For writers, it’s tempting to try to record every moment of an adventure, but sometimes it’s better to surrender the pen and ink and just let the experience wash over you.
“Paris is always a good idea.” Audrey Hepburn
I’m not sure I agree with the adage, “write what you know,” but I’m pretty sure if you want to find the right words to describe the rush of biting into a flaky croissant while sitting in a sidewalk café along the cobbled streets of Paris, the best course of action is going there and finding out for yourself.
Last month, I fulfilled a two-years-in-the-making ambition by hopping on the first flight out of LAX and landing in Paris for a weeklong birthday celebration. I’d been lucky enough to visit Paris at 16, and always knew I’d return. I just didn’t anticipate it’d take a couple of decades. I’m still in awe I was able to pull it off!
“Springtime in Paris” – it feels decadent even writing the words!
Or, as Henry Miller put it, “When spring comes to Paris the humblest mortal alive must feel he dwells in paradise.”
Yes…most definitely paradise!
Of course, my idea of heaven involved consuming as many carbohydrates as I could get my hands on and washing it all down with wine. In between, I hoped to wander the rues and arrisdesmonts of the fabled metropolis, keeping an eye out for noteworthy moments and soul-shattering flashes of insight I could tackle with my pen and Moleskine.
Paris had other plans.
The flashing lights of the Eiffel Tower at dusk put me in a trance. The cold, quiet bones of the catacombs conjured up ideas of mortality and the true meaning of existence. Notre Dame gave up its stained glass in an orgy of ideation while stubbornly refusing to relinquish its gargoyles. Brie and Cote du Rhone beckoned. There never seemed to be enough time to see it all, eat it all, drink it all in.
Above all else, I found myself blinded by the blistering blaze of the city’s literary roots.
According to Goodreads, there are 710 books set in Paris, France. Listing the host of writers synonymous with the jewel of the Seine becomes a Sisyphean task: Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein and Edith Wharton, James Joyce…Henry Miller…T.S. Eliot…and on and on and on.
And those are only the expats!
That mountain of talent cast a long, cold, hard shadow on my writerly ambitions. What more can be said about the Champs-Elysées, the Arch de Triomphe, the wine and the cheese and the lights of the Ferris Wheel glittering in the distance that hasn’t already been repeated a thousand…no, a MILLION times?
In his Poem, A Cedar in Paris, William Wenthe sums up the traveling writer’s conundrum,
One of the rare gifts
of middle age – to know a little something
about the place where I’m arriving, as if new born
but with a kind of memory, a recognition,
And then at the end of the stanza
All these memories are not mine, but ones I’m stepping into,
like the hollows troughed over centuries
By bootsoles in the stone stairways.
There’s no way to compete with Voltaire and Baudelaire. You can’t come close to Victor Hugo’s pathos or Simon Beauvoir’s elegance. So many characters have swooned along the cobblestones, stolen kisses under streetlamps, experienced epiphanies on the metro; it feels like there’s nothing left to contribute.
And yet…and yet…the city itself is so alluring. There’s a real, tangible poetry in its streets, aching for verse and rhyme. You’re not a painter, but the vistas call out to you, and you imagine what it would be like to set up an easel and capture the way the light dances along the rooftops, skimming and shining on the windows and bouncing off the iron balconies. Music follows you everywhere, not just the tunes of the street musicians, but the jangle of the metro cars and the swoosh of a flock of birds taking flight, dipping and soaring in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.
Even if you are content to play tourist – eating croissants and sipping café au lait – writerly monuments abound, hidden in nooks and standing proudly in plazas.
In the Luxembourg Gardens, the stony countenance of writers, artists, and other notables appear along every turn in the path. In the depths of the catacombs, deathly proclamations carved in stone whisper amongst the bones.
“Thus, everything passes on the Earth. Mind, beauty, favor, talent. Such (It) is an ephemeral flower that throws the lesser wind.
“Where is death? Always future or past. Scarcely is she present, because already she is no longer.”
“Come people of the world, come to these silent homes and your soul then tranquil…”
And then, of course, there’s Shakespeare and Company, another kind of chapel: a cathedral of pages and prose. The solemn voices and muffled footfalls aren’t much different from the stained-glass silences of Notre Dame, which sits about a block and a half away from the shop, so close you can hear the bells chime.
Everywhere you turn in Paris, you’re reminded of the city’s literary legions. On one night’s wandering, we happened upon a slim, five-story building lit up to a pulsing yellow gleam in the middle of the Rue de Clery. Above the first floor window, a stone inscription identified it as the home of Andre Chenier, writer, poet, and guillotine victim. Arrested by mistake, shipped off to a former leper colony (St. Lazare Prison), he was executed while reciting verses from Racine’s Andromaque. I’d never heard of Chenier, but looking him up later, I discovered yet another kindred spirit. On the eve of his execution he wrote,
As the sun’s last flashing ray,
As the last cool breeze from the shore,
Cheer the close of a dying day,
Thus I strike my lyre once more.
As now by the scaffold I wait,
Each moment of time seems the last,
For the clock, like a finger of fate,
Points onward and onward fast.
That’s the thing about Paris. It can encompass the entire spectrum of human experience and reveal it to you in glorious bits and pieces. It’s hard to avoid feeling as if you exist in a fictional realm when Paris draws you close. It’s all there, every cliché you’ve ever heard, from the smell of baguettes in the morning to the surly shopkeeper who grudgingly hands you change, to the intoxicating combination of wine and laughter and cigarette smoke spinning and swaying around you like a courtesan intent on seduction.
I surrendered to the city’s beguiling and bewitching embrace. I abandoned my journal and gave in to the charm and temptation of the Paris’s wily ways. I don’t regret it. Sometimes the best thing you can do for your writing is put down your pen.
“He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo.
Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic.
Nothing is more sublime.”
― Victor Hugo