I’ve been to Paris four times in the last three years, and six times to France. And I will probably return to France this summer, if all goes well. Not saying this to boast or brag. It isn’t that expensive to hop on a flight from Orlando to Paris, and thanks to AirBnB, accommodations are cheap, too.
Except for sailing trips to the Bahamas, summer vacations in Canada and a honeymoon in Cancun, I hadn’t done much foreign travel until about 10 years ago, after I turned 50. And it would be another six years before I finally made it to Paris. And even that first time was an overnight stop on my way to my uncle’s place in the Champagne region.
But that first time. Ooh La La. That first time I saw the Arc de Triomphe lit up at night, and then saw the Tour Eiffel all aglow in the distance, its spotlight sending a search beam across the night sky, it took my breath away. It stunned me. It just didn’t seem real. I had to follow that beam of light down from the Place Charles De Gaulle, not paying attention to the narrow streets I trod as I weaved my way to the hallowed beacon sweeping the city.
I’d been conditioned at an early age to love all things French. My mother, whose grandfather was born in Nancy, France, of Austrian parents, who immigrated to the US when he was four, was fascinated with French culture. She taught us how to count to ten in French before I started grade school, taught us to sing “Frere Jacques” and would constantly play the Singing Nun, technically Belgian but who sang in French.
It was because of her that I took French lessons throughout junior high, high school and college. I struggled with the verb tenses, tried to build my vocabulary, and translated a portion of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu. I remembered the painted silk socks worn by Monsieur Iber, and the funny French rock’n’roll we listened to in class, and the blonde, blue-eyed student teacher from Alsace.
Like other would-be writers before us, my college girlfriend and I had talked of going to France together so we could live on cheap bread and wine and write incredible stories and poems.
A college professor who was from Paris nearly dissuaded me from ever wanting to go to France. When I told her a friend of mine gone to Paris to study, the professor inhaled her cigarette and in a withering, condescending voice said, “Oh, they still do that?” And then she blew a sarcastic cloud of cigarette smoke out of her mouth.
But there is something deeper to our fascination with Paris, something in our cultural bouillabaisse as Americans that pulls us to that gilded 19th century crowning achievement of the Belle Epoque standing over the Champs de Mars.
Maybe it’s the romanticism of the Belle Epoque itself, the heavy Haussmann architecture, the sails of the Moulin Rouge and its nightlife as depicted by Toulouse Lautrec, and storied artist pensioners in la Rive Gauche.
Or maybe it’s the idealization of the surrealist artists and American ex-patriots who populated Gertrude Stein’s salons in Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”
We owe the French more than a debt of gratitude for helping us throw off the chains of British imperialism, hosting Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson as they tried to raise money for their revolution.
We paid back by pushing the Germans out of France and liberating the Western Front. After that, many of our doughboys didn’t want to go back to the farm. The black soldiers didn’t want to return either after finding a friendly vibe in Paris.
A similar thing happened after World War II, when Americans decided to stay behind rather than face the stultifying corporate world and suburbs that beckoned.
Our American love affair with Paris has endured two World Wars, the end of Colonialism and the withdrawal of the French from Vietnam but not before handing over that quagmire to us. We sent them Jerry Lewis, Levis and rock’n’roll. They sent us Brigitte Bardot, French New Wave Cinema, and Deconstructionism. We gave them jazz, they gave us Johnny Hallyday.
Movies like an American in Paris, Gigi, The Red Balloon al contrived to fuel our romantic fantasies of France. “Breathless,” the French sex bombs of the sixties, Claudine Longet, Jacques Brel, the Tour de France, Madeleines and Proust, Julia Child and Coq au Vin, Andre Previn and Champagne — these were the cobblestones in the street that connected France to our imaginations.
Those post-WWII movies and musicals probably had a lot to do with my mother’s view of Paris. She was an impressionable high school kid at the time, after all.
But my mother never had the chance to go to France. The closest she got was Montreal, which she loved. When she died of breast cancer at the age of 58, I swore I would go to Paris before I died.
But a career in journalism, several marriages and layoffs got in the way. Before I knew it, I was 58 and I had never been to Paris.
As fate would have it, I got laid off a few months shy of my 58th birthday. The newspaper I worked for had just been sold to its competitor and shuttered. I had a two-month severance check and time on my hands.
So I went to Paris.
And when I finally stood under the Tour Eiffel, my heart soared. I wept for my mother’s missed opportunity, I laughed at the absurdity of it all, the unreality of actually seeing that monument to Victorian engineering that had loomed large over my life.
Paris, je t’aime.