Paris on My Mind

Paris on My Mind
Everyone owns some shamelessly sentimental Paris moment. Having lived in the city a long time, I have several. Of course, you’re with someone you care for– at a moment like this: you’re on the Passerelle des Arts, under a Fragonard sky, barges gliding below, and the sun is grazing the cupola of the Institut de France, the acme of grace. Suddenly your mind extrapolates, from the intimacy of a walker’s city, the illusion that the splendor, the city and the world itself are all yours personally. The presence of truth in that epiphany is from the axiom that beauty is truth. But the city is just playing her lovely role as a world-class backdrop for personal fantasies. Getting to know the truths of Paris is another matter. Paris is not a city that unbuttons her stylish bodice to you. Paris is elegant, but she’s not a particularly sensuous city.  The chestnuts whose blossoms help create the emotion of April lose their leaves as early as late August.  The Fragonard sky turns putty gray for months, while the Eiffel Tower often disappears in mist. Paris’ row on row of pale limestone buildings create an engaging dignity softened with sweet décor, but in contrast, for example, we always remember Rome in the sensuous Technicolor that defines that relatively uneventful city on just a visual level.  Parisians, though, define their city with their own, active presence, keeping fresh a love affair of vigor with this coy mistress. We Americans are wont to depict the French as simultaneously snippy and enviable–people who can carry off absurdity with panache. France indeed seems often absurd. Where else on earth, until not so long ago, was it considered standard protocol for ministers to hand themselves and their employees envelops of cash, so they would not have to pay taxes to the same government they worked for? Where else, but here, does a newly elected president of the republic amnesty all parking tickets as one of his first important acts in office? Once my wife Joanne and I began to write a list entitled “Things the Parisians know that you and I don’t know”.  It began: “Moonlight is bad for the furniture”. And it included such revelations as: “Breezes can be dangerous. Milk in coffee will ruin your liver, but alcohol is good for both the appetite and the digestion.” We went on to add some unwritten rules of public life in Paris, including: “Do not drive the wrong way on a one-way street, except in reverse. Although sidewalks exist naturally for parking, you should not drive on them unless traffic is too thick in the roadway. This restriction does not, of course, apply to motorcycles.” What does “Parisian” mean?  I thought of Parisians I know and what they have in common that makes them exemplary embodiments of the city’s personality.  Things are changing fast, but so far Parisianism is still partly collective singularity.  Everyone who has a choice here seems to be doing what he’s doing for no better reason than confidence in the worth of the private endeavor. Parisians are the world’s amateurs par excellence. The root meaning of amateur is of someone doing his thing for the love of it. I think at the heart of this attitude are pre-industrial values that survive—for how long I can’t say– in a city whose culture, like the cityscape, is not a palimpsest but an often enriching aggregation. The courtisans of the Ancienne Régime practiced stylish pleasure as the ultimate raison d’être. The middle class that swept them out of power with the Revolution glorified knowledge, science, progress… and new wealth. Yet living stylishly never lost its place in an amalgamated value system that gave learning and art new importance.  It has its flaws.  It is a setup that admits insider privilege, although there is greater mobility now than in even the recent past.  Cues on egalitarianism and bottom-line ethics—the good and bad of American culture—are coming from the United States.  And the media-driven rush to be branché, to conformity– that sometimes shady Doppelgänger of equalitarianism–is an ever-growing force.  And yet… In this city that invents fashions delights that have a past remain stubbornly in style. My children, who are grown now, loved the same donkey rides in the Parc de la Muette that children still adore, the same puppet show. And the boy Marcel Proust delighted in both. The cackle of the puppeteers in their little wooden theater, the donkeys with their worn saddles and unworldly patience—all that is the same as it always was. Lucky the teenager who can wear her mother’s Saint Laurent tuxedo or her grandmother’s Chanel suit. Parisians pursue novelty and more and more often let themselves be seduced by keen marketing and media hype. Every month, there sprouts a good handful of those new hangouts that are fun to try. Nouvelle Cuisine is old.  We have the fun of “fooding” in places with the latest “look” in design. But if you asked me which are the restaurants and cafés most frequented by the artists, writers, filmmakers, actors and people in various positions of power, all of whom define the culture — I’d have no trouble in giving you a quick answer. The brasserie Lipp, the upstairs room of the Café de Flore, the Select, Stresa, Taillevent, Laurent, and le Voltaire. They’ve all been hot for the better part of a century or more. Paris is France’s Hollywood. Yet the film world here goes about its life with far less fanfare than in Los Angeles. Catherine Deneuve…

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