“The Paris of your dreams is not the Paris of your reality,” said a man behind me the other day on the bus from the airport.
He was talking to a young American couple who were seated behind him, and who’d been waxing enthusiastic about what they would see and do during their first time in Paris. Just before the bus let everyone off, they had asked this man how best to get to the area around the Eiffel Tower, where they had hoped to find a hotel. It was actually a good way from Charles de Gaulle-Étoile, near the Arc de Triomphe, the final stop on this line of Les Cars Air France, the bus service that runs between the airports and various Parisian drop-off points. The young couple had apparently arrived in town without a place to stay. I admired their sense of adventure.
Before giving them directions, this man had offered them his advice. Perhaps he was a philosopher of some sort (aren’t they all in France?). Perhaps he wanted to ensure that they not get their hopes up about a city that had apparently disappointed him. Perhaps he thought he was being helpful.
He’d been speaking for some time to a young man across the aisle, who had been reading a book this philosopher had spotted once the man had placed it at his side. The book was a discussion of the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the man had asked to see it. A minute later, after looking over the jacket copy and asking the other man what he thought of it, the two men embarked on a good half-hour discussion of some of Derrida’s ideas regarding communication, language and context.
Their conversation was interesting to me in that particular French way of people reinforcing each other’s ideas without adding anything original to the subject as they sized up respective credentials. I learned that the philosopher had studied Derrida while preparing for his doctorate (of course), while the other man enjoyed reading about Derrida as he worked in the unglamorous world of French telecom, providing pathways to communication of another sort.
The philosopher, in speaking to the young American lovebirds, had wanted to disabuse these new visitors to Paris of expecting the City of Lights to be as transporting in real life as it might have been in their daydreams. He was ensuring, perhaps, that they comprehend the Derridean “metaphysics of presence” and see Paris for what it is, not what they hoped it would be.
Either that, or he was a spoilsport who wanted to throw cold water over the ardent expectations of two naïve dreamers.
He had thought so much of what he said to them – in his heavily accented but decent English – that he repeated it twice. He wanted everyone around him to hear his little aphorism.
It made me think of my own dreams regarding the city where I’d set myself up as a temporary resident. I had had no expectations of Paris, actually. I had chosen to live there because I’d dreamed of expanding my provincial New York outlook, and I had, from the start, considered myself to be somewhat different than a person who visited the city for the Louvre or the Jardin du Luxembourg or the sidewalk cafés (not out of snobbery, or not totally so, but out of purpose). I was both a foreigner as well as a resident. I maintained a tourist’s outlook as I navigated daily life in France.
Before I arrived I certainly hadn’t expected to hear an accordionist playing “La Vie en Rose” on every street corner, nor to see beret-wearing Parisians carrying a baguette under one arm, a bottle of wine under the other and a lighted cigarette drooping from the corner of a mustachioed mouth. Nor did I envision overhearing at café tables earnest discussions of philosophy (though I have, in fact, been witness to more of these of conversations than to someone sporting a beret).
I wasn’t one of those gullible souls (as gullible as if often am) who wanted “the real Paris” or the real France. I just wanted to live someplace new, and experience something other than what I’d become accustomed to, to make a new everyday for myself out of someone else’s same old, same old.
But this romantic young couple had wished to stay near the Eiffel Tower, and perhaps soak in its imaginary enchantment, and who could blame them?
I myself never tire of it, and catching it sometimes from the metro – Line 6 – when it crosses the Seine – you can’t help but marvel at it gleaming under the sun or twinkling under the stars, despite your own reality-bruised dreams. Sure the metro in which you’re riding might be crowded, hot and uncomfortable, but at least the sight of something so beautiful makes the squalid quotidien all the more tolerable.
I don’t have a Paris of my dreams, but the Paris of my reality is made up of small moments of wonder and recognition, just as is my reality of New York.
I don’t live in a dream world, but I do allow an accidental reverie to color my daily life. I hope the young couple ignored the philosopher’s advice and found the Paris of their dreams.
And even if wasn’t all they’d expected, they’d still always have Paris and their memories of being there together would color whatever disappointment intruded upon their expectations.