Sunday, March 23, 2008

What is Your Paris?

Sometimes it takes distance to see.

I have been to Paris again. I have just had the distinct joy and privilege of living the first two weeks of this month in the most (a mon avis, in my humble opinion) enchanting, elegant, seductive, captivating city I know. It might've been a month or more, for all that transpired. I could give every nuance, but I am feeling more inclined toward brevity (ha! we'll see about that). Already I have made four tries in one sitting, four attempts at this telling, but each was of the meandering sort; I was getting lost even as I was just setting out. So let me say it simply:

Love is alive and well in Paris.

Love's Freeway has been near and dear to my heart since day one. I've treasured every moment spent taking pictures, then subsequently seeing, seeing the Hand of Life moving in perfect sweeps of motion by way of those pictures. Then writing, about or around the pictures, inspired by them or the moments they represent. I have delighted in sharing the images, the writings by way of this column, the book, the cards, the prints, etc., and taken such pleasure in others' enjoyment and appreciation of them. Still, I think it is no exaggeration to say that I've never felt closer to or more enamored of Love's Freeway than I do tonight. I have Paris to thank for that.

After living the first half of the month in Montmartre, I sit here now in Boston a bit disoriented. This "in-between" feeling--not here, not there-- is familiar. I experienced it 20
years ago, after my first trip to France. I was transfixed by that month in Provence, and forced myself back to Paris, and then, the next morning, onto the plane back to Boston. I tried, once back in the U.S., to recreate my French life. I searched for breads, yogurts, cheeses, wines that could hold a candle to what I'd been enjoying all month. I did not succeed. And I am unsuccessful yet again, though this time my attempt was more feeble: I know now that I cannot find here what I have just lived there. It's like trying to get drunk on grape juice, or to get high smoking straw. France is an elixir whose ingredients are simply not available in these United States.

Very little of what now constitutes the greatest substance of my life even existed the last time I set foot on French soil. It is a new version, a new incarnation of my self that returned to Paris this month. Perhaps that is why this time I feel the disorientation so much more distinctly. I am more attuned to Love's Way, and so consequently, I feel bereft, as though ripped and exiled from the arms of my beloved.

"Paris will always be Paris." I've been saying that this week. And "There is only one Paris."

What am I saying really? Couldn't I also say "There is only one Boston, one New York, one Montreal, one Milwaukee"? I could, but I'm not sure it's even true. In fact, there are other places
called Paris--one in the state of Maine, for example. But still, I contend there is only one Paris. And since the birth of the context, the creation that is Love's Freeway, I might say it like this:

If Love is a musical chord, then Paris hums--day and night, season upon season, year after year--with the sweet music of that chord. I dare say it has always done so.

I've heard it said that Paris is for lovers. How can it be otherwise, for Love is simply everywhere in the "City of Lights." It is in the artistry of the entrances and underground of the Metro. It is in the
sugar cube, the demitasse, the custom wrapped anything that you purchase, from wine to flowers to touristy trinkets. Love rides on the wafts of yeasty sweetness that ribbon daily, as reliably as the clocks and trains, up and down the avenues, from place to coin. It lives in the cheerfulness of every clerk and merchant, as well as in the tall dark handsome stranger who simply stands. Stands and steps forward to interrupt with his motion the harassment of a subway peddler.

It sparkled in the smiles, gestures, and pinky finger of our host, Sylviane, as she narrated the hors d'oeuvres prepared (yes, with Love) by the
traiteur for our soiree de la Raclette, pointing delicately as she named each delicious layer in the tiny, clear cups. It moved Anne to make a gift of the special meats and potatoes and cheese--to accept no reimbursement for these.

Right this minute, Love pulses unassumingly from the wall of the little park behind Metro Abbesses. Its message is easy to pass by without notice, it is so quiet. Until one pauses, considers the white script on the deep blue ceramic tiled sea: all those "I love you"s in more languages than I knew we could possibly speak. You will never convince me that it is anything but Love in the ornament and stained glass panels of Sainte Chapelle, in the sculptural masterpieces of Auguste Rodin, in the mosaic swirls upon the altars of Sacre Coeur.

There is no mistaking it: Love is all over Shakespeare and Company, and infects those who pass through. From floorboards, to dry wishing well, to sagging shelves, to vintage typewriters to--not least of all--"The Mirror of Love."

There is Love in the International Terminal at Charles de Gaulle in the white marble of the floor, the people movers, even, I realize now, in the poise of the armed military police ready to defend, to protect. And it's in the fan upon fan of cobblestone of rue after rue after rue. It must be a lost art, I thought, but no. By the Tour Eiffel, I found a road under repair. All the materials were lined up--sand, grey mortar, stones--ready to restore the fans that had been unseated by the work.

What is it if not Love that fuels the daily production of
fromagere, boulangere, patissier, charcutier? Not one resented his or her work--not that I could perceive. I saw no weariness of the repetitiveness of their daily task, no boredom. It is possible, yes?, that they are all doing what they love to do. And doing it, with pride and joy, and as though there were not yet another choice traiteur, fromagerie or boulangerie just around the corner. Is it just that I see what I am looking through? If that were so, I would not taste it. And I did taste it: Love, right there in the thin pastry sheets and the sweet cream of the milles feuilles, and in the crowning lemon twist of the tartelette citron, in the perfect chew of the pain aux noix. But it certainly goes beyond that, beyond what is concocted by the human hand. I tasted Love in the honey, too. The yogurt, cheese, wine, olives, and even the tarragon leaves. That means it's in the soil, no? In the water. Air, earth, sky: how can these be so different in France than in other places? Am I saying that the earth and sky of France is richer in Love?

