Waving a Flag of Surrender to Paris
I HAVE made my peace with Paris.
Yes, we were at war, the City of Lights and I, although I declared it and Paris never knew.
I gave many reasons for the hostilities, all sound enough, yet all suspect, since my family was witness to the fact that our three years living there were happy for all of us. And my perceptive husband, who is aware of my tendency to romanticize, told me, "You know, if you keep saying you don't like Paris, you'll begin to believe it."
The war began because I was too old when we moved to Paris. And the children were too young. And the house was too big and too far out in the French suburbs.
"I should be 20, not 40," I mourned, as I packed for a corporate transfer from Barcelona that winter in 1974. "And we should be moving into a garret on the Left Bank where I can write the great American novel!" I finished in a swamp of self-pity.
Filled with literary images of Paris and unfulfilled in my own artistic aspirations, I couldn't reconcile myself to a life in the suburbs, just out of reach of the city of my dreams. For 3 1/2 years I played Tantalus, and Paris was my tormentor.
I wore sweat suits to clean our six-bedroom house, while American friends living in the fashionable 16th arrondissement dressed in their Paris chic and left the care of their high-ceilinged old apartments to their maids. Our house was so new that it lacked light fixtures, curtains, and even some doorknobs. Theirs had the vintage clutter of a Mary Cassatt painting. While I learned the French words for things like hammer and screwdriver so I could hang pictures, they were looking at pictures - already hung
- in the Louvre.
As I ruined my fingernails carving flower beds out of the rich soil in our new backyard, I thought about the fragrant blooms in the flower market on the Ile de la Cite. When my neighbor's elderly mother came to live with her and announced sadly that she was a Parisienne and had never lived in the country before, I understood. I, too, am city born and bred, and - oh, it was painful to know the great city of Paris was so near, yet so far.
There were soft, golden days when the air was sweet with the smell of lilacs from the overgrown bushes on our wall, and our new kittens jumped at each other from behind the iris. Beyond the border of our garden, the Seine ran dark and sure toward Paris. That's where I wanted to be: sitting on the Quai d'Orsay, watching the boats, gazing at the Tour Eiffel - reading Voltaire, not grade-school homework.
As I typed furiously to meet deadlines for local school and women's club newsletters, the fury was both speed and anger: 20 years and 20 miles different, and I would have been penning memorable despatches from Paris for the wire services.
Waiting at the nearby lake for a school bus to unload our two young sons, I compared our rustic lac with its wild swans to the civilized elegance of the Tuilleries. Did nursemaids take their small charges to the bakery for fancy pastry after school? Well, homemade brownies had to suffice for mine.
The school bus was always the punctuation mark that ended my rare escape into the city. It was my most complicated math exercise, counting backward from the bus arrival to determine how much time I could spend in Paris before racing to the train that would get me home in time to meet my children.
Once we were invited to attend a benefit evening at the Paris Opera. Instead of taking a short taxi ride to the performance as our hosts did, we took the commuter train in order to save an hour or more of driving (and babysitting time). His tuxedo and my long gown seemed bizarre dress for a train even in the land of the Orient Express. And on the way home, as we donned rubbers and rain gear for the dash to our car, I thought wistfully of the rainy nights in French movies that sparkled with more than wate r.
WHAT brought my war with Paris to an end?
It was, after all, love. Not love for Paris, but our now-grown son's love for a Parisienne. When he announced that the wedding would be in Paris in June, we decided that the whole family would go and spend a week there to get acquainted with her family and celebrate the nuptials.
Selfishly, I worked with French language tapes so I wouldn't embarrass myself in social conversations. (What did I care for embarrassing the French?) Hedonistically, I shopped Madison Avenue in New York for the most elegant dress and custom millinery for the wedding. (The French always look superbly turned out.) