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The Paris Effect

Travel tells you who you are, but also who you aren't.

In the introduction for “Americans In Paris: A Literary Anthology” a collection he edited, Adam Gopnik writes:

We are happy, above all, when we are absorbed, and we are absorbed when we are serious, and the secret of Paris, in the end, is that the idea of happiness it presents is always mingled, I do not always know how, with a feeling of seriousness.

That sense of serious happiness, of pleasure allied to education … this tincture of seriousness infiltrates our happiness, giving it dignity. In Paris, Americans achieve absorption without obvious accomplishment, a lovely and un-American emotion.

He also writes:

Each wave of American invasion of Paris has had its own heroes and heroines, and though some asked, simply, what’s this all about, the ones who came to stay asked, Why am I happy in Paris in a way that I am not happy in Altoona? Is it me, the place, or the time, or a little bit of all three?

When Julie saw that photo, taken in our apartment here in the Latin Quarter late the other day, she said, “Oh, you look so depressed!” I said, “Are you kidding me? I’m really, really happy. I’m just melancholy enough to be interested.” My guess is that when it was taken, I was looking out the window at the beautiful old late Gothic church, and thinking once again about how sad it is that there’s all that ordered beauty, but almost nobody sees God in it any more. Or, more likely, I was thinking, “Would that fourme d’Ambert in the kitchen taste good with this wine? And if I have one more glass of this stuff, will I be in danger of falling out the window?”

Seriously, though, autumnal melancholy punctuated by exclamations of early-spring ecstasy is pretty much the way I roll — and that, I think, has a lot to do with why Paris means so much to me in ways that are challenging to articulate. I fit here, especially in the autumn. For me, Gopnik is precisely correct, though I never would have thought of it that way: Paris is my place because of the sympathetic connection between happiness and seriousness, and between pleasure and education. It’s possible to experience that here in a way I’ve never experienced that back home in the US.

I mean, look, this is a city and a culture in which it is considered normal to learn to appreciate the differences between 15 different kinds of butter, and to have no shame in taking pleasure in so doing. Yesterday afternoon, I went into an ordinary mass-market wine store on an ordinary street, and asked the clerk for help finding a bottle of wine. I told him, in my bad French, that I was interested in trying something unusual and hard to find in the US, and that I didn’t want to spend more than 10 euros (= $13). He led me to a bottle of Reuilly, a light red wine from the Loire Valley that I’d never heard of, and he explained in as much detail as I could manage with my bad French how it was made, and why it was distinct. I paid 11 euros for it. Drinking it at home last night, Julie and I agreed that it was really, really delicious, and that it was very difficult back home to find wine this good at that price.

This is normal in France. The man who sold me that wine was neat and trim, but he had the air of a grocer. That’s not an insult; it’s to testify to how the common, everyday level of connoisseurship of food and wine is something unknown in America. I know more about wine than most Americans, but I’d lay money on the fact that you could grab any random middle-aged person off the street, and he or she would be able to go into the wine store and choose far more intelligently than I can. Her culture taught her to love these things, and to think about them.

I love that about France. I deeply, deeply do.

It’s a cliche to say so, but there really is something about us Americans — and probably all Anglo-Saxons — that regards pleasure with deep suspicion. If it is to be embraced, we think, it is to be embraced as a respite from the daily grind, as an escape from reality — but always an illusion. What, though, if pleasure is as much a part of life as work and suffering? What if there is as much to be learned and loved in the feast as in and from the fast? There is among the French, I find, such a profound level of craftsmanship in their gaiety. Their gift is they make it look easy.

The danger, of course, is that one could make all this pleasure into one’s god. That’s obvious enough, but what isn’t so obvious, at least not to us Americans, is the risks in believing that any sensual delight cannot be godly. We were created as fleshly creatures, by a God who declared His creation to be good. Food, drink, song, art, architecture — they are His gift to us, and to be given thanks for, and enjoyed. Orthodox Christian theology teaches that the energies of God exists in material creation — that God, in some real and particular sense, exists within matter. This is called panentheism, as distinct from pantheism, which says, roughly, that matter is God. Anyway, not to go down an abstruse theological path, but when a Christian says that He experiences the activities and presence of God in matter, this is the core theological basis for what he means.

