19 July 2007

Parisian Postcards and Summer Souvenirs

She knows something you don't know.

Summer has arrived at last in Paris: temperatures over the weekend cleared 30 degrees, and it is now possible to wear shorts and a T-shirt without shivering. I’m a summer baby — my birthday was Tuesday — and I miss the heat and its evocations of youth and freedom. But the season is not without its risks and irritations. Yesterday on the Métro I saw a couple of tourists who were glowing like a Spencer Gifts poster under black-light; they’d attained a vivid shade of pink somewhere between that found in French toilet paper and that found in a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. An object lesson on the hazards of staying too long in the sun. My birthday generally coincides with the release of pollen from every acacia tree in Paris, and this year is no exception: every few hours I have an allergy attack.

The greatest irritation, though, is the tourists, and despite the weak dollar Paris is packed with hordes of shrieking American teenagers. Clogging the museums. Blocking the streets and subways. Buying idiotic trinkets. Eating at McDonald’s.

I used to be one of them. Thirty years ago I saw Paris for the first time, and I did all the things that these kids do today. But Paris began to work her magic on me, and soon I would be transformed, forevermore.

I came to Europe with my high-school French teacher, Carlene Klein, who’d enlisted me and five other pupils for a five-week study program. Joined by about a hundred kids from other parts of the United States, we set off first for Rome, then flew to Madrid, then drove to Saint-Jean-de-Luz for two weeks. After a weekend bus ride through the Loire Valley and its châteaux (which, miraculously, are still standing despite our visit), we arrived in the capital.

As a Texan I had studied French with only a dimly hopeful notion that anyone else spoke the language: I had to take it on faith that, if I said something in French, somebody else might answer. If a young Texan wants to communicate with other people, he studies Spanish. But I was an oddball. I didn’t want to talk to other people. I wanted to be special, different, and I now suspect that I sought out ways to set myself even further apart.

Suddenly I found myself in a country where speaking French was normal, where that language actually connected me to other people, and to a culture that I found glamorous and irresistible. I was so impressed by the great cathedrals that I wanted to be a part of the tradition that built them; at Chartres I genuflected and crossed myself and pretended to be a Catholic.

That was hardly the most extreme of my sentimental reactions to the French culture. At the Louvre, when I saw the Mona Lisa for the first time, I started to cry. Leonardo was already one of my great heroes, and seeing his most famous painting was, I realized, an achievement, one I couldn’t take for granted. There’s a story that when the French novelist Stendhal saw the Mona Lisa, he fainted, and ever since the “Stendhal Syndrome” has described an excessive emotional response to art: I didn’t know this, yet I experienced it. There she was. Not a dream, not a picture in a book, not a print or a copy, but the real lady herself. Our eyes met. I cried.

Nothing can prepare you, nobody can warn you of her quiet dignity. Her delicacy is revealed in striking contrast to the tourists who flock to her, babbling, laughing, taking flash pictures despite the signs telling them not to, and despite the presence of the hapless security guard who stands by, doing nothing at all. In those days the painting hung in the middle of a long wall, and it was difficult to get close to her; other paintings, including several by Leonardo, hung adjacent to her, but few people noticed them.

They come for the Mona Lisa, not because it is a good painting but because it is a famous painting. They will tell the neighbors they saw it, because they were supposed to see it, because they haven’t really been to Paris if they haven’t seen it. They won’t understand it, and you hear them exclaim: “It’s so small! It’s kinda dark! You can’t see anything because of the glass! What’s the big deal?” They will debate whether her eyes follow you around the room. They will make jokes about her eyebrows and her smile. They will — unconsciously — make it difficult for you to see the picture or to have any kind of dialogue with it. And then they will hurry off to see the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower next, because they are supposed to see them, too.

Already, at the tender age of 16, I began to understand that I didn’t want to be one of these awful tourists. Once again, I wanted to set myself apart, yet now I also wanted to bring myself closer to people who weren't like these tourists — namely the French themselves. Studying French would be less a means to isolate me than a means to usher me into another kind of life. A seed was planted, to bear flowers and fruit for many years to come.

That isn’t to say that I was transformed immediately. During that week in 1977, I did everything the awful American tourists always do.

My birthday was a Sunday, and although I was running a low-grade fever, I didn’t want to miss a thing. We went to high mass at Notre Dame. We went to the Hôtel des Invalides to contemplate Napoleon’s tomb. We went to the Arc de Triomphe, and we strolled the Champs-Elysées, where we ate.

It was the first and last time I ate at McDonald’s in this country. Although my refusal to return to the Golden Arches has become a principled stand, the meal gave me no reason to come back. Thirty years ago, the French still had a lot to learn about making hamburgers, even in an American chain store, and I realized that they’d cooked the lettuce with the meat. It took a lot of ketchup to make it go down. We recovered by going for ice cream at the Renault store, where you used to be able to sit in vintage cars while consuming your dessert.

The next night, a few of us who were opera buffs went to the Palais Garnier (there was no Bastille Opera in those days), where Rossini’s Cenerentola was playing. I was disappointed that we wouldn’t hear Frederica von Stade, whose reputation in the leading role was already so widespread that, a mere two years into my opera obsession, I’d heard of her. Instead, we heard somebody called Teresa Berganza.

I’d never heard of her. I wish I could tell you that my taste was so refined that I appreciated her, but it isn’t so. The great Spanish mezzo sang her heart out, and I thought she was pretty good, but I don’t recall any specifics of her performance. We had partial-view seats in the nosebleed balcony, up in the rafters, and the only thing that made much of an impression on me was the Montgolfier balloon in which Cinderella’s fairy godfather made his entrances and exits.

The next night was more memorable, though I can't defend that on aesthetic grounds. One of the teachers from a school somewhere in the Midwest volunteered to take a group of us to the Moulin Rouge. The venerable cabaret is one of the worst tourist traps in Paris, and it has maintained its racy reputation by evolving from bloomer-flashing to breast-baring. Though the girls still dance at least one can-can, in period dress, in every performance, now they spend most of the show in pasties and G-strings and ostrich plumes, parading Las Vegas-style. Particularly for a teenager from the sheltered suburbs of the Bible Belt, this was provocative.

The Temple of Vice

The teacher who guided us was a Roman Catholic priest, so it was presumed that our morals wouldn’t be corrupted that evening. Yes, in those simpler times, it used to be considered safe to hand over a bunch of horny teenagers to a priest in a red-light district. And so he led us through the wilds of Pigalle, past sex shops and strip bars and brothels. On the sidewalk I overheard a prostitute haggling with two johns over the price of her favors: they said 15 Francs and she said 17. At the time, this was the difference between $3 and $3.50, and even though I was naïf, I couldn’t imagine what services she could perform (for two customers) that would be worth so little money.

Outside a strip club, a barker was crying, “Venez, venez! Fucky business!” That struck me as funny, even though I was already aware of Universal English, that limited vocabulary understood by every person on the planet, and that this vocabulary begins with “Coca-Cola” and “okay” and proceeds to “dollar” and “rock and roll” before terminating at “fuck” and “shit.”

Yet Pigalle was terrifying. I wasn’t merely naïf, I was a virgin — about everything. Pigalle was dark and seedy and completely overflowing with sex, a process that was entirely mysterious and scary and weirdly compelling. Later I’d realize that Pigalle is to sex what McDonald’s is to food: it’s cheap and it’s fast and it’s got a lot to do with buns, but it’s not like having a real meal. But at the time I didn’t know anything.

I’d just passed up an opportunity to lose my virginity, in Saint-Jean-de-Luz. A couple of the guys from the Northeast, older and thoroughly indoctrinated in the mores of the 1970s, had met some local girls and were taking full advantage. They’d go out to bars, then go back to one of the girl’s apartment and have sex. Just like grownups. My virginity was obvious to everybody, and apparently I wasn’t the only one eager to see me lose it. A guy from New York handed me one of his designer condoms, some special material in a blue-plastic case that looked like a horse tranquilizer. He invited to come along one night.

But I choked. Falling back on the oldest, lamest excuse in the world, I whined, “I’m saving myself for my girlfriend.”

At the time, I hadn’t even told my girlfriend I was in love with her, that I’d been in love with her for three solid years already, that I considered her a girlfriend at all. At best, this was purely theoretical; at worst, it was cowardice. And the worst was the case.

But the New Yorker nodded and said, “I respect that.”

Even at the time, I thought, “Why?” I didn’t respect it, and I’m the one who said it.

Merely a week later, Pigalle was a nightmare carnival, and it was a relief to step into the safe haven of the Moulin Rouge. What could be threatening about the Moulin Rouge? My mother played the theme song from the John Huston movie on the piano! “Whenever we kiss, I worry and wonder / Your lips may be near, but darling where is your heart?” I don’t think I understood that the dancers wouldn’t be dressed like Jane Avril in the old Toulouse-Lautrec posters.

The theme of the show that year was “Toutes les Couleurs du Brésil,” and the star was Lisette Malidor, a statuesque black woman with a shaved head and no clothing. Ever since Josephine Baker, the Parisians have liked to look at naked black ladies singing and dancing, and Mme Malidor enjoyed a long and distinguished career in Parisian revues. She’s from Martinique, not Brazil, but that didn’t seem to matter much to the Moulin Rouge crowd, and she sang persuasively about Brazil’s exotic pleasures. Whereas Baker wore a skirt made of bananas, Malidor sang about pineapples. Close enough. She was supported by an exuberant cast of scantily clad women and shirtless men, and a couple of girls who swam in a special tank.

Granted, not one of the women was completely naked. But the difference between a completely naked woman and a woman wearing pasties and a G-string isn’t much, no matter how many beads and feathers and sequins and strategically placed pineapples you add to the costume. I’d never seen a naked woman, and I’d never seen a black woman’s breast except in the pages of National Geographic.

We ordered a bottle of champagne for the table, and it was my first taste. It didn’t take much to get me buzzed in those days, and after a little while, the champagne began to feel really good, and the naked ladies seemed not intimidating but rather fun.

If this is what it means to get older, I thought, bring it on.

Now the wished-for oldness has been brought on, in increasingly large shipments of bulky packages over which I trip in the night. I am older, and I see women in advanced states of undress every time I forget which is the men's locker room at the gym, and I only vaguely recall what I am supposed to do with them anyway. I am seldom if ever mistaken for a tourist in Paris. I speak the French language, and people answer me. My apartment is down the street from the Moulin Rouge, and though the price of admission is too high to pay, I know where to get champagne whenever I please. I know what hours (and what months) are best to look at the Mona Lisa, the mezzos who sing at the Palais Garnier are my friends, and I know better than to play at being a Catholic.

But the magic of Paris still moves me the way it did 30 years ago, and in the heat of summer, I’m not so old after all.