Seeing Paris

Needing a change from the relentless California sun, I decided to go to Paris. Fortunately, it was only 45 minutes away, so not a long drive and no suitcase necessary. Paris was in a theater—it’s a movie.

There was a time–actually, most of my life–that I could not imagine spending a sunny afternoon in a movie theater–sacrilegious, if not immoral, to my native northern brain where even the least amount of sunshine is worshipped–never ignored. Finally, after years in the South, and now several in California, I have at last recovered from the entrenched fear that the sun will never shine again if I don’t take advantage of every moment of its every appearance.

Now I’ve decided I need gray more than more sun, and I’m not getting enough of it in California. Therefore, the necessity of going to Paris a couple of weeks ago, and, Paris did not disappoint. There was gray, dark, and even snow–didn’t need to have had things go that far, but at least the snow didn’t last long. Not only was it soothing to sit in the dark theater watching more darkness unfold on the screen, while the sun blazed on outside, but it was fun to be reminded of my past life in France–the five years I spent there, even though I was mostly not in Paris itself.

Some things are just French, regardless of where you are in that country–like the colorful produce markets, the boulangeries full of baguettes and croissants, and the people–French in a way that’s hard to explain if you haven’t been there to see for yourself. And that’s what’s great about the majority of French movies–they give you generous slices of everyday life–French life, and in the case of Paris, the movie, about 24 slices of 24 lives, more or less. Unlike American movies that love to show things being bombed, blown up, or crashing into each other, French movies love to show the ordinary, everyday details of lives that relate so well to your own. French movies can be such a relief from all that non-stop American hyped-up action.

For me, to see Juliette Binoche looking like the average, believe it or not, French market shopper, dealing with the so familiar and often gregarious market vendor personalities, salesmen to the core, that I came to consider as part of the wallpaper of my French life, was like stepping back into the very ordinariness of my French past.

For three of those five French years, I lived on a street that hosted a 6-day a week produce market right outside my front door. All I had to do was step outside to find the most gloriously artful arrays of shapes and colors in the forms of fruits and vegetables, which often sent me running back inside to retrieve my camera in order to attempt capturing some of the perfection for posterity. The French all thought I was beyond odd–taking all those pictures of all that common stuff-lemons, lettuce, tomatoes, turnips, grapes, peaches, apples, bread, cheese, oranges, and olives. But after all, I was American, and so, such odd behavior was to be expected, excused, and humored. Under certain circumstances, the French can be quite tolerant. Paris was full of market scenes.

When I came back after my five years in France, so many Americans would ask me “Did you just love it?”, and of course expected me to go on and on, rapturously gushing about the beauty and the romance and all those things Americans think all things French are, until, perhaps, they actually find themselves living in France indefinitely, and not just on a prolonged vacation with a predetermined end.

So, no, the maybe surprising answer to those who have never embarked on a long-term foreign living experience, I didn’t “just love it,” at least not all of the time. I lived it. So, sometimes I loved it, sometimes I hated it, sometimes I was delighted with it, and at others annoyed by it, and sometimes it was simply OK. Just like Paris, the movie.

One thing the French are not shy about is showing the graphic realities of life in their movies or in real life. They are particularly not shy about the realities of bodily functions, or the real facts about where our food comes from. Still strongly influenced by my squeamish American/Puritanical roots, I could have done without Paris’s extended vomiting scene (wouldn’t have just a few sound effects accomplished what they needed?), and definitely would have been much happier had I not been overexposed to the horrors of a cavernous meat locker over stuffed with bloody animal carcasses hanging and dripping as if they were props on a Dracula set. (Maybe that scene will convince more people to consider vegetarianism as a lifestyle, however, so maybe there was a justifiable reason for showing the sad remains of the awful massacre.) When I lived in France, I learned very quickly not to go to the fresh meat part of the market–ghoulish is one word to describe what that part of the markets was like with all those poor animals stripped of their skins and hanging pathetically by their necks. The rabbits looked horrifyingly like cats, and it was already bad enough knowing that they were rabbits. I just couldn’t go there.

But on a brighter note, was the everyday delight, joie de vivre, and savoir faire that I encountered so many times in each day, if I took the time to notice it. The cafés and their patrons spilled out onto the sidewalks as if no one had a better or more important thing to do than sit there and drink coffee and have intense conversations…or maybe than just to sit there and watch the world go by. The outlandish displays of chocolates and pastries in the patisseries, which seemed to be every other shop on a given street, were enough to think you’d died and woken up in a real life Candyland–one where no one was fat. The fountains and statues mixed in with the more practical aspects of city life were constant reminders of the centuries upon centuries of life that had passed before, but were still remembered.

The aesthetics of the place alone would take your breath away–of course, you had to be in the right places for that to happen, because like everywhere else, France has plenty of not-at-all aesthetically pleasing sights too–stark public housing that makes you think you have suddenly been transported to a third world Communist country, industrial complexes made up of buildings of utilitarian and very ugly corrugated metal, suburbs with more look-alike houses than Wantaugh, Long Island, and the all-pervasive dog poop that’s pretty much everywhere. Happily, and aside from those meat locker scenes, Paris, the movie, did not show too many others of those unaesthetic places, but instead played to the tourist in us and let us glimpse the glories of Paris, the city.

When I left Paris, it was dark in California–and that felt right and kept the mood the movie had created. I had glimpsed my past, seen some gray skies, felt warm and cozy, if only vicariously, and was made to feel that it really was fall–so, it was Paris that came to my rescue from the relentless California sun. A trip well taken.

Internet Explorer 6 or older browser detected. This website is functional only in Firefox, Safari, Internet Explorer 7+ and other internet standards compliant browsers. Please visit this site using a current browser.