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When I’m in Washington, D.C., a strange thing happens: I find myself becoming incredibly sentimental over Paris. Not that there aren’t wonderful things to do and see in the Nation’s Capital, it doesn’t play my song. My heart simply doesn’t sing here.
Seeing the glass half full rather than half empty is something everyone should strive to do. Each morning I look out of the kitchen window on the 14th floor of the Washington apartment where I stay and see the 36-meter-tall trees. They’re beautiful and right now it’s a blanket of brilliant green. It’s nature at its best in a semi-suburban corner of Washington; the building is surrounded by parkland. Most people would kill for this view; it is stunning and you don’t see even one parking lot.
But there’s a feeling of isolation on any day. Where are the people, the signs of life and the signal it’s another day with people doing things they normally do? I miss seeing the kitty across the Paris courtyard and her family getting ready to leave the apartment. Over the years, the daughter’s backpack has changed from pink to black. Clearly, it’s loaded now with more demanding books and probably an iPod. I watch her working at the table looking incredibly serious as she attacks her assignments.
When I think romance, thoughts of Paris race through my mind. I miss its rooftops, being able to look through neighbors’ windows, simply walking up the street and passing a building where the façade is adorned with angels. I miss feeling the city’s vitality while sitting at a café nursing a glass of wine plus the conversations that frequently accompany it. As a French friend calls them, I crave “old stones” and their emotive feelings of history.
Not being able to stride to the bakery and buy a still-warm baguette is such a negative. When I spend even a few minutes in the Luxembourg Garden—and yes, I take my thermal mug filled with coffee—it’s impossible to resist tearing off the heel of the loaf and sharing it with the pigeons. A bite for me, some pieces for them, and so it goes.
Should I pass a clochard (street person) and he or she asks for money, I’ll fork over the remaining piece of the bread because no one should go hungry. My brain always does an immediate flashback to when I first moved to the neighborhood, when it was still the world of French francs.
A man sitting in the entryway of the grocery store asked me for money. Rather than forking it over, we agreed I’d buy him a wheel of Camembert because subsidizing a probable alcoholic isn’t my thing. When I came out and handed him the cheese, he chastised me for not buying one that was sufficiently ripe. He was right. I hadn’t bought the best one and learned it’s important to maintain certain standards even if you’re down and out.
When I take a walk in Paris, it’s always an ongoing learning experience. Frequently, there are formal plaques or just street signs fastened to the building that tell me that someone whom I’ve read about has lived in a specific building or was worth naming a street after. Just walking through the Montparnasse neighborhood is a combined literature and art lesson. The quartier was home to so many American expats, including Hemingway, Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein, and so many of the literati and members of the art scene, who moved there when digs in Saint–Germain–des–Prés became too expensive.
Walk into La Coupole and you can see where so many of the (then) starving artists painted to pay their restaurant and bar bills. Whatever and however much they consumed, La Coupole got the best of the deal.
So what do I do in Washington? I see family, friends and work as usual. And even though I went to see “Midnight in Paris” in Paris the day after it opened, twice I have driven to the Cineplex in the Washington suburbs to see it again, spending too long looking for a parking space. What’s worse, I cry when I see the Paris scenery. I can’t wait to return home to see the stones—the stones that have come to mean so much to me.
Someone suggested I write a book about being an American in Paris. First, it’s been done and done again. Second, I will always be l’Américaine. But one who will always yearn for France and or other cities filled with history, where people walk and live life as one of my college heroes, Jane Jacobs, would have wanted. I do that in Paris and consider myself so very lucky.
© Paris New Media, LLC
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One Hundred and One Beautiful Small Towns in France: Food & Wine
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