Our guidebooks described it as a city swathed in gray. This week, that observation of Paris isn’t a myth, as many of our days have seen rain; observing the weather, I joked to my spouse Jonathan that if it weren’t for the language, we could easily imagine ourselves in London. Though it usually passes quickly, we weren’t so lucky in Montmartre, where we got soaked to the bone. Despite the downpours, those gray tones are a constant on the broad avenues and winding side streets. The appartements awash in shades of faded drab are leavened only by the immense wooden doors that might, to this American’s imagination, open to reveal intriguing worlds beyond.
On our last day in the Latin Quarter, the dulled backdrops served only to heighten the color on view. From a bench in the Jardin de Luxembourg, the sky overhead evoked a print hanging in our bedroom in the States: Magritte’s The Empire of Light. The buses coursing the streets were decorated with pastel almond-shaped dots that might well be advertisement for the Pantone Company. In gardens throughout the city, we’ve seen the same yellows, violets and orange-reds in the flowers speckling the green. Parisians make their own contribution to this parade of hues; across the way a walrus of a man sported a rose-blushed linen tunic over a pair of cadet blue pants. He and an adolescent boy were furiously enmeshed in a ping-pong battle; they lobbed a fluorescent orange ball back and forth, creating an effect akin to sparks of lightning.
I’ve been to Paris many times before. Anatole France, Camus, and Hemingway have dragged me from the Plague to the Jazz Age. Through books and film, I’ve convinced myself (as have most people) I know the Latin Quarter and the banks of the Seine almost as well as my native Cincinnati or the haunts of my adopted Manhattan. Impressionism and Surrealism permeate our visual vocabulary, and the English language is so studded with French words that they’re unapologetically appended in our dictionaries. These subliminal footprints feed the myth, creating a lust for Paris as voracious as the yearning that Chekhov’s three sisters held for Moscow. An actual trip seemed a formality.
When my globetrotting friends recommend a not-to-be missed bistro or a quaint neighborhood market, it’s in the hushed tones of a conspirator revealing a secret. Their nostalgia is transparent: the honeymoon, that stint at a cooking school, or the sea of uncut men they screwed back in their youth threatens to overwhelm, as memories endemic to their trip began to hype the expectation of my own.
I want my own experience of Paris, not someone else’s. Surely my current jangled state of transition (graduate school would follow soon after, in an effort to examine options beyond a performing career) influence perceptions as much as the baggage accompanying my impending middle age. My suspicion of all this rhapsodizing (“ooh, Paris!”) is tempered by curiosity; I want to know what’s behind the door.
In the copy of Time Out Paris, the article on perfect romantic spots is billed as a “guide to the city’s most luscious locations.” What a misnomer—here, the art of the smooch owes nothing to site specificity. The sight of a man and woman welded together in homage to Rodin’s The Kiss brings a smile of recognition; we’ve been taught to expect it, and in the course of an afternoon, having a number of these encounters convince you that the natives know their cues and are happy to flaunt their monopoly on deep feeling.
The mushiness grounds me in present realities. I wonder if I was ever that young. My boyfriend J’s presence confirms the love in my life, but along with mutual affection, we’ve also brought our ongoing efforts to understand and accommodate each other across the pond. When we’re tired or hungry, we’re cranky. Miscommunications may fracture our eggshell sensitivities, yet the damage never seems permanent. With the tension comes a comfort in loving each other enough to not pretend.
Travel reinforces our compatibilities. The sight of men dressed like beachcombers draws our titters (notably the pants that stop mid-calf), though we concede that the look makes more sense on the Boulevard St. Michel than in Chelsea. We’re dumbfounded when room service occasionally forgets to re-stock the towels needed for our mandatory evening bath, or the necessary cups for the wine that fuels our end-of-the-tourist-day postmortem. Don’t they know who we are?
