“We’ll always have Paris”, Bogart said to Bergman in Casablanca..… and tears roll down the cheeks of both the hard-boiled and the heart-weary. We don’t just understand, we grok, for Paris is the birthplace of loves, not the least of which with the city itself. And what Bogart would say about the Maltese Falcon is truer still about Paris: it is “The stuff that dreams are made of”.
IF Hoagy Carmichael had written “Paris On My Mind” instead of “Georgia”, it would be the earworm playing in my head. It happens periodically, as Paris is a virus against which there is no vaccine and for which, once infected, the only remedy is a visit to ease the symptoms…. until the next outbreak. I know this from having gone from a small-town boy in Brazil to whom Paris was as out-of-reach as the moon, to something even more improbable: an adult who once ran its Marathon one perfect April morning and has walked its streets in every weather and every season of the year and heart. Once is not enough. Or even my dozen times.
In the film “The September Issue”, a documentary about the assembly of the September 2007 issue of Vogue Magazine, there is a segment in which a senior editor, a former model herself, is followed around Paris scouting locations for a photo-shoot. As the chauffeured car meanders the streets, the camera never leaves her face. We note – in her half-smile, a curtailed sentence, a tear squinted back – not the memories themselves, but their revelatory bubbles, hints of her private Paris. It made me realize how mine – and likely your – experience of Paris is as a palimpsest: a papyrus written, scraped and written over, yet with all layers still showing: the new wreathed through with the old, faded and distinct at the same time.
Its first appearance in our consciousness, like the first raindrops, presages differently for each of us. For some, Paris will be barely noticeable, the few drops – a photo here, a news item there – brushed off easily. For a minority, it means getting out the umbrella of unimagination to defend against the torrent to come, for Paris is pervasive, unavoidable.
But for the majority …. for the majority that first picture book about the adventures of a little Parisian girl (or an overheard story, or perhaps a souvenir snow-globe or miniature Eiffel Tower from a returning visitor) will be the beginning of something marvelous. Over the years, as the occurrences increase in number and variety, the bits and pieces – from the iconic to the obscure, added deliberately or by chance – shape that layer’s complexity and topography. We note the reverence, the wistful tone, the knowing look of a shared secret in the eyes of those who have experienced it. It’s a Paris where history and fiction mix and stroll together, where little Madeline dances Gershwin with Gene Kelly, Curious George climbs La Tour Eiffel, The Three Musketeers charge the barricades, and Napoleon applauds Piaf singing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien
Yet it all makes sense and feels natural.
Paris, then, becomes a state of mind, both a bank vault for real and theater of false memories populated by Hemingway descriptions, Cartier-Bresson photographs, scenes from Hitchcock and French New Cinema, Josephine Baker’s dancing, and with Jacques Briel and Maurice Chevalier to set the mood.
That Paris is what we carry, heavy with hope yet lighter than a dream, until we step off the train, plane, bus or car that finally delivers us there for the first time, jet-lagged or rested, cranky or cranked-up. And create our own private Paris with that first step, a Paris that we will always have as we begin that beautiful friendship.
The impetus for the above, which I began in late in 2011, was a yearning, an itch to be in Paris again. I scratched that itch over Memorial Day weekend (and checked off The French Open from my bucket list). Last night, I was able to finish the piece.