordering Mexico, and the issues legal and illegal immigrants face. Saïd seemed, however, to already be fairly well convinced that the U.S. is less racist than France and that people of Hispanic heritage in Texas face fewer challenges than do those of Arab or African origin in Paris.

And then, Saïd voiced the question a Texan in Paris always dreads most: "And what about YOUR George Bush?" To which I replied, "George Bush was not born in Texas. He was born in New England. He's not a true Texan." Saïd laughed. "Oh, I get it. Like Sarkosy, who's not a true Frenchman. He's a Hungarian!" He put up his palm so we could laughingly High Five each other. (And I thought, "Yes, and Ségolène Royal, who's 'really' French, wasn't elected because she's a woman, and when faced with the difficult choice between a foreign male and a French female, voters chose the man.")

Saïd pointed at his boss inside the café, a portly, pleasant fellow who's always very sweet to me. I find it fascinating that le patron is always wearing a really nice, probably cashmere, dark v-necked sweater, button-down dress shirt, dress trousers and nice leather shoes under his white bib apron as he holds forth in the kitchen and behind his bar all the long day. "He's probably not too happy with me for having a long conversation with you." I said, "Well, he's always nice to me." Saïd replied, "That's because he's a 'regular' Parisian and he views you as being a 'regular' lady. He wouldn't treat you so well if you were black or an Arab." Interesting. That thought had never crossed my mind. I had just been grateful that le chef had always been welcoming and tolerant of my French in all my interactions with him. I would have said he was kind. But I get it: not all foreigners are equal in Paris. It's okay to be the kind of foreigner I am, a stylish, blond, cultured, French-speaking lady. In fact, according to Saïd, Paris was made for me.

I won't relate all of our hour-long conversation here. Two or three buses passed by, headed to Clichy, in the interim. Saïd taught me a lot and definitely raised my consciousness a little about my beloved city. When my glass was empty, I told Saïd I regretted I had to go back to my hotel to pack and get ready to go to the airport at dawn, since I was leaving Paris in the morning. He told me he hoped he hadn't offended me with anything he'd said. I assured him he hadn't, and that I was grateful for his honesty. He told me warmly and, it seemed, quite sincerely, that he was truly happy we had crossed paths, that he had learned a lot from me about Texas and about how it really is to live in the United States. I wished him and his family all the very best in the future, and said I hoped it would someday be possible for them to move to New York, if that is what he really, truly wants and if it's what he's convinced is best for his young daughter. But in my heart I thought, "No, Saïd, please stay here in Paris. It's so beautiful and you have lived your whole life here. You'll find the very same problems you face in Paris in New York, and then your hopefulness, which you've somehow managed to retain, will be crushed out of you."

For Saïd, New York is unreal, a city of dreams, a mirage, just as Paris is for me. We are both, in a way, right to have our crazy, idealistic, impractical daydreams of exchanging countries. And it does hurt my heart a little to know Saïd's probably right in what he said as we parted. All that stands in the way of my moving to my beloved Paris and being absorbed into the city as a "regular" Parisian is money. If I had the money, all I would have to do is rent an apartment, and, voilà! I'm a Parisienne. Saïd was born in Clichy but feels he's still not considered to be a real Parisian. But I could be, easily, according to him, within the span of a year.

I think, perhaps, he's wrong, though. I know I would always be considered a foreigner in Paris, that I'd be a woman without a country. Even if I made French friends, they'd always speak of me as "Rachel, the Texan," or "Rachel, the American." But I know what Saïd meant. Visually, and in all the little everyday superficial interactions I'd have in shops, in cafés, marketing, I'd soon "pass for French." And he'll never have that opportunity, he feels, in the city of his own birth. He'll always be "Saïd, the Arab."

By the way, Saïd told me his name means "happy" in Arabic. And he said, "Rachel: c'est un nom juif, n'est-ce pas?" I said Yes. He said, smiling, "I don't mind."


Why I love Paris in Thirteen Reasons, and, Because I am a flâneur. (I don't think flâneuse exists, oddly.)

From Wikipedia:

While Baudelaire characterized the flâneur as a "gentleman stroller of city streets",[citation needed] he saw the flâneur as having a key role in understanding, participating in and portraying the city. A flâneur thus played a double role in city life and in theory, that is, while remaining a detached observer. This stance, simultaneously part of and apart from, combines sociological, anthropological, literary and historical notions of the relationship between the individual and the greater populace. After the 1848 Revolution in France, after which the empire was reestablished with clearly bourgeois pretensions of "order" and "morals", Baudelaire began asserting that traditional art was inadequate for the new dynamic complications of modern life. Social and economic changes brought by industrialization demanded that the artist immerse himself in the metropolis and become, in Baudelaire's phrase, "a botanist of the sidewalk".[citation needed] David Harvey asserts that "Baudelaire would be torn the rest of his life between the stances of flâneur and dandy, a disengaged and cynical voyeur on the one hand, and man of the people who enters into the life of his subjects with passion on the other" (Paris: Capital of Modernity 14).

The observer-participant dialectic is evidenced in part by the dandy culture. Highly self-aware, and to a certain degree flamboyant and theatrical, dandies of the mid-nineteenth century created scenes through outrageous acts like walking turtles on leashes down the streets of Paris. [1] Such acts exemplify a flâneur's active participation in and fascination with street life while displaying a critical attitude towards the uniformity, speed, and anonymity of modern life in the city.

