One evening I looked at many doors in Paris. I entered none – few were actually opened – but that wasn’t the point. Looking was. It often is when you’re abroad, but here my regard was directed at the often-overlooked rather than the not-to-be-missed.
Paul-Guillaume had suggested an after-dinner stroll around his old neighborhood, in the 5th arrondissement, where we’d eaten at a favorite café, which happened to be named Chez Paul. He and his girlfriend Kathleen had helped me begin to navigate ripples of French culture during my first few months in France, and we dined together often during my first year or so in Paris.
Paul was fond of the imposing doors on buildings in Paris. He was born here, and has lived among these buildings all his life, and saw these huge doors as a way of marking a certain individuality of artistic expression amid the regulated Haussmannian architectural order of the buildings that lined the grand boulevards of Paris. At least that’s how I interpreted his interest. It could be that he simply liked old doors.
The other night, under a bulging full moon that hovered behind high shifting clouds, I walked home along the Boulevard de Malesherbes following a concert at the Church of the Madeleine. The Boulevard de Malesherbes, which intersects the Boulevard Haussmann and later the Boulevard de Courcelles, is lined with splendid dwellings, each with its own imposing door. I thought back to that balmy amble years ago, back when I was still friendly with Paul-Guillaume and Kathleen – before the discovery of differing interests or attitudes and ultimately conflicting personalities closed the door on deeper acquaintance – and to when he took the time to help me discover the doors of his old neighborhood, an aspect of his Paris that became, in a way, an aspect of mine too, these “portes de Paris.”
Paul-Guillaume is a real-estate agent, his specialty being the 13th arrondissement (he had helped my friends Renaud and Odette find their apartment there, in the neighborhood known as the Butte aux Cailles, after they sold their longtime residence in the 5th). So he’s interested in certain architectural details, or has an eye for what might close a sale, which can be the same thing sometimes.
Every so often that night, as we wended the narrow streets not far from the Sorbonne, he would stop to admire the craftsmanship of the woodwork, or the gleam of a huge brass door handle or knocker, or the twists of the curlicues of the iron grille above an entry on one of the 16th- or 17th-century buildings in this part of town. He would point out a detail of the building, perhaps its date or some historical incident associated with it, and we’d move on until another door caught his eye.
This all helped me to see Paris less as a city of stately public monuments than one of individualized entryways: more human, perhaps, than the gilded opulence of its bridges and plazas. But not particularly welcoming, either, or at least maintaining a boundary against intrusive prying on the part of strangers. Or perhaps these doors offered something as politely distancing as certain conversational norms in French that I needed to respect before I could feel entirely at ease among them.
Paris shows a surface that represents the architectural manifestation of ideals as well as a face that hides what’s within, to mask the reality underlying the aspiration. Its handsome doors block you from its interiors. They open onto dim passageways that lead to lighted courtyards and the graciousness of a life set back from the hubbub of the street – near the rush of people, but apart from them, like a courteous dismissal of further intimacy.
Looking at the exteriors of buildings and their impenetrable doors also leads to imagining the lives of others, of course. And like most pedestrians in Paris, I found myself catching glimpses of the protected worlds within as residents or visitors stepped out from doors that would remain open for a few seconds before swinging closed, leaving me to wonder about who resided there and how they lived and what they saw and how they felt. Of course in each of these buildings with their hidden-from-the-street courtyards, the residents’ apartments and windows faced each other, and their lives sometimes spilled out to the other inhabitants in random noises or scents or casual peeks, in accidental anguish or unguarded emotion, but each life was still different from the one unfolding on sidewalks, even if an occasional interior disarray was as random or uncontrollable as what happened outside.
“Look at the grille here,” Paul said to me before one building, touching the iron bar that had been wrought to resemble grape leaves.
I looked at it, but noticed more his expression, his boyish wonder at the workings of a craftsman’s touch so long ago, his enthusiasm for something so simple and his joy in simply noticing. Kathleen was examining a dress in a nearby store window, restless after a half-hour of architectural wandering (she bored easily).
“Kathleen,” said Paul-Guillaume. “Look at this door.”
She turned away from the window display and gave a tight smile and a polite nod in the direction of Paul-Guillaume and his door, then turned back to her frock. That satisfied Paul-Guillaume, who resumed his examination of the door. He was, I assumed, accustomed to her lack of interest in certain of his fascinations.
I wondered then at her interior life, versus the face she tried to present to me, this relative stranger she was guiding in French culture. Kathleen earned a living as a production secretary on Luc Besson films but considered herself primarily an actress, despite rarely acting in any capacity and, at the age of 40, unlikely to move beyond her role behind the scenes into one in front of the camera. Now and then her inner discomfort showed itself for a moment when something caused her facade to crack open for a fraction too long.
We’re all like that, of course. Though the face I presented to Paul-Guillaume and Kathleen perhaps masked a growing discomfort in their company. As far as I thought they knew, I was the eager foreigner grateful to learn more about the country where I was living. Often that kind of thing is really all that people need to know about someone. You can’t discover the story behind every door.