There are people who feel compelled to leave the place where they were born and the culture in which they were raised and go to Paris, where they find themselves.
The mere act of going through the motions in another city, in another language, can be a distraction from the mundane. In Paris, every errand requires a new vocabulary, words one would never come across in Molière or Baudelaire: tournevis, crochet, marteau for a trip to the hardware store; tache, doublure, before heading off to the dry cleaner.
But the truth is, Paris also takes one’s mind off troubles in unforeseen ways. Everywhere, something urges you to pay attention: a taste, a smell, some subtle flourish that a person trudging through life might otherwise miss.
From a walk-up apartment half a block from the Seine, you might listen through open windows on a summer night to the chamber-music concerts across the street at the Musée de la Monnaie, with Mozart’s ripe harmonies carried upward on the dense, warm air. Going on midnight, the noise of the traffic might be interrupted by lurching, bleating oom-pah-pah renditions of popular standards as the Fanfare des Beaux-Arts, a marching band of students from the school of architecture, snaked its way through the narrow streets, its gusto fueled by wine.
Shopping for groceries, you might bring home fraises des bois, plump figs from Turkey, and yogurt made from goat’s milk. At the bakery on the corner, you might discover congolais—haystacks of pure, intense coconut or, if it is Christmastime, crystalline marrons glacés. In the Luxembourg Gardens, you might see children sailing their boats in the fountain or, in October, watch a parade of citrus trees in their jardinières, being taken to the Orangerie, where they will sit out the winter.
Many of us in North America share the middle-class values instilled in our parents by their parents: diligence, discipline, thrift, and a particularly Calvinist delight in the virtues of self-denial. Work is every upstanding person’s reason for being, and pleasure and leisure are the rewards for a job well done. From this austere outlook, we might conclude that the self is to be constantly policed and kept in check.
Spending time with the French allows us to loosen our iron grip. We envy their capacity for moderation, and realize for the first time that pleasure makes moderation possible. We begin to build little treats into the day: a walk along a street we love, 20 minutes with a book in the Tuileries on the way to an appointment; a late-night glass of Champagne at a café; Poilâne’s walnut bread for breakfast. Where we might consider flowers a reckless indulgence, except for Mother’s Day, in Paris, no vase ever goes empty.
The French know that pleasure is something to be discovered, there for the taking, and something to be cultivated. Its pursuit, as it turns out, is not a mindless slide into debauchery but a science, rigorous and exacting, discriminating between the merely good and the sublime. The thing about pleasure is that it immerses you in the moment. The present becomes more compelling than the future or the past. There is no better cure for heartache.
Having spent time there, could one ever be happy living anywhere else? That’s not the lesson.
Because in the course of learning to love the city and its inhabitants, one also learns to savour the texture of everyday life, in Paris or anywhere.
Adapted from Holly Bruback, Gourmet, September 2008
Image: Arnaud Frich, Montmartre