Copyright 2016 by Jack A. Urquhart
Paris, winter, 2016. We are here in the French capital again, my spouse Raymond and I, visiting dear friends for most of the month. Ray, who has an extensive history of European travel to his credit, has made this journey many times; I, however, have been in Paris on only four occasions. That said, if imagination counts for anything, then I have been to the storied City of Light innumerable times. For just as the Danish author Isak Dinesen purportedly claimed, I (too) have been a mental traveler. Just so, I have visited this city more times than I can recall. That is because Paris has captured my fancy for as long as I can remember.
As much as I hate to admit the cliché, I attribute my insatiable appetite for Paris to the Hollywood musicals of the 1950s: “An American in Paris” (1951, Gene Kelly, Leslie Caron), “Lili” (1953, Leslie Caron), “Daddy Longlegs” (1955, Fred Astaire, Ms. Caron) and, of course, “Gigi” (1958, again with Caron). Those movies–set before a hungry kid living in the boondocks of pre-Disney central Florida–presented a full menu for this American’s Parisian dream; that would be Paris as the ultimate expression of everything graceful, romantic, cultured, nuanced and brimming with the understated permission to just be. The kind of place, in fact, where an oddball like me might not seem so out of place at the table.
Later in adolescence a particularly charming high school French Teacher, Mme D, encouraged that notion by regaling us, her students, with tales of her previous life in the French capital, and by recounting the tragedies and triumphs of her favorite contemporary French cultural icons: French General and statesman, Charles de Gaulle; African-American expatriate singer and entertainer, Josephine Baker; and most especially, the legendary Edith Piaf, regarded at the time as France’s national chanteuse. How delicious it was, following Mme D’s animated direction as we sang along with the recordings of France’s “Little Sparrow,” warbling in lousy French the lyrics of “La vie en rose,” “Non, je ne regrette rien,” and “Milord.” Only by attending to Piaf, Mme D maintained, could we (yokels all) hope to remedy our atrocious twangy accents, not to mention our choppy, elision-less phrasing.
Several years later, another artist’s work served to further whet my appetite for all things Parisian. I was a junior at the University of Florida in 1969 when Judy Collins released her wonderful album, “Who Knows Where the Time Goes,” a collection so mesmerizing–truly, every song is a gem–that I must’ve played it a thousand times that year. But in truth, there was one track that moved me more than the others. Collins’s “My Father,” a haunting homage to her coal miner patriarch’s poignant dream of escaping to a romantic life in Paris, carries me away to this day:
My father always promised us / That we would live in France / We’d go boating on the Seine / And I would learn to dance
It should go without saying, I expect, that such romantic notions as these rarely find a place at the table in real life. That is because day-to-day living serves up an endless banquet of distractions and competing priorities–enough of them sometimes to make us fat and lazy, or to see us waste away. And yet somehow the persistent fantasy of a different life in Paris–one where even a skinny southern misfit like myself might achieve selfhood–has simmered in the back kitchens of my consciousness all these years. Over time, it has become something of a favorite dish, one whose flavor I summon in imagination whenever real life offers only fast food.
Granted, there is a good case to be made that a recurring diet of make believe is nothing more than high calorie self-indulgence, and that to invest energy in imagining a life in Paris, or London, or New York, or, for that matter, in envisioning how we’d dispense our Power Ball lottery millions, is simply a waste of time. But to those arguments I would counter that my Parisian dream has kept me from starving to death countless times, has nurtured me through many a famine–through losses of employment and property, friends and lovers. Through losses of life.
Which brings me back to this current stay in the City of Light, coming as it does after a year of personal upheaval that culminated in a cross-country move, as well as the deeply troubling outcome of a nasty and soulless U.S. Presidential contest. How satisfying it has been in these times of uncertainty and seeming global scarcity to rediscover that my Parisian dream has some basis in reality. Which is to say that the city has lost none of its power to sustain me.
As when in my morning jogs up Avenue du Général-Leclerc, I experience real satisfaction and a sense of belonging, however temporary, in successfully dodging native pedestrians and piles of doggie poo (Merde happens. Even in Paris!) on my way to les Jardins du Luxembourg. Likewise, there is the pride and sense of personal investment I take in the majestic mansard-roofed apartment buildings (palaces in which I’m unlikely ever to reside) that line Avenue de l’Observatoire, and the terraces, balustrades, parterres, and tree-lined promenades of les Jardins.
Granted, there is nothing in my pedestrian reveries of Paris that comes close to the Hollywood magic that first inspired my yearnings for the city those many years ago, not even a soupçon of the grace of the Gene Kelly choreographed ballet set to the iconic symphonic poetry of George Gershwin’s “An American in Paris”. But I’m not sure that it matters if the most grandiose iterations of our fantasies ever find expression in real time, for surely there is room for economies of scale even in make believe.
Which is all by way of suggesting that perhaps the real measure, the real value of our most cherished imaginings, is their ability to feed our souls when the larders of life seem to hold nothing more than a few stale croutons.
Which is surely no small thing. Vraiment, pas du tout.
It was Alexandre Dumas’ books that got me interested in French history and language. I always kept my love of French and studied it in college for 3 and a half years. But my loves turned more to England and things English – literature and history – as I advanced in age. And unfortunately I have always hated to travel, so I never went abroad. But I love this piece you wrote, Jack – I’m quite comfortable with being an armchair voyager!