I think that I am.

And I am not romanticizing. I know there must be impatience in Paris. There must be discontent. Weariness, even. But I did not see it. The beggars beg in soliloquies; the panhandlers panhandle with prideful dignity: I am not kidding. Perhaps this is all a natural consequence of living amidst the many graces of Paris, I don't know. What must it be like to live one's life surrounded by such timeless beauty? Okay, sure: I was walking in Love's embrace from the moment I arrived right through to the moment of my departure, and beyond it. I suppose I sound like a woman in Love; you might attribute all this wonder to that. Well yes: I am a woman in Love, like never before. I am...and I was.

It's tricky, this one. Let me return to the subject of distance and seeing. And to the even longer ago mention of expansion.

In Montmartre, I saw Love having Its way everywhere I
turned. I felt it in the lean of my neighbor, across rue Durantin, upon her wrought iron railing, in her momentarily stepping beyond the French windows to see just what there might be to see on the streets below. In Paris, in Montmartre--for some reason in Montmartre--I saw how many ways there are to Love. I saw the bias in my belief that the best way to Love is wide-openly.

I know that what "happened" to me in Paris, what happened to Love through me in Paris, was not about romance. It is actual, tangible--I can feel it, physically, the transition from there to here. I can feel my body, even against my wishes or preference, changing chords. Resuming the Boston tones--especially as I return to the foods of this place, of my American life.

I took my first trip to France in 1988, after concluding for that period my French language studies. It had been impressed well upon me, and I understood: one does not simply speak French; one must be French. I think I just experienced the fact of this at even a deeper level, this month. And I see: being French is more than bearing a Republique Francaise passport, more than an impeccable command of the language, more than a savvy in traditions and postures, and gestures. Do I have a conclusion here? If so, I suppose it is this: no matter the reason, the French know their way with Love better than we least Boston-American culture. Surely this is why I've felt so wrenched from that land when I have had to leave it.

And so--consequently?-- it is at
Montmartre that I saw clearly the next expansion for Love's Freeway. I saw that this Freeway exists to inspire. To move Love in the world. And I saw its potential to inspire more broadly. I saw an avenue unexplored for growing into that potential. I am but one voice, one set of eyes, one perspective. I love seeing and sharing my way of seeing. But there are so many other ways of seeing! And so, I am excited to introduce the Freeway Forum, a place for you--for any and all--to share the evidences of Love's Way in your world. What is your Paris, France? What is your Montmartre? What is your gasp du jour? What has opened, arrested, humbled, warmed your heart?

My vision, my dream is that we will hear stories, over time, from every corner of the Globe, each representing a precious facet in the universal, unfathomable, priceless gemstone called Love such that It will sparkle, refract and reflect so brilliantly that we are all radiant with Its light. And I mean radiant. For the time being, I invite you to share, to write via the "Comments" link below, or by e-mail if you prefer. But look for a separate "Forum" link to show up in the sidebar (right) sometime in the near future.

I look forward with great enthusiasm and anticipation to hearing how Love is having Its way with and around you! Please encourage your friends, family, coworkers and colleagues to share too. Be willing to inspire; be ready to be inspired.

And whether you choose to speak or to stay silent in the wings, thank you for your companionship all along the Way.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, it is hard to deny that Paris is the very Paris of Paris. (-: But what makes this so is an interesting question. I might also add that apparently Prague is the Prague of Prague-I've heard tell that Prague is the vortex of romance, one from which many travelers never recover. A must-see if you ask me. There are worse ways to be destroyed-ha!

But in truth no place is inherently any better or less sacred or beautiful than any other, not innately, not intrinsically. There is no way for us to separate ourselves from our perceptions. It is quite possible to be as enthralled by urban blight as by a beautiful sunset, particuarly if one is in-love or in Love.

Nonetheless, places in our experience appear to have specific characteristics, living qualities, inherent qualities, atmospheres (in Tibetan Buddhism this is called drala), that seem to have an objective nature. Across every religion sanctuaries and monasteries are built on land that is deemed to be pregnant with these living qualities. These qualities can only be realized through the exchange between place and human activity. It requires human beings and their activities to be fully expressed. Human beings magnetize what's already there and bring it forward. Isn't that cool? So, Boston can't possibly be Paris in one sense (first of all we wrap our cheese in plastic(!)) but in the ultimate sense Boston and Paris are only the way they are because people say so. Both are true. I feel like I just re-enacted all of "My Dinner with Andre"!! (-:

But to answer your original query, what is your Paris? Well, I do love Paris too, no denying that. San Francisco is my favorite American city, there is no place on earth like NYC, the giant red sandstone of Arches National Park stops the mind. I haven't been to Prague or Barcelona or Lisbon, so the jury is still out, but I am looking forward to drinking in the drala of each place.

So what makes Paris Paris? London London, New York New York, Saigon Saigon? I figure it must be the unique conversation between place and people.

9:00 AM  

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