J appreciates an aerial view even more than I, so it’s tough to pull us down from the top of the Arc de Triomphe. Our brains crash as we contemplate the impact of Marie Curie and other national heroes that lie in state below the Pantheon. The coiling stairways and circular aeries of the Sacre Coeur bring a mutual satisfaction, as do the high tech catwalks linking the galleries of the Musee D’Orsay. Our minds are at home during such explorations; blue eye meets brown eye and we recognize each other anew.
What a curious thing a Galoise is. I’ve picked up a few packs for some of my female co-workers who’ve tolerated my cigarette bumming. Unlike American brands, a puff doesn’t burn my throat. Instead of a jarring nicotine buzz, mellow warmth fills my lungs with each inhalation. Gone is the excessive salivation that has been my bane (and has probably kept my smoking in check). J thinks it’s all due to the absence of chemicals. Joe Jackson’s admonition that everything gives you cancer tempers momentary guilt; besides, what’s the big deal over a few vacation cigarettes? I get why every other person here has one dangling from his or her lips.
A startling observation of Americans preceded our experience of France. J and I had completed our check-in when an airline employee showed up with a black woman and man who didn’t speak the language. I’m vague on their issues, but what was clear was the annoyance of our ticket agent after they left. She huffed, “Why can’t these people learn to speak English?” Odd; her olive-hued complexion exempted her claims as a descendent of the Mayflower. As if reading my mind, she crowed, “If I can learn the language, so can they.” It was the day for misplaced national pride: at the Au Bon Pain a French woman approached a young black man stocking the soda machine. As we looked on, they fumbled communication until the woman (French) left in frustration. With ironic superiority, this kid fumed the same sentiment as our ticket taker. Lillian Hellman observed the American’s contempt for foreigners, and today I see how it’s fueled by a suspicion of anything that’s either alien—or inconvenient.
By then, we’d discovered that our hour delay had turned to two. Eventually the airline proffered an explanation; a connecting flight was due from Cancun. The weather created a delay and the airline made a judgment call. Finally the 9pm flight begins to board at 11:00, and once we were seated J and I pulled out our books and magazines as we waited for takeoff. And waited. The hundredth announcement began, accompanied by a steady murmur in French that built to a chorus of boos, the first time I’ve ever heard such a boisterous declaration of disapproval on a plane. In singing my pain, my fellow foreign travelers made me laugh. Off to a great start.
James Baldwin slept here, following in the footsteps of Hemingway and Hellman. The glamour myth enveloped them all, but their writings from the period revealed the dark side: Hemingway wrestled with money woes, the overbearing personality of Gertrude Stein and the alcoholism of F. Scott Fitzgerald; Hellman with her political consciousness, the vicissitudes of the Spanish War and a friend named Julia. In a famous Baldwin essay, the writer endures a Genettian moment when he’s imprisoned for allegedly stealing a hotel sheet. On our visit, no impending war loomed, though something was up at the Hotel de Ville (a sinister name for City Hall); later we learned the festive bunting and bleachers were for a huge celebration to mark the anniversary of the Liberation.
A look at the map revealed that monuments to religion are one of the big show for tourists. A co-worker’s words came back—if churches are your thing, Europe’s the place to go. My friend Bernie, an Episcopal minister, summed up my conflict: like City Hall and the White House, these cathedrals have as much—maybe more—to do with commerce, power and preservation than spirituality. Such observations fed my newly hatched ire of the church and our Republican government, piety dripping from its Bible-sanctioned-hate mandate. Thank God the beauty of Notre Dame, the Sacre Coeur and Saint Etienne Du Mont are irrefutable facts, and as J and I weaved our way through antiquated turrets and bell towers, my cynicism receded.
Like sweet tobacco, the dank aroma of wooden pews conjured my youth, made me long for that boy soprano decked out in a red robe and crisp white surplice, hair conked with Murray’s pomade. At Notre Dame the site of a ubiquitous sign peaked my sense of humor: This is a house of worship – be respectful of those who come to pray. Though here and there I noticed someone light a candle, for the most part weary tourists burdened with sightseeing fatigue hogged the pews. If one’s intention is to pray, why bring a camera? These padres don’t know their audience.
