Dateline: France

by Art Busse

It's a grey day in early April on board the TGV heading south out of Paris bound for Bordeaux. The French countryside presents itself immediately upon our departure and promises to continue on in like fashion for as long as we may care to travel today.

Paris, it turns out, is not the center of the world after all, merely an island of sophistication in a sea of agriculture. The train moves smoothly and surely up to its cruising speed of nearly two hundred miles per hour, and we are swept away as if by kidnapped by professionals. The intense green carpet of the countryside rolls out in all directions replacing the concrete streets and limestone facades of the city.

The problem is this: four days in Paris. Four days after a lifetime without it. Four days. It's not possible. It's too much to bear. It can't be done. To pound that pavement until your joints ache. To struggle with an unfamiliar language. To have so much to learn in every moment. You have to overcome the instinct to fight it, forcing open your hands and arms and heart to it. Feeling its soft embrace at last only to be plucked away and sent hurtling through the French countryside - before your mind can close around it, before you can put yourself back together, before the last syllable of the last French word you heard spoken in Paris has faded.

Think of this: Parisian women will hold a man's gaze comfortably without implication. Or this: The French language isn't spoken, it's sung - to a hundred different melodies. Or this: nearly every important building in Paris is currently used for a purpose other than that for which it was originally created. Or this: many French words have written endings that when spoken, aren't articulated, but rather are hinted at, suggested, or implied.

This is a soft and subtle place, a city for artists, intellectuals, gourmands, and above all, lovers. On our first night in Paris we strolled the streets of St. Sulpice on the left bank and found ourselves naturally falling into each other, coming gently together as lovers do, along the curve of our encounter. The night wrapped around us, while in the surrounding shadows other lovers formed up the way clouds condense into raindrops, all of us supported by an atmosphere of love uniquely Parisian.

The following day we had lunch with a French editor and a literary agent, two mature, accomplished and charming women who managed the whole affair with considerable aplomb and grace. We dined at a lovely little sun-filed bistro on the left bank near the Luxembourg Gardens. The service was excellent with that surfeit of commotion that the French use so adroitly to persuade you of your importance and theirs. The food and wine were even better. A clear dry Cassis, bright and refreshing as the Provencal sun that reared it, shone on all the dishes that followed, helping nervousness give way to comfort and comfort rise to happiness. The point, it seemed, was to use the many handholds of formal convention to ensure our ease and wellbeing while propelling us through the meal. By the time it was over, along with having been well fed and entertained, it felt as if we'd had our clothes pressed, our shoes polished and our bed turned down.

Then, as we rose from the table, our hostess pointed out that the building across the street that we had been looking out upon was The European Theater, the same that, some decades prior, university students from the Sorbonne had marched to and occupied, demanding changes in society that led to the Paris Revolution of 1968, changes that, had they come about, would have put a considerable dent in our lunch.

Are you beginning to get it yet? Contradictions share the sidewalk with passionate beliefs and the discourse nourishes the mind the way the eyes are fed by glorious fashion and the pallette by cuisine worth dying for.

Paris is a city that addresses appetites of all kinds and elevates the encounter to the level of Art. We are continually invited to create and behold, behold and create. Art is alive here on her streets, in the boutiques, bistros and cafes, in the conversations had and heard over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee on the crowded corners, in the composure and style of the women who pass and the fashion in which they are draped.

And then it is over.
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