We’ll Never Have Paris

I’ve been enjoying a collection of essays entitled, Paris Was Ours: Thirty-Two Writers Reflect on the City of Light.

In her introduction, editor Penelope Rowlands writes, “Although I’ve lived in a handful of other cities, this one left the deepest mark. Its effect on me, as on the other writers in this volume, was outsize: it’s where we came into ourselves.”

Rowlands recounts her arrival in Paris as a wide-eyed young woman “held in thrall” to an early new wave film by Jacques Rivette, Paris nous appartient, “which we translated, loosely, as Paris is Ours. Soon, we knew, it would belong to us, too,” she writes.

I, too, am a member of the tribe that Rowlands dubs the “Paris-returned” and though I called the city home for three-plus years as a young mother, I cannot presume to say that Paris was ever “mine.” Even being born on French soil won’t help you stake a claim, as we discovered after our second child was born in Paris that French citizenship is conferred through le droit de sang (blood), not le droit de terre (soil).

Still, the book set me to musing about why Paris, arguably more than any other of the world’s great cities, so strongly inspires, and rebuffs, our desire to possess?

Paris, View from Our Window

In her essay “Paris is Gone, All Gone,” NYU professor Marcelle Clements scholar pinpoints the mixture of longing and nostalgia that I feel whenever I revisit my old neighborhood: “The mourning that Proust expresses most eloquently is not for the loss of what was possessed; it is for the loss of what was, on the contrary, never possessed, but profoundly desired.”

Falling in love with Paris is a dangerous game of cat and mouse. Rowlands tells us that author Francine du Plessix Gray (who left Paris as a child and spent most of her adult life in the U.S.) referred to “that siren, Paris.” No question, the City of Light is a seductress and, projecting, we feel ourselves more beautiful in her orb. The city’s legendary beauty and charm bring us back again and again to retrace our steps, fruitlessly searching for the code that will crack her cool reserve. We Paris-besotted experience a mixture of giddy euphoria and stomach-knotting anxiety that smacks of unrequited love; we stalk her streets, seeking signs that our union was meant to be, and leave feeling spurned by her casual indifference. Rowlands gives herself the last word, and her closing essay (“Le Départ”) evokes the poignancy of a passionate love affair that has run its course.

For me, mastering French idiom felt like an essential step toward belonging in Paris, and I spent many hours with a French tutor who gave private lessons to generations of ex-pats. The venerable Madame Paule LaFeuille was well into her 80s when I first made my way to her small ground floor apartment at 146, rue de l’Université, which she shared with an overfed and menacing orange tabby cat she called “Le Roi.”

Madame LaFeuille’s instructional method was in equal parts didactic and digressive. We would sit face-to-face across a small antique writing table in her book-lined parlor, the curtains closed to mute the traffic passing on the narrow street just outside. As we conversed on a subject of her choosing, she would meticulously transcribe each point of grammar, vocabulary word and idiom, writing slowly with a fountain pen dipped in green ink, and using the elegantly mannered French cursive seen on restaurant menus and chalk signboards throughout France.

Early on, I would bring my infant son to our lessons, which I now realize marked me as hopelessly American (that is, gauche). I would like to think that my naive flouting of French social convention endeared me un petit peu to the very proper Madame LaFeuille, who so far as any of us knew had never married. In any case, she was kind enough to pronounce my baby “très sage,” which prompted her to introduce the expressions, “Il est sage comme un image” (He is the picture of wisdom), and its converse, “Il est bête comme ses pieds” (He is dumb as a post).

I’m embarrassed to say that I never found occasion to use most of the colloquialisms that Madame LaFeuille diligently copied down for me to review at home, but I do remember one, in particular, because it struck me at the time as so typically Parisian and absurdly random: “Monsieur, il faut caler cette table.” (Sir, this table needs a wedge.) Essential, she insisted, in speaking to a waiter when one encounters a wobbly café table, a not uncommon annoyance, in fact. The expression conjured up the image of my teacher as a young intellectual, debating existentialism with Sartre at the Café de Flore.

My son learned to talk in Paris, and his first French words were, fittingly enough, “à moi!” (mine!) With a toddler’s solipsism he articulated the acquisitiveness that Paris triggers for so many adults, his mother included. As the NYU Proust scholar Clements writes, the “real Paris” is “the world capital of memory and desire, the ineffably beautiful Paris of pure eternal childhood yearning.” Paris makes children of us all, first by reawakening a child’s sense of delight in the mundane and finally by withholding the reciprocated love we crave. Paris, à moi!!


4 Responses to “We’ll Never <i>Have</i> Paris”

  1. 1 landscapelover February 27, 2011 at 4:04 pm

    What a lovely post. You capture so well the sense of longing and frustration that Paris engenders in so many of its inhabitants. We have been here almost 5 years and still do not feel the city even acknowledges our presence…

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