“So what does your typical Parisian day consist of?”
A cultured, soignée older woman asked me this at a wedding reception the other evening when she heard that I spend several months a year in Paris. “I live in Paris,” I said, “as I do in New York. Except that in Paris I work in English and live in French.” It’s the same but different. I do my work, I go about my day. And I try to be aware. I’ve grown accustomed to living there, but even as it’s familiar it’s still foreign. As it should be.
I don’t take for granted my acquaintance with the French language or culture, even though I now speak French pretty well, and today I know a lot more than I used to about French cultural references. But like a lot of people who plant themselves for months at a time in a city, I can sometimes take Paris itself for granted, if I let myself fall prey to the indifference of what becomes commonplace or even for thinking that the commonplace is without value. A reason for my living in Paris as well as New York is to undermine any over-familiarity I have with places. It’s easy to ignore what I have around me if that’s all I see or do, or if I’m too busy simply going through a routine to be aware that time moves on regardless of my nonchalance about the life I choose to ignore. We all need shaking up.
I don’t want to close myself off from experiences, not even from banalities such as shopping for food or taking a different route home from the bus stop. These are, in a way, more important than the postcard views you see and snap. Paris wouldn’t be Paris without its monuments. But neither would it be Paris for me without my noticing the angle of the waxing moon just as the clouds part over the pavilion at the entrance to the Parc Monceau. Or the ornate door knocker in the shape of a bear on a private residence on the little Rue Fortuny. Or the hopeful vendor at the entrance to the Courcelles metro station trying to make a few euros by selling end-of-day fruit, with his bananas and strawberries and occasional avocados aligned on an overturned carton. Or the apéros of radishes and grape tomatoes before a slightly unorganized dinner at my friend Philippe’s. Or the folded morning newspapers atop the comptoir quickly skimmed over a gulped café at the tiny restaurant across from the gym on the Rue Médéric. Or the oblivious hotel-school students at the end of my street chattering at rickety sidewalk tables under shimmering wreaths of cigarette smoke. These are as important to me as the celebrated sights and sounds, and inestimable in their fleeting sublimity or their stubborn ordinariness.
My staying in France isn’t to tick off boxes of things seen, but to make sense of things that are normal but different. I’m not quite sure how “making sense” translates into understanding or wisdom unless it’s to become aware of the textures of everyday life with an accent and to keep that awareness to myself. I don’t simply want to see, but to absorb, if that’s possible. I have a fear of making my life small. Perhaps noticing what’s around you is a way of expanding your vision, even within the confines of your daily goings and comings, no matter where you are. It’s not that I notice with the eye of a visual artist – I tend to half-see something and then turn it over in my mind and wonder what it was and why I noticed it. But I am also glad to know that I’ve “done” Paris in a way that most visitors do. But in returning again and again, and making Paris part of my everyday, I still want to be alive to the surprises that catch me in my peripheral vision. I don’t want to end up as someone who labors only to fill his memory and who leaves his understanding and his conscience empty, to paraphrase Montaigne.
Granted, most people visiting a city that thrives on tourism as Paris does don’t have the time to wander about looking for ways to appreciate anything beyond the unusual. Many people need the structure of organizing their hours to see what everyone else says they should see in order to arrive at a certain personal fulfillment in having done and looked at what’s expected of them when they travel. Or they need the comfort of returning to what they already saw, to reinforce an idea of what they had once loved long ago.
The woman seated next to me at that dinner had lived in Paris during a college year abroad at the Sorbonne, back in the 1950s. On the rare occasions when she visits Paris these days, she generally sticks to what she knows – the 5th arrondissement around the Sorbonne, or well-trafficked parts of Saint-German-des-Près in the 6th arrondissement. “I’m comfortable there,” she said. “It’s where I first stayed.” She has her Paris, and that’s what she wants when she’s there. She certainly doesn’t want my Paris.
I don’t blame her: for many Americans, that area of Paris is the Paris they want to know, or their particular spot is the one they first came upon. They cling to the memory of first encounters, except for those moments when they look for selfie ops at the foot of the Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Louvre, or by the Eiffel Tower, or during a pause in traffic on the Champs-Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe. That’s always going to be the case.
My first encounter with Paris, when I began to spend more time here, was on a dingy street in the 14th arrondissement that held for me the glimmering poetry of an unattainable paradise. It was homely and unprepossessing, redolent of diesel fumes and stale tobacco, and it was nothing I had known before. It spoke to me as profoundly as if I’d witnessed the unearthing of an undiscovered Praxiteles rescued from the broken shards of time. I had become alive to the ordinary in a foreign land and it made life seem more real.
Not everything leads to a personal epiphany, but being open to a twitch of wonder because I take notice of something I hadn’t seen before allows me the humility of discovery. I’m happy to glance at the Venus de Milo or the Winged Victory when I’m at the Louvre, but because I don’t have to plan my day around marking off the hits of its collection, I have the freedom to wander, or to choose to seek the under-photographed, the galleries less taken, the objects that you pass by en route to something selfie-worthy. Or simply to chance upon something that makes you stop and consider, that gives an insignificant moment a purpose.
Who’s to say that how I look at the world of the Paris I have come to know is any better than how someone reacts to Paris who’s only seen it for a week or two? We most of us want to look beyond what we know (or at least many of us do), either because we want to know more than we already believe we know or we don’t know exactly what we know. France has shown me how much I don’t know, but that’s the point.