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Will We Always Have Paris?

Longing, we say, because desire is full of endless distances.
—Robert Hass, “Meditation at Lagunitas”

I have always been committed to not romanticizing Paris, since that seems about the easiest and most obvious thing to do with a city so beautiful. Enough people have already been captivated by its charm, ensnared by its history, smitten by its style.

And by and large not romanticizing Paris has been easy for me. The first time I was there I was assaulted on the Metro. The second time I was in the midst of a failing marriage. There was no hand-in-hand-on-the-Pont-Neuf stuff for me.

So I’m happy to report that that I have returned home from Paris once again without having romanticized it at all. I think.

I keep reminding myself that anyplace gets tiresome after a while. There are earwigs in Paris, too. And nasty political campaigns. And shopping malls. And bad weather.

I keep reminding myself that Paris would probably get on my nerves after the thrill is gone. And I’m working on trying to believe that.

I’m certain I would eventually tire of walking past patisseries with glazed-fruit delices that sparkle like jewels in candlelight. And wouldn’t the street markets with their perfect melons and mirabelles and olives and herbs, and those small white eggplants as smooth as peau de soie become monotonous after a while?

And what about those quiet, narrow streets branching off from noisy boulevards—wouldn’t I weary of becoming lost among the shops and galleries and cafes? Or wouldn’t I finally decide I wanted a truly large cup of coffee instead of the mid-sized tea cups that pass for grand in a grand crème?

Well, maybe not.

After all, I lived in New York and Boston and I never got sick of those cities. And they don’t even speak French there.

I went to Paris this summer by a circuitous route. I’d gone to Scotland to live for a week at the abbey on Iona. The abbey supports a peace- and justice-oriented community on the beautifully remote island off of Scotland’s west coast.

It was wonderful to live for a week with people who shared the same general views of religion and politics that I hold. It was refreshing to be in a place where I did not have to worry that political dissent would be perceived as unpatriotic, a place where progressive theology was neither viewed as bankrupt by the religious right nor largely discredited by the liberal left.

It was good to be in a remote place, far from everyone, surrounded by sea water, buffeted by wind. It was good to hike till my legs were sore, to consider cows and sheep and snails dragging along their elaborate shells. It was good to take a walk along the seashore all alone in the warm rain.

I wasn’t sure Paris was going to be such a good follow-up to all that. But our program leader kept telling our group that what we took away with us from Iona was even more significant than what we were experiencing there.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised that as soon as our plane took off from Glasgow International Airport I realized one of the things I was taking away with me from Iona was the desire to go to Paris. Our pitstop in London only heightened my desire. What is with the Brits, anyway, driving on the wrong side of the street and refusing the Euro?

By the time the train came out of the Channel tunnel, I knew I was at serious risk of falling in love all over again with France.

So fantasies become inevitable. I’m not the first person to dream of wading right into some version of a life in France. Think of all the famous people who did it: Edith Wharton, Man Ray, Hemingway, Sidney Bechet, ee cummings. There must be a host of nobodies who decided an extended stay in France made sense for their souls.

But how serious am I? I can’t possibly be very serious. I live in a high-ranked suburban school district so my daughters can get decent educations. I’m a Lutheran pastor at a congregation full of warm and smart people. (There’s a lot of good coffee in France, which you’d think might draw them, but there aren’t any Lutherans there.) My sisters live here, my friends live here. I’m rooted.

Nevertheless, if I’m not serious, why have the fantasy at all? What good is it to have a desire that seems next to impossible to fulfill? I’ve always had this theory that fantasies are only worth having if they are within the realm of the possible. Desire shouldn’t have disappointment as its constant, silent shadow creeping up from behind.

And so it’s better that I should have a fantasy about a good sale on cashmere sweaters or a bumper crop of basil or a string of sunny days than to want to scoot off to Paris like some living cliché.

Only, some stubborn, dreamy-child part of me wants to believe that desire doesn’t have to have such a short reach. Some stubborn, dreamy-child part of me wants to believe that longed-for things sometimes happen and turn out to just the way you had hoped they would.

This strikes me as a dangerous frame of mind to entertain too seriously. It certainly doesn’t keep me focused on the tasks at hand—which are to write this column, do some laundry, go to a committee meeting. The task at hand is not to try to decode French classified ad abbreviations for apartments in Paris.

In lieu of a café crème I think I’ll hie myself off to the Dunkin’ Donuts and get a cup of decaf, light. And maybe I’ll stop off at Loew’s to pick out a replacement garbage disposal for the one that broke a few months ago. I’ll turn to the weather band on my car radio to see what the next few days will bring.

And at least for now I will try to forget that somewhere in Paris, in some outlying arrondissement, there is an apartment that is vacant, waiting to be filled.

—Jo Page

You can contact Jo Page at jopage@graceniska.org


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