Passion Play In Paris | Robin Sparks

Passion Play In Paris

Paris, the Grand Damme of expatriate havens, has held a place at the top of my shopping list for almost three years. I began my search for a country south of the border, thinking that the ideal expat escape for me would be a remote Spanish-speaking village. Two decades of living in a small mountain town, however, left me with a thirst for anonymity and a desire to live in an environment that was a mixture of races, creeds, and beliefs. I wanted to be pressed in on all sides by art and culture.

And I wanted to be surrounded by creative thinkers with whom I could converse about something deeper than the latest skis on the market or the most challenging hikes in the area.

There are certainly worse places to raise one’s children than a small mountain community. I loved looking over the faces in my daughter’s high school graduating class, and realizing that I’d known most of them since kindergarten. But times and circumstances change, so I recently planted myself anew in San Francisco. It will be from this polyglot soup, where diversity of thought and expression are encouraged (unless you smoke, are anti-gay, or a Republican), where I will continue my search for a country.

As the thought of city life grew more attractive to me, Paris began to loom larger as a possibility. I pulled out my French language tapes in an attempt to learn the language I’d forsaken for Spanish many years earlier. I read Henry Miller and Hemingway’s accounts of the bohemian lifes of expats who lived in Paris during the 1920’s and 30’s. I read Diane Johnson’s recently released book Le Divorce. My Paris file grew fat.

As fate would have it, I fell in love with a Frenchman last year — in San Francisco. In the whirlwind love affair that ensued, I traveled to Paris three times in three months. I fell in love not only WITH the city that inspires love but IN love with one of its natives.

I set out to “know” Paris in my favorite way — by blending in and pretending to be one of its residents. I negotiated Paris via the Metro. I sipped kirs at Les Deux Maggots (OK, so I did hit one or two tourist spots). At en plein aire cafés I stared unabashedly with the rest of the audience at the street theatre as it strolled past. I learned quickly to pick out the Frenchmen from other European males by the similarity of their narrow noses and lips, wire rimmed glasses, receding hairlines, and thousand dollar suits. I shopped daily at the patisseries and the boucheries and the tabacs and the outdoor markets.  I paraded down the Champs-Elysées adapting the I-Love-Being-A-Woman attitude that French women wear so well.

I sipped espressos and munched croissants every morning. I joined philosophy discussions at the Café de Flore. I watched Bruce Lee movies in French. I ate foie gras and tried not to think about how it was made. I marched to the head of the line at one of Paris’ most renowned nightclubs and through its doors in my new Gianfranco Ferrer outfit.  I sped along the Normandy Coast in Bernard’s Porsche at 120 mph. I  slept in a chåteau — the Domaine des Hauts de Loire. My limited French vocabulary increased daily as I tried out words like  “Je t’aime“.  Bernard’s English improved with words like, “Me too.”  I feasted on turkey with a group of Americans on Thanksgiving. And I ventured to dream, that maybe I  too would someday live in Paris.

But wait — what exactly is it about Paris anyway?  There are plenty of cities more geographically blessed, San Francisco for example. (In the eyes of this Northern Californian, Paris is disappointingly flat.)  Rome is more historic. Hong Kong is as cosmopolitan. Marrakesh is more exotic. Many cities have rivers running through them.  And unlike the world’s most popular cities, Paris is landlocked.

It’s calling card is certainly not its weather — my last fall visit to Paris left me with such a case of seasonal affective disorder that I kept my face glued to the airplane window the last hour of the flight as we chased the setting sun over the western horizon.

No, the magic of Paris isn’t about logistics. It’s something more esoteric — it’s that certain sin quo non  that writers have attempted to put into words for years.

Paris between the World Wars was a hotbed of artistic and intellectual exile for Americans and English writers and artists the likes of  Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Anaïs Nin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller, Sylvia Beach, T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Paul Bowles, Man Ray, and Ezra Pound. They walked the cobbled streets and twisting alleys of the Left Bank, they philosophized in its cafes, and they painted and wrote about a mythical Paris that called out to the artist, the individualist, the sensualist, and the lover of life.

Gertrude Stein wrote in Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas:  “And so life in Paris began and as all roads lead to Paris, all of us are now there, and I can begin to tell what happened when I was of it.

Composer Virgil Thompson (who claimed that if he had to starve to death, he preferred to do it where the food was so good)  portrayed Paris as a place where Americans could lead the kind of life represented in Stretrher’s “impressions” of Gloriani’s garden party — a place where the open windows of the receptive spirit could absorb the sun and thus where the gray moral and spiritual climate of Woollett could be exchanged for an atmosphere of radiant richness and freedom.

Writer, Edith Wharton,  pointed out that because the puritan  races viewed “Art” as separate from life, unapproachable and remote, they locked it up in museums. She defined “taste” as the atmosphere in which art lives, and outside of which it cannot live. Taste, Wharton said, is the art of dress, manners, and of living in general, as well as of sculpture or music. And because the French had always been innately sure of this, it was her opinion that they instinctively applied to living the same rules that they applied to art.

