Sunday, October 9, 2016

Six Days in Paris

Let us read, and let us dance; these two amusements will never do any harm to the world. -- Voltaire
Andrea and I recently returned from Paris, where we spent six wonderful days exploring the City of Light, its beauty and grandeur, its history, art and architecture, its culinary delights and wine. Lots of wine. Six days does not do justice to the splendor of Paris, but it was enough time to experience its rhythm and daily life. Paris is an ideal place for lovers and dreamers, intellectuals and historians, artists and philosophers. It is a city full of grand cathedrals and wide boulevards, narrow medieval streets, some of the world’s greatest museums, outdoor cafes and charming little bistros everywhere.

There is nothing like traveling to a foreign country to develop perspective, to see things in a different light. Americans are an insular breed, and most of my life has been lived within the narrow confines of an American mindset. I love America. But the world beyond our shores offers other ways of doing and living from which Americans can learn and benefit.

Paris has a fabulous underground metro system far superior to the old, smelly, decrepit subway systems of most U.S. cities. Public transportation is simply better in Europe, health care more universally accessible; the streets are safer, the air cleaner, the traffic less congested. The food seems fresher too, the portions more reasonable, the use of additives and pre-fabricated processing less prevalent.  Contrary to their reputation for snobbery, most of the native Parisians we encountered were friendly and delightful, the shopkeepers and wait staff universally helpful, showing no disdain for our inability to speak French. My few feeble attempts at “Je suis vraiment desole, je ne parle pas francais” (I am very sorry, I do not speak French), were met with bemused appreciation.

A narrow side street in the Latin Quarter
Paris is a modern city that has somehow retained its old world charm and intimacy. Whether exploring the shops on I'le St. Louis or walking through the winding streets of the Latin Quarter and Saint Germain on the Left Bank or Le Marais on the Right Bank, climbing the hills of Montmartre or exploring the Louvre and the Musee d’Orsay, each day here was vibrant and spirited. Although it was her first time in Paris, Andrea repeatedly noted how familiar it all felt, as if we were visiting family. It may be why Gertrude Stein once said, “America is my country and Paris is my hometown.”

The River Seine
To walk along the Seine and breathe the autumn air is to experience a momentary sense of peace. Paris has a seductive quality that makes life seem a little more enjoyable and forces you to philosophize and contemplate the arc of history and our place in the universe. It is easy to understand why so many famous American writers and artists chose to live here for portions of their lives. “I guess it goes to show that you just never know where life will take you,” writes Amy Thomas in Paris, My Sweet: A Year in the City of Light. “You search for answers. You wonder what it all means. You stumble, and you soar. And, if you’re lucky, you make it to Paris for a while.”

Shakespeare and Company - Paris
On our last day in Paris, I spent a splendid two hours at Shakespeare and Company, a wonderful and quaint bookstore on the edge of the Latin Quarter, where famous writers like Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Baldwin, and William Burroughs hung out in their respective times. There is something fresh and exhilarating about casually browsing through a bookstore with such a distinguished history. At one point, I walked upstairs and pulled a book from the store’s reading library, sat by the picture window with a view of the Seine and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and began reading Interesting Times: A Twentieth Century Life by Eric Hobsbawm, a self-critical memoir by a British Marxist historian whose life’s experiences and intellectual reflections impressed me. As I am wont to do in these circumstances, I began to wonder if my life has lived up to the expectations of my youth, when I dreamed of conquering the world. Have I endeavored to live an interesting life? Does my life and work have meaning and purpose?

Perhaps I am lazy or less ambitious, but what I most enjoy about life – to write and think and read – seems at odds with the demands of my life. Yes, I write and think and read for work, but it is different, the subjects not of my choosing, the objectives of each assignment driven by the requirements of clients and budgets. But it is easy to romanticize the life of an artist. Vincent Van Gogh sold only one painting during his lifetime. By conventional standards, he was a failure, his art dismissed by critics, who considered it the product of a mentally disturbed madman. Today, his paintings are the rock stars of the Musee d’Orsay, where crowds of people flock and take pictures of his work.

Van Gogh Self-Portrait at Musee d'Orsay
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man,” wrote Hemingway, “then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” The city’s imprint has stayed with me since returning, though work and everyday life do not allow for the leisurely pace of a Parisian philosopher.

A quiet street in Montmartre
Now it is back to work and life and the U.S. presidential race, which I followed in Paris only from my daily perusal of the Paris-based International New York Times. Trump had a bad week when we were away and the polls are finally showing a widening gap between the one qualified candidate and the most embarrassing excuse for a presidential contender in my lifetime. One evening at dinner, we engaged in a conversation with a lovely young couple from Amsterdam – a businessman in the oil and gas industry and his wife, a lawyer with a prominent London-based law firm – who could not understand what was happening in America or why the reactionary forces of extremism were threatening to take hold in the United States. As Europeans who have spent considerable time abroad, they were quite familiar with the far right forces of xenophobia and racism that also threaten much of Europe.

Most of our time in Paris involved a break from all that, as if we had stepped back in time to a place of elegance and simplicity, where humankind has found a way to emphasize the pleasures of life – good food and wine, great works of art, history and old world charm, casual walks along the river. But I realize this was a vacation, not everyday life. For life is not so free and easy. We cannot stay in Paris forever. In reality, we experienced Paris as American tourists sufficiently privileged to afford six days and five nights in this beautiful and expensive city. Income inequality and poverty, the threat of terrorism, the constant struggle to make a living – all of these things are as prevalent here as in any other city. And yet, my perspective has been broadened, my senses expanded. As Charles Dickens observed: “What an immense impression Paris made upon me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world!”

Andrea and me at Jardin du Luxembourg
To know Paris, Bruno began, pulling on his cigarette, you need to relax, have a glass of wine, and enjoy life. -- Jennifer Coburn, We'll Always Have Paris

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