It is mid-June and the leaves are bright green on what I have learned are chestnut trees. Something is wrong. I am sitting at a cafe table sipping from a glass of pale-blond Chablis. The first man-made structure to offer human beings a bird's-eye view, the Eiffel Tower, stands in shadow across the town. This is Paris, France — not Paris, Texas. The chestnut leaves flutter in the breeze that carries diesel fumes from the street where cars, taxis, and tourist buses idle, grind hears, and honk. My heart is laden I wish this were Texas. I could get home faster.
When you turn over that picture postcard your friend or neighbor sends from Paris — or London or Rome or Tangier — the message is, "Having a wonderful time. Wish you were here." (And if you were the traveler, abroad in one of the world's Dream Cities, isn't that what you'd write?) What you can take as gospel out of your friend's tangled script is that he or she really does wish you were there. What you know if you have been abroad, what you need to know if you are going, is that the "wonderful time" is not always all that wonderful.
Sitting at my cafe table, I watch faces mash against tour bus windows. Were this bus the one that took me on a three-hour tour through Paris, the guide would just now be saying that the cafe where I sip Chablis is a "typical cafe where Parisians take their R&R." Then suggesting, "just sit back and enjoy the view," she would switch on the tape that plays the headsets, Maurice Chevalier singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls."
In the cafe women and men greet by kissing twice on the cheek, often three times. The women look lovely, and the men unabashedly ogle. Le Monde, L'Express, Liberation, Le Figaro are open and spread out on cafe tables. People flip through the new issue of Pariscope, checking on the film times at the 500 movie theaters in Paris. They chat, and the spoken French enters my ears as chaff, from which I glean an occasional noun. I give up listening and take the conversations the way I take Muzak.
What is wrong this afternoon is this: Paris has become a theme park. It is Paris World ... Paris-o-rama. The cafe, the newspaper kiosk and flower vendor, the half-ruined church across the cobblestone courtyard where the beggar sits — they lack heft and dimension. The citizens, even this beggar, are lifted players, like Mickey and Minnie and Donald Duck at a DIsney park. The glasses of Chablis, of citron presse, the croissants and tarte des pommes, Le Monde, the blue packs of Gauloise, and the pastel Debussy 20-franc notes — all are props. The language is improvisational mumble.
On this afternoon Paris has become precisely as it is in darkened living rooms when neighbors show slides, as it is on the postcards I am sending you from the stack on my face table. There is the Mona Lisa, the armless Veus de Milo and headless WInged Victory, and the Place de la Bastille (in which nothing remains but an outline in cobblestones of the fortress and jail). It is the place from which you go home to say that you ate snails.
It is not that there is anything wrong with Paris (the city that Hemingway called "a moveable feast"), or Rome, or Tangier. It is not likely, either, that you or I or anyone else who is disappointed in travel can be written off as one more jingoistic, xenophobic Ugly American for whom no place is enough like home. It is not that we have neglected our homework on history and habits, have not mustered enough language to get a cup of coffee and say "Thank you" for it. It is not the mechanics of coming and going, the long jet flights that Paul Theroux calls "more transfer than travel." It is what is in our heads.
No sooner do we change our money than we march straight to the great landmarks, for they are everywhere about us, and have been praised by friends, rated high, given hyperbolic descriptions by guidebooks, and photographed by everyone from Cartier-Bresson to Grampa. It is so important simply to be here. One wants from the beginning to remember, to record every king on stone horseback, every white-skinned marble, every bombe and bisque, every sip of Montrachat, every deliquescing exotic glase.
We wait for the rush that grandeur gives. And in those first days, while we wait and hope for that thrill, we blame our sinking feeling on our feet, which after the long flight are as puffy as yeast rolls. We blame jet lag. Then we wonder: are we simply not equal to, not up to, so much beauty? Perhaps there's a low-speed thrill. But we suspect it is not that certifiable "wonderful time."
But it's no wonder there is no wonder. We have seen the sights before we got here: movies, TV, the neighbors' slides, these postcards that carry the treacherous lies. The sights have been sold at Toys R Us in the form of 1000-piece jigsaws. The limbless sculptures have been case in miniature and sold as doorstops. Your paperboy wears Rodin's The Thinker on his chest.
By the time we arrive, the "sights" are hackneyed, banal, flat. Our familiarity has indeed bred contempt, not in our hearts — which remain hopeful — but in our eyes. To the eye these sights have devolved into objects. In their brute actuality, surrounded by crowds and cars, polluted air and litter, we find them stripped of their halo and bereft of the guarantee of the friend's message — that confabulated "wonderful time."
We admit to ourselves to be wonderless and thus defeated (and defeated also by travel and our attempts to be touched by beauty, to enter into history, to be part of the holy past). But even then, the sight itself, worn down by our years of seeing and no longer fresh, continues to nag us. Because as symbols of the foreign, the historic, the beautiful, the very meaning and destination of travel, these sights never stop vibrating. They ceaselessly demand our attention and persistently call upon our admiration. This is our frustration, and their perplexing wonder.
Outside Notre-Dame, I sit holding a cotton bag of resinous lavender I have just bought from a cart pulled by a shaggy burro. I've paid too much for the lavender — 25 francs — and do not care. I sit on the bench, sniffing it. Next to me is a woman and her grown daughter. They are from New Jersey.
"Isn't this one of the seven wonders of the world?" the mother asks, pointing to the cathedral's lacy facade. Mother and daughter squint at the structure that hunkers there, right in front of us, its massive stoutness relieved by carvings of the 28 kings of Israel that at a distance look like vertical stripes.
The daughter tells the mother she isn't sure if this is one of the wonders, but says, "The Taj Mahal, I know, that's one."
The mother's hand rests on her daughter's arm as she says wearily, "Well, we better get up, I guess, and get on inside."
I write on the blue aerogramme about the mimes, fire-eaters, the serenaders who draft battery-operated sound equipment that powers their electric guitars and amplifies voices, about acrobats in gleaning red lights, jugglers who include a rubber chicken in their arc of clubs, and an effete male stripper with girlish arms who lazily undresses himself down to an elaborately tattooed belly and a pink cache-sexe. They are everywhere, performing on Paris sidewalks. I do not write home about the black man with cheeks scarred by tribal markings who sells the ugly jewelry. I am at a cafe and alone. I hope he will pass me by. But he strides toward me and thrusts out his necklace-circled arm. When I shake my head, he whips out the hand he had hidden, tucked inside his coat in the attitude struck by Napoleon in David's famous portrait. He holds a naked doll near my face, then pushes a button on the doll's back. A red penis pops out, "Fuck you, madame," the man says, bowing at the waist.
I walk by la tour Eiffel on my way to Balzac's house. before I leave Paris I intend to keep my promise to my father and ride to the top of la tour to survey the city. At a souvenir shop near the Paris Hilton smaller tours Eiffels stand ranked, row after row, from two inches to three feet high. The larger are fitted with clocks. Others provide a frame for a photograph. Some have been struck in the middle with a metal plate that reads, "I ♥ Paris." Why do I not say on a postcard, or later at home, that this structure, which is universally regarded as the very symbol of Paris, says nothing to me? That I am amused, thrilled, by the ingenuity and the greed that went into making its copies? How can I tell my father, who is elderly now, and frail, that I never even enter the actual tour?
Ah, I wish that all of you were here in Paris. We could have spoken English. I can read French. But coming from Orly to my hotel. I cannot understand even what my taxi driver says about the weather. Has it been hot? Or cold? The spoken French is a sea of oncoming consonants and vowels, a tidal wave of inexplicable parts of speech that push me back, again and again. In bathrooms, in my hotel room, I try to match the Gallic moue, to get that puckered embouchure that makes French sound French. And in cafes I eavesdrop and long to reach out and touch an arm, to beg them to speak more slowly.
The written French — the graffiti on walls, the storefront signs, the menus, even the French movie magazine Cine Revue — enchants me. In the magazine there is Tina Turner "chantant la gloire des dieux bouddhistes," and of her "ex-mari, Ike Turner, Tina ne veut plus beaucoup parler." Nouns that were on school exams pop up as real-life revelations. On the bus which takes me from the Pont des Invalides to my stop near l'Odeon. I read advertisements plastered in the bus, and am excited in the way Helen Keller (who visited Paris once and was permitted to touch Rodin's sculpture) must have been when her teacher spelled out "water" and Keller learned for the first time that everything had a name.
We are warned about culture shock. But no one has warned me that in Paris what will shake me is not the alien, but the familiar. Shards of U.S. culture have drifted across the Atlantic and been taken in by the French. To see La Vie de Brian, The Shining, Officier et Gentleman, Mister Mom, Beat Street, and Hitchcock's Mais Qui A Tue Harry? on the theater marquees all across Paris! To turn on French FM radio and hear Presley, Dylan, Springsteen, Michael Jackson (whose photo is silkscreened on T-shirts sold all through the city), Diana Ross, even the Carpenters with Karen Carpenter singing, "A Song for You."
And from the Latin Quarter to the Galerie Lafayette in Montparnasse to the quiet family neighborhood around rue Passy, I see Snoopy, the flop-eared dog in Charles Schulz's "Peanuts" cartoons. I see Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Betty Boop, Marilyn Monroe, Brando and James Dean. Continuous-loop tapes in some cafes play only American rockabilly or Motown or easy-listening tunes. In the supermarche, I see Kellogg's Corn Flakes. In the state-run tobacco stores, marked by the red lozenge above the door, Marlboros and Winstons are popular. There are video arcades, American pinball machines, and American beer. There are fast-food takeout joints that reek of what ours reek of.
After my first week in Paris I have given up on monuments. I read authors I have not read since high school and college — Balzac, Gide, Stendhal, Beckett, Hemingway, Sartre. In Balzac's Pere Goriot, the impecunious law student, Eugene, goes to call on a great lady whose home is enclosed within a courtyard. On his way, horses have splattered his shabby boots; the toes are muddy. Looking up at the lady's windows and down on his shabby boots. Eugene feels the shame of his poverty, his lack of place in Parisian life. From the outside, where Eugene stands, this life looks marvelous to him, and also unapproachable. He wants in. He longs for a carriage, for five francs for a cab that will drive him into this courtyard.
I look into these courtyards. Narrow streetside doors, hung with signs that read, "Cour privee," block a passerby's access. But I look. The courtyard's size is a surprise, three and four stories up, and as many as six doors opening into living quarters. The yards themselves are cobbled stone. The smell is of drains, of heat on the broad humped stones and grayed walls, of moss and lichen, of clay flowerpots that have just been watered. White lace curtains cover the windows. Like Eugene, I feel that Paris life looks wonderful. I want in.
Every day as I near my hotel I pass the beggar woman on her bench on the Boulevard St. Germain. She sits in the shade of a tree, newly planted since the May 1968 uprisings, when students tore down trees and stacked them for barricades. The beggar woman has wrapped rags around her ankles and sucks from a bottle of beer. She twitches against flies, and her arms are a tapestry of open sores; her smile is toothless. On some days she is gumming bread. I give her my centimes and one-franc pieces. She is my luck.
At the cafe where only a week before I had longed to go home, a tuxedo-garbed man whose ironic smile twists on his pale face, is doffing his top hat and asking for four volunteers. "Quatre hommes." Four men, grinning toward companions they have left behind at tables, join him. He takes six wine glasses from a bag and breaks the glasses on the sidewalk, then draws his volunteers into a huddle around the broken glass. They talk quietly and then scuffle backward and face us. They are mild-faced men, young, stylishly dressed, handsome. The performer kneels before the heap of glass. His face is on the sidewalk. men and women at back tables stand. Passersby stop. He screams, "Maintenant, mes amis!" The four men each place one foot on his head. "Harder," he yells in French. The men hesitate, one glances pleadingly toward the woman with whom he had sat. She frowns. She motions him back to her. The performer rises from his knees with a flourish of his arms. Thin streams of blood run down his face. Is there applause? I do not remember. There were groans and scattering laughter, I know. The performer walks among the tables and cafe patrons drop francs into his top hat. The blood dribbles. A shard of glass glitters in the deep cleft of his chin. Coins drop into the hat — ten-franc pieces, and even several pastel 20-franc bills. "This sure is a long way from Kansas," I say to my companions. After a moment's pause, one asks if I am homesick.
No. I did not feel that acute pang of longing for holly hocks at the door, cornbread in the skillet, and the smell of bacon frying. I felt the cold of the Atlantic Ocean between me and home, that implacable distance. There is a way in which travel, particularly travel to places that are unknown or are known only by their reputation, is to move onto an elaborate board game whose rules are always changing. You the traveler are dice and pawn; it is your life that is up for grabs. You toss yourself into the squares, and to survive, to win your way through the board, just to stay even, you must become your own luck. You pack your own trouble. You take yourself along. You cannot expect to be happier in Paris than you are at home.
I had not read Hemingway since I was a college freshman, but a quarter-century later, some of his characters' lines return. I remember them. I even remember reading them, and where I sat to read. I remember especially that in The Sun Also Rises Jake says to Brett, as she starts to tell him about her nights of love with the bullfighter, "You'll lose it if you talk about it."
"I just talk around it," Brett responds.
The Sun Also Rises was written in Paris. its hero, Jake Barnes, has a war wound. It was the Spanish Civil War. The wound was to the groin. He cannot make love, but he is in love. He loves Lady Brett Ashley, a 34-year-old English beauty. In Paris, where Jake lives and works as a newspaper correspondent, he cannot forget Brett. In a taxi together, riding at night through all the rues I walk through, she tells him, "But darling, I have to see you."
Jake wants to forget her. He takes a vacation, goes to Spain to fish. The trout take his worms. The he goes to the bullfights in Pamplona. Brett and the man she has decided to marry are to join him. They do. Jake cannot forget her at Pamplona, not even when the bull and the bullfighter are one. She cannot forget Jake, although she gives forgetting a good try. She beds down with the 19-year-old bullfighter. The story ends in Madrid. Jake and Brett are back in a taxi again when she tells him, "We could have had such a damned good time together."
"Yes," he answers (ending the novel). "Isn't it pretty to think so?"
The next-to-last-day I am in Paris, I approach the newly laid sidewalk on the block just over from my hotel. It has been scraped clean and is still wet. I put my foot into it, and press. With a Popsicle stick I scratch the initials of my name.