The museums are the true cathedrals. Clearly the mandate is French art, but how much Impressionism can a body stand? As Degas and all the Flemish masters dissolve in a blur, I catch myself doing what I’ve observed of foreigners at the Met for years: searching for works of my countrymen, of which there are precious few. Still, my patriotism doesn’t stifle my joy at discovering unfamiliar works by my beloved Magritte, and that master of sexual subtext, Balthus. At the Musee d’Orsay, the discovery of the unfamiliar Paul Serusier (L’Averse), Maximilien Luce and Georges Lemmen alleviate the lull brought about by all that Monet. Forget the oil works though—for my money, it’s all about the buildings that house the art. From the Louvre to the Pompidou, all wonderfully express what architects refer to as release. Unlike Manhattan, these monumental spaces (and their size is part of the thrill) consistently engage and tickle the visitor. You want to be experiencing the sweep of the Louvre’s staircases and unfolding sculpture gardens, the Futurism frolicking throughout the Musee d’Orsay, and that tangled confluence of steel and colored pipes enveloping the Pompidou.
On the way to Musee Rodin, a woman startlingly recalled a co-worker with whom I’ve had a falling out. Remembering that back-home nemesis is a Francophile makes me ponder whether this city might improve her personality, if such a thing is possible. Quickly I abandoned this train of thought, as this is a vacation not only from America, but all the petty issues that drag me down. Rodin relieves the vestigial gloom; an afternoon with these monumental sculptures feels akin to an audience with the man himself. Surrounding the mansion is yet another beautiful garden where J and I linger despite a light spray of rain. It’s a joy to roam these grounds, nodding as we do to The Four Graces and the towering representation of Honore Balzac; later we eat our sandwiches and drink coffee accompanied by a bit of chocolate that’s de rigueur in most cafes. Oddly, I’m transported back to Manhattan and another historic manse not far from our apartment. While the grounds of our own Jumel Mansion pale in comparison, it’s hard not to set one jewel against the other.
Our post-dinner walks wind us back to our hotel. It’s Olympic week, and like the U.S., the television coverage exults their competing countrymen. Our French isn’t great, but it’s not as if we couldn’t follow. Eventually we turned off the set to indulge our ritual of reading in bed. Despite the long days and jet lag, we stayed at it longer than we ever do in Manhattan. I played the “well, one more chapter” game (with Hellman’sAn Unfinished Woman), while J drifted off, only to rouse himself and take up his book again (Alexander McCall Smith’s The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency). I joke at what old fogies we’ve become, though I suspect that this is how we sprang from the womb.
Our first dinner set the standard for food and engagement. At Le Petit Prince, our waiter spoke very good English. Once he realized we were gay, not only was he helpful but downright proprietary, taking extraordinary measures to insure our comfort. He corrected some of our bad French; we wound up coaching him on a few English word pronunciations (“zucchini”). So it went for the duration of the trip—with other waiters and the greengrocer, our hotel clerk and the metro ticket seller. We took the communication gaffes in strife, especially on the night an expected grilled chicken breast with a side salad arrives as a chicken Caesar.
The visual déjà vu is strong: while the people on the streets look like anybody else, often you come across what’s distinctly French: the Gallic nose in all its distortions, or the petite gamin full of energy and bohemian style. The art is our frame of reference; it seems every working class man resembles one of Rodin’s Burghers of Calais. In much of Rodin’s work, the bronze-cast faces have distilled the essence of Paris in a physical pose or facial expression. Past cinematic images only enhance the present-day perceptions: I spotted a panhandler on one of our Metro rides with the build and sheath of blond hair eerily reminiscent of Gerard Depardieu circa 1900. Unlike the typical subway denizen, this fellow wore a suit. The runners are the big surprise; as in New York, all manner of men and women take to the streets. Somewhere I read that this obsession with fitness is new, belying a widely held notion that the French are above exercise. The trend confirms another suspicion: there is a consequence to imbibing all that bread and cheese.
During the day, as we went about our hunt for bath salts, an internet café or the evening meal, observations of the remarkable and the commonplace occurred. The subway buskers are in a class above the homeless guy singing “Stand by me,” or that music student cranking out Vivaldi on the A train. Overdressed in time-warping 80s garb, they came solo or in pairs. The music? Bad French pop unpleasantly miked, accompanied by a techno track emanating from a portable boom box. Quel drag—I’m as annoyed by the interruption of my peace here, as in New York. My change stayed in my pocket.
On our last night, J and I attend a concert at Chappelle St Ephrem. The program is Bach’s Cello Suitesperformed by Son-Lam Tran, winner of the 1st Prix de Conservatoire de Paris; with his Asian features framed by a dark Van Dyke and pulled back hair, he’s a sleek descendent of Genghis Khan. Throughout the performance, Tran’s eyes lifted rapturously towards the ceiling as if imploring the gods to descend. Never having heard solo cello in such a space, the clarity of the sound caught me unawares; I was certain no record could capture it. At the intermission, the hall’s aural presence was confirmed when Tran spoke in a French so quiet and shy it felt as if he were whispering in your ear.
The audience provided their own show. I won’t soon forget the couple that quietly took turns walking a sleeping toddler up and down the aisles. Cervantes would have recognized a modern Don Quixote in the person of a thin, sharp-featured man resplendent in a white shirt and pale ochre cardigan. Throughout the night, my eyes alighted on his profile, a sweep of silvery white hair and pointed goatee, leaning forward intently as the music wafted.
As J kept time with the music, his head bobbed from side to side. In front of me a man mimicked him. His wife and I watched as his rhythm gradually slowed, descended as the noticeable jerks of his head signaled his losing battle to stay awake, joining a few others who’d drifted off to Dreamland. We’d spent the afternoon at the Musee de Moyen Age, and the wife’s face echoed the gimlet-eyed saints and martyrs on display there. Her oval visage held a distinctly modern look of disapproval that gradually dissolved into a subtle consideration of the man at her side, as if she were seeing him for the very first time.
After the concert, J and I strolled up the Rue de Lanneau for one last glance at the Pantheon. When we reached the plaza, the sun was beginning to set. As the square gradually filled with pacing men on cell phones, strolling couples and families, J pegged this spot as perfect for a rendezvous. Various pictures confirm it: here, a man paced with the watchful air of one who’d possibly been stood up, while over there, a group of friends met for a night out, the women greeting with kisses, their date’s handshakes telegraphing their presence among strangers. The sun was barely down when in the distance, the Eiffel Tower’s lights blinked like the world’s largest Christmas tree; moments later, it calmed to a stately glow. Then the finalcoup de grace: like handmaidens to the spire, the streetlamps danced to life as tiny pricks of light bloomed to full flame. The mis-en-scene was so well timed, Vincente Minnelli could have directed it. But it’s not a film—just another night in Paris.
Two days later, I’m back in New York surveying dark clouds from our fire escape. The beautiful day has disappeared, and the same gray chalk marks that tipped off that oncoming Montmatre storm loom overhead. Across the street a lone runner makes his way down the avenue but he’s Hispanic, not French. I’m critiquing his slow jog, wishing he’d put some muscle into the run like the men coursing through the paths in the Jardin de Luxembourg. Admonishing myself I concede, “at least he’s out there.” Cars, trucks and buses rumble by; the familiar sounds remind that day by day, the vacation further fades into a memory. Thank God Paris colors are present in the boxes of yellow-orange marigolds and the flashing violet petunias snaking over my city balcony. Signaling fall, their leaves have browned at the roots in an echo of the yellowing birches that line our avenue. Across the river in the Bronx, a church steeple towers over clusters of worker housing. Suddenly the gloom burns off and the sun breaks through–as summer shouts its last hurrah, a Magrittian sky hangs over my head that resembles the print in our bedroom.