What’s more, someone I recently read said that it’s significant that for Christians, the Eucharist comes to us as bread and wine, not grain and grapes. That is, the basic offering that becomes the Body and Blood of Our Lord when consecrated had first been transformed by human creativity from grain and grape. Our most godly aspect, our ability to create, is first applied to the gifts of the earth, then offered to God for perfection in the liturgy.

As I type this, I am looking out my window at the flying buttresses of a church, admiring their beauty, and thinking of the unknown medieval craftsmen who built them to the glory of God. Paris provokes those kinds of contemplations, at least in me, in a way that other places do not. Some men are moved to think deep and wide thoughts by the mountains, or the forests, or the ocean. I am moved to think them by flying buttresses, and bookstores, and the loving care with which a dignified wine vendor with good manners and bad teeth explains to me why this inexpensive bottle of red wine from the Loire Valley is a thing to be cherished.

This is why I’m happy in Paris in a way that I’m not happy in Altoona: Because most of the things that matter most to me in life — faith, food, beauty, contemplation, conversation — exist here in a degree of harmony and intensity that they do not anywhere else. Put another way, I am most myself here, or so it seems to me.

Except that I’m not, not really. I could never live here permanently; I am an American, and will never be anything other than that. Travel is wonderful because it tells you who you are, but also who you are not. My feet haven’t yet touched the ground in Paris, my delight is such here, but I am comforted by the thought that in a month, I will be back home in St. Francisville, which is my place, and where I understand, and am understood, in ways not possible here in Paris. It sounds paradoxical, and I guess it is, but I am confident in the accuracy of James Baldwin’s insight about how all the things he loved dearly about Paris were an illusion concealing from himself his fundamental Americanness. Similarly, I have never forgotten this passage from a 1948 essay by Truman Capote, reflecting on his first trip to Europe:

In London a young artist said to me, “How wonderful it must be for an American traveling in Europe the first time; you can never be a part of it, so none of the pain is yours, you will never have to endure it — yes, for you there is only the beauty.”

Not understanding what he meant, I resented this; but later, after some months in France and Italy, I saw that he was right: I was not a part of Europe, I never would be. Safe, I could leave when I wanted to, and for me there was only the honeyed, hallowed air of beauty. But it was not so wonderful as the young man had imagined: it was desperate to feel that one could never be a part of moments so moving, that always one would be isolated from this landscape and these people; and then gradually I realized I did not have to be a part of it: rather, it could be a part of me. The sudden garden, opera night, wild children snatching flowers and running up a darkening street, a wreath for the dead and nuns in noon light, music from the piazza, a Paris pianola and fireworks on La Grande Nuit, the heart-shaking surprise of mountain visions and water views (lakes like green wine in the chalice of volcanoes, the Mediterranean flickering at the bottoms of cliffs), forsaken far-off towers falling in twilight and candles igniting the jeweled corpse of St. Zeno of Verona — all a part of me, elements for the making of my own perspective.

That’s how to do it. I can’t experience the Paris of the jobless Arab from the suburbs, or the Paris of the Saint-Germain bourgeois, or the Paris of any Parisian, because I don’t have to live here. For me, it’s nothing but beauty and pleasure and contemplation, after a month of which I board a plane with my family, and re-enter my Louisiana life. Yet I have always, usually without knowing what I was doing, taken the best of what I have seen and done and thought in Paris, and applied them to my life back home in America. If it is true that I am happy in Paris in a way I cannot be happy in Altoona, it is also true that I’m happy in Altoona in a way I cannot be happy in Paris. And you know, that’s fine. I realized only this year, writing my book about Ruthie and our life back home in Starhill, that my wonderful old aunties, the women who first instilled a love for me for Paris (where they had spent part of the Great War) when I was a little boy sitting on the red leather couch in their cabin in Starhill, had brought Paris into their ramshackle cottage. Those anciennes were as at home in Starhill as they were in Neuilly, as American Red Cross nurses — and that, I came to understand, is the summit of cosmopolitanism. They loved the world as they found it, loved the mysteries it disclosed, and the feast it laid for them near and far. They did not live in Paris, but Paris lived in them.

In me too, I hope. What would my aunts think of me now, trundling down the Boulevard Saint-Michel with my Louisiana children? It pleases me to think of it.



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