I have been meaning to write for several days now but who can sit in a hotel room to go online while the cultural treasures of Paris beckon with red-painted fingernails. The city just exudes culture. Its iconic landscape looms so large in our imagination that I was worried that it might seem like a Disney miniature in reality. I was not disappointed; its monumental geography remains staggeringly impressive in reality.
I caught my first glimpse of its heroic scale as we drove through the Place de la Concorde with the Louvre Museum on my left, the Arc de Triomphe on my right and the Eiffel Tower ahead in the distance.
My driver, Marc, picked me up at the airport. A former body guard and stand-up comedian, he is pursuing a career as a singer. He sang opera to me and we laughed our way to the hotel as we traded lines of improvisational comedy. We almost got into several accidents as we entertained each other. Two days later, he told me the reason for our safe arrival at the hotel: He had a near death experience several years ago and since then has had spirit guides who help him, even while he is driving in traffic. When you are talking to a Frenchman with a flat cut of grey-black hair, steel blue eyes, and a 240 lb. body that would take a bullet for you, you believe that the spirit world is undeniably just in the back seat.
For Americans Paris remains the city of love par excellence—which for those of you who did not have Ms. Tannenbaum beating French into you in high school—means above all others. My wife and I have wanted to go for many years to kiss on the banks of the Seine like in the famed Robert Doisneau photograph of the “Kiss by the Hotel de Ville.” (Our plans were derailed eight years ago when Rachel found out she was pregnant with twins and could not fly. C’est la vie. This was not to be the time for our joint return as our children were finishing school, and we decided that the pace of a book tour would leave little time for kissing on the Seine.)
I had an interview on France 24, the new French television rival to CNN and the BBC. I have had makeup put on before other interviews or photo shoots—some of us need all the help we can get, especially for those French bags under my eyes. My great grandfather was an Alsacian from Strassbourg, who used to line his children up every morning in New York to sing the Marseilles. My interviewer was a woman named Elizabeth Tchoungui from Cameroon but who has grown up in France. The statuesque television correspondent has herself written a book about star-crossed lovers, and we had a wonderful interview first in English and then in French. The simultaneous translation was challenging, as the interpreter spat words through an electronic ear piece. The translator doesn’t have time to truly translate the questions but could only rapid fire whatever words he was able to say while keeping up with the interviewer.
I ended up having some time free on Tuesday and was able to take a marvelous bike tour of Paris with my extraordinary translator (and guide) Pascale Fougère. And one of the highlights was a visit to the Musee d’Orsay, the Impressionist museum, perhaps my favorite museum in the world. It was an opportunity to dive into the creative colors of Van Gogh, Picasso, Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas, and others. Blessedly, it was the one national museum open Tuesdays. To see the world through the lens of the Impressionists is to have the lens of ones eye polished, perhaps even refashioned with a new experience of light and color. On the painted wood that marked the gateway to Gauguin’s house in Tahiti, were painted the words addressed to women: “Soyez amoureuses et vous serez heureuses: Be in love and you will be happy.” And then, “Soyez mysterieuses. Be mysterious.” What wonderfully provocative words. Were they true? I learned more about the state of love in Paris at a dinner party with journalists the following night.
The French know how to enjoy life (invented the expression “joie de vivre” after all), so interviews were done informally over wine and food. Journalists from Le Figaro (a newspaper), Marie France (a women’s magazine), Télé 7 Jours (a weekly TV magazine), and Advantages (a woman’s magazine) were there. It was a wonderful night. Ariane, who writes for the woman’s magazine explained that in France when men and women are getting divorced, it is mostly the women who are leaving the men. With 82% of women in France working, they no longer are dependent on their husbands and no longer seem willing to put up with relationships in which they are not happy. Perhaps Gaugin was wrong and being in love is not always enough to be happy (or maybe the limitations of their marriage or their husbands had robbed them of their love). Increasingly women are willing to try to be happy without being in love.
As for being mysterious, this I do believe is important, not as in deception. Honesty in love, as Don Juan discovers, is essential. But when the mystery is gone, when we have the arrogance to believe that we know all there is about our partner, then inevitably the curiosity that feeds both love and passion disappears. This is so common in our disposable consumer culture where we are told that what is new is always better than what is known. But Don Juan learns that he only tastes the women he uses and therefore has always found his hunger unsated. As he finally discovers, to know the body, heart, and soul of a person is enough for a lifetime. But one must remain curious, continue to learn, and never forget the mystery that is another person.
As for the passion in Paris, I was told that the pace of life and the high cost of real estate leaves little time for kissing on the Seine. If anyone was kissing, it was probably American tourists. Someday I look forward to tasting my wife’s lips on the banks of the Seine; for now, I look forward to tasting them in Santa Cruz on my return.