Five thoughts on Paris
I had the good fortune of spending this past week in Paris, where I was the featured speaker at a Global Leadership conference. For reasons I can only humbly appreciate, I was provided an all-expenses-paid opportunity (plus speaker fee) to visit this lovely city, in exchange for ninety minutes of highly pleasurable work. I can’t be sure if it’s an anomaly of beginner’s luck or the start of a trend, so I’m taking it for all that it’s worth, and for only what it is worth.
And it’s worth a lot. I’ve been to Paris maybe a half-dozen times in my life, once when I was twenty-eight and riding a touring bicycle, once on my whirlwind honeymoon with Eve, once in a sad and painful phase in the life of my son, and the others all in the context of business travel. This visit has been different: all the resources to live and dine as well as any affluent American businessman, but without the burden of carrying a corporate bag. Instead, I’ve been blessed to wander as freely and unencumbered as that young, open version of myself, and with legs and heart still strong and curious.
I’ve been here for five full days, and only one of them was dedicated to work. And, as noted, that work was fully enriching. Otherwise, the time has been mine. This has given me something I’ve not had in more than three decades: extended days alone, with no schedule, and the freedom to do only what I like, as circumstances invite, in an astonishing place. And so, despite my earlier visits, it’s all felt quite new.
Mostly, I have walked, eaten, and slept.
Good Lord, what a pleasure.
Who gets to do this anymore?
I’ve visited some of the great landmarks, of course: The Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Picasso museum, the Hôtel de Ville. I spent a creepy hour walking the underground catacombs of the city, which store the bony remains of some six million long-deceased Parisians, human skulls used as hallway decorations. I’ve walked more than forty miles, from one astonishing treasure to the next, passing lovely little cafes and shops, corner scenes out of romance novels, churches and towers that make you want to weep in the presence of their beauty. At the National Archives, I stumbled into a perfectly manicured French garden, replete with a pond, flowers, ducks, and songbirds. No tourists. Serenity. And sunshine. April in Paris. Worthy of the songs.
I’ve done some epic sleeping – three nights of more than nine hours each of pure, deep, dreamless slumber. For two nights, I stayed in a marvelous boutique hotel in the Marais district. The room was tiny; the bed exquisite. On Friday morning, I woke up without so much as glancing at the clock. I opened the French doors overlooking a lovely interior courtyard and fountain, and I did something I never do: I drew a hot bath and just soaked. I pulled my head beneath the water and I had a moment of pure, absolute happiness. Not a single note off: no pain, no worry, no one waiting for me to deliver or perform. Finally, I washed and dressed, and I went down to the lobby to ask for a recommendation for breakfast. The young woman at the desk was named Marie, of course. She was so completely beautiful, so perfect a picture of French femininity, that I had to write down the name of the café to have any hope of remembering it. And of course, the café was spectacular.
So. Here are few thoughts.
Thought one: The French ought to be our role models for how to live life. They have it all over Americans, in so many of the ways that I, in my advanced years, have come to value more and more. They seem to live for good food, sex, and beauty. They work hard when they work, but they don’t work obsessively. Or eat obsessively. They’re not fat and disgusting. And though they pay obscene taxes, they also enjoy an enviable quality of life: free health care, good education, public art, nice benches. They do not rush. In nearly one full week, I did not see one single laptop open in a café or coffee shop. Not one. They talk to each other. Look into each other’s eyes. In Paris, the heart of the city is spotless relative to, say, Seattle, with virtually no litter or graffiti. And the smells invite you rather than repulse you. For sure, poverty, racism, and other modern ills exist. Somehow, though, they’re just more tolerable here.
Thought two: The French don’t place a lot of stock in war, or they haven’t at least since Napoleon, near as I can tell. It appears that World War I sapped whatever lingering interest they may have had. Yes, they were poodles for the Germans in World War II. Our dads saved their asses, no doubt. As did the Brits. But at least they didn’t reduce their treasures to dust. And we all get to come and enjoy what they’ve taken such nice care of.
Thought three: French people drive French cars. Seriously, where in the world do you even see Renaults, Citroens, or Peugeots anymore? I’ll tell you where: Paris. Literally two-thirds of all vehicles I’ve seen have been French. Plenty of German cars. Smattering of Toyotas and Fords. One Saab. Zero General Motors products. Zero! Near as I can tell, the French buy French cars out of a sense of national obligation – i.e., because they are French. Unlike, you know, Americans. But we have Freedom Fries!
Thought four: The French are unfairly lovely people. Their faces, their clothes, their bodies, the way they move – all combine to make them irresistible. Even their language sings beauty. French women of all ages seem to be steeped in some strange spell of sensuality. They way they carry themselves, their expressions, their clothes. The men aren’t far behind. I’m not gay, but I saw a bunch of guys who made me think that being bisexual in Paris could potentially be a life-threatening condition. Notably, however, the French are not flirts, not in public at least. It’s not to say that they’re cold. They just keep their passions close to the vest, like the perfect handbag that you only see when they want you to see it. In this sense, they are the polar opposites of Californians: they are beautiful, but the beauty is real, not plastic, and their attentions are reserved for occasions of sincerity, not to be pimped out or prostituted.
Thought five: French croissants are perfect, and absolutely cannot be reproduced. The reasons for this might be one of those things we’ll finally get to know in heaven.
One might ask: where is my wife? It’s a fair and good question. Indeed, it’s one I’ve asked myself at least a hundred times a day. Fact is, she wasn’t able to make it, because she had a prior commitment to visit her family in upstate New York just a few days after my Paris adventure is set to end. We’re both thinking that we might have made a mistake, that it would have been worth it for her to have come with me this time, and just buck up and deal with the family despite the stress of so much travel.
It’s uniquely wonderful to be alone – a free man in Paris, unfettered and alive, as it were. But I have barely been able to stand not having Eve with me. I walk the streets and wonder what we’d say, as one astonishing moment follows another. I miss her face and her adventurousness and the sound of her laughter. I miss seeing what she would find to be lovely and irresistible. And of course, I know that there is much that she is missing, as well. The times we might have had together can only linger in our imaginations, like dreams we’re not sure we had. For me, I’ve had adventure enough. And Eve? Well, she’ll always have Syracuse.