John Dos Passos portrayed Paris as a matrix of sensual delight:  “Today is Paris… pink sunlight hazy on the clouds against patches of robins egg… the tow boat shiny green and red chugs against the current… Paris comes into the room in the servant girl’s eyes the warm bulge of her breast under the gray smock… the smell of chicory in coffee scalded milk and the shine that crunches on the crescent rolls stuck with little dabs of very sweet unsalted  butter…

In Tropic of Cancer,  Henry Miller feels himself “drawn back again to the proper precincts of the human world”  (Paris)  from the death-in-life of the mechanized city of New York.  He wrote, “Even as the world falls apart the Paris that belonged to Matisse shudders with a bright, gasping orgasms, the air itself is steady with a stagnant sperm, the trees tangled like hair.”

Hoo Boy, I mean Oh-La-La. All of you Lovers out there, how ’bout we just charter a flight to Paris right now?.

Even Mark Twain, never one to mince words, wrote in Innocents Abroad,  “What a bewitching land France is! …..They say there is no word for ‘home’ in the French language. Well, considering that they have the article itself in such an attractive aspect, they ought to manage to get along without the word. Let us not waste too much pity on ‘homeless’ France. I have observed that Frenchmen abroad seldom wholly give up the idea of going back to France some time or other.

Today there are approximately 200,000  Americans living in Paris according to expat David Applefield who publishes the literary journal FRANK. He says that many of the factors that pulled writers and artists from former lives during the twenties, thirties, forties, and fifties — freedom from moral judgment and censorship, overt racism, Puritanical values on sexuality, crass consumerism, an attractive exchange rate, are barely valid in Paris today. But he admits that some of the cultural elements that once made the city so appealing for the creative soul — love and appreciation for aesthetics, passion for dialogue, unabashed sensuality, rootedness to history, respect for writers and artists (even poor ones), cheap and excellent wine, anonymity — are still present.

John Calder, another writer currently living in Paris, says:  “Few politicians give culture more than lip-service and in the U.S. it is usually too dangerous even to mention. George Bush, when he was president, could not admit to a liking for classical music, while in France any politician who did not have at least a veneer of culture could never be elected. The French want to be led by those with good minds and good educations,  Americans too often by the lowest common denominator, those who affect to be most like themselves.

Expat writer, Josh Parker writes, “There is something, as Henry Miller said, of the giant idea incubator about Paris. Art presses in at you from every side, fills your vacant moments even when you think you are most oblivious to it… frankly, I am enjoying the luxury of at last being in Paris.

The recently-released novel Le Mariage  by Diane Johnson, fills the bookstore windows of my San Francisco neighborhood and inhabits the number 6 spot on the San Francisco Chronicle Best Seller List. It follows on the heels of Le Divorce, another of Johnson’s  novels about Americans living in Paris. Last week I attended her reading at Berkeley’s Black Oak Bookstore. Johnson told how she followed her husband to Paris eight years ago for what was supposed to be a sabbatical. Today the writer and her husband live eight months a year in Paris and four in San Franscisco.

In Harriet Welty Rochefort’s hilarious book French Toast, she relates the hard-earned wisdom of one who has lived among the French for over twenty years. From a small town in Iowa to the City of Light, Hariett has done what many dream of doing, and she shares the cultural bumps she hit along the way.

In Paris Noir , Tyler Stovall writes about  the African-American expatriates who made new lives for themselves in Paris after World War I. Nearly half a million African-American soldiers discovered a racial egalitarianism in France they’d never experienced in America. Many never went home.  A generation of black musicians and performers, Josephine Baker for example, created a Harlem Renaissance in Paris. While most white expatriates returned to America when the Depression hit, most African Americans stayed put. After World War II  black writers began to make names for themselves in the City of Light — among them Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Chester Himes, and more recently Jake Lamar.

Americans living in Paris aren’t limited to writers and artists of course. I met dozens of American-born bon vivants who call Paris home and there’s not a droll, complacent one among them. Adrian Leeds, coordinator of a French/English conversation group and author of a restaurant guide;  Jonathon Roberts, a retired Los Angeles film commissioner;  Robert Price, a Texas attorney who recently completed a cooking course at the Cordon Bleu; and Brett Vallaint , who moved to Paris alone at the tender  age of 22, married and later divorced a Frenchman — these are just a few of the American expats whose stories I’ll tell in future articles. You’ll learn from them what it takes to move to, live, work, and play in the City of Light.

My rocketship love affair with Bernard eventually crashed and burned. (Love doesn’t fizzle out with Latins.) My love for Paris, however, burns white hot in spite of a few cracks I’ve begun to notice in her patina.  I’ll touch on these French “discrepancies”  in future articles.

Anaïs Nin, my all-time favorite expat writer wrote in her final passage of her Diary, “I cannot install myself anywhere yet. I must climb dizzier heights.

Me too.

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