1. The sidewalk cafés, wherein one sits at tiny tables on beautiful little woven chairs, and where one usually even gets a stool for one's purse or shopping bags. Where everyone is people-watching -- and the people-watching is world class in Paris. And they are all sitting at the tables outside on the terrasse smoking. Even in the winter. Even when the heat lamps aren't turned on. And because at night, there are gas lights at some of them. And because there you can get an incredible glass of wine or a champagne or a kir royale or an obscure literary/art liquer or apertif (Suze, Absinthe, Pernod, Chartreuse) for the very same price you can get an incredible coffee or pot of tea. And for the price of that one drink, you can camp there for the better part of a day reading or writing in your journal. Without snarky looks from waiters. And because many of the waiters are very friendly and some of them are really handsome. And some of them are wearing those long, white aprons that go all the way to the ground. And some of them are old and really, really charming. And because there you can rest your poor feet after hours of walking around Paris and figure out where you are now and where you're off to next. And because they have a toilette there. Usually là bas down a tiny curving stairwell. And some of them are tiled.
2. The shopping. Even when I don't buy anything at all, the "window licking" in Paris is my favorite in the whole world. Tiny boutiques. Tiny produce stores. I hate department stores, so I love these tiny specialty shops. Toys. Glasses and sun glasses. Bed linens. Perfume. Tea. New books. Used books. Graphic novels. Post cards. Jewels. Costume jewelry. Watches. Stamps. Paper and stationery. Fountain pens. Antiques. Lingerie. Stockings. Shoes. Handbags. Luggage. Top hats and evening clothes for men. Clothes for riding, or the hunt. Umbrellas and parasols. Gloves. Hair brushes and ornaments. Religious goods. Military medals. Pharmacies. Flowers. Boulangeries. Patisseries. Confectioneries. Designer ateliers, whose names alone make my head swim: Chanel, Louis Vuitton, Hermès.
3. The bread and the croissants. And the coffee. Breakfast in bed in my hotel. For the same price as going downstairs to the breakfast room!
4. The passages couverts, the few remaining glass-roofed shopping arcades from the 19th century, and their tiny boutiques, cafés, tea rooms and restaurants. I get a poetic feeling I can't even describe in words when I'm in them. I'm transported to another time and feel as if I'm living in a French novel. The light quality is sublime. I feel ghosts. I sense vampires lurking in vacant second-story spaces overhead.
5. The cemeteries. I never, ever get tired of cemetery haunting. I'm overwhelmed by a poetic feeling, not of sadness or melancholy, but of utter peace and reverie. I will never get tired of photographing the cemeteries and of reading tombstones and markers. I like to make up stories from the names and dates I read. The cemeteries are among the most beautiful places in Paris for me. Cimitière Montmartre is my favorite. They don't feel at all scary to me and I don't sense ghosts. They are like the most beautiful parks to me.
6. The Seine and all her bridges and quais. The boats moored near the Louvre and Notre-Dame. The Eiffel tower reflected in the water when it's lighted at night. The night reflections of all the monuments, in fact.
7. The statues. Sphinxes everywhere. Insipid ones at the Tuilleries. Historical personages at Hôtel de Ville. Random statues that pop up at carrefours. Equestrian monuments. I love how sexy many of the statues are in Paris. In Italy, the sexy statues seem to be inside churches. In Paris, they're outdoors.
8. The museums, but one time and only once. After that, they never again have the same punch so I've learned not to return (except to the Jeu de Paume and others which house only temporary exhibits). D'Orsay is my favorite museum, then Rodin. The Cinémathèque. Some parts of the Louvre. The doll museum.
9. The exteriors of churches, especially the gothic ones. The rose garden behind Notre-Dame.
10. The street markets for food. Mouffetard is my favorite. But I love stumbling on whatever market's happening in whatever neighborhood I happen to be walking in.
11. Flirtatious, Pepe-le-Pew men, who do not seem to care one whit that a woman is no longer young. Even the twenty-something men often don't seem to think it's inappropriate to flirt with a woman old enough to be their grandmother. And I like how the elegant men never seem to get too old to attempt to flirt. I never feel as attractive as I do in Paris, surrounded by attentive men who speak as if in old Charles Boyer or Maurice Chevalier movies. The best line I got this time was, "How long has it been since you have known love? You would find paradise in my bed." Spoken earnestly by one who was seventy, if a day. I always feel like a character from a movie set in Paris, some courtesan or mistress or can-can dancer or denizen of the demi-monde d'autres fois. I am fairly sure that's what I used to be.
12. Just looking at architectural details. The windows. The balconies. The Mansard roofs. The iron work. The doorways. The painted shop facades. Their color combinations and exquisite hues: cobalt blue, pistachio green, violet-grey. Black or charcoal grey with gilding. Window boxes. Staircases. Balustrades. Ascensceurs, like cages. Columns. Marble. Art Nouveau details. Why does everything seem so familiar to me, and why do I feel so much at home here?
13. VERDIGRIS. I have to return to Paris periodically to get my fix of verdigris. Rust and verdigris are among my favorite things to look at, and Paris has the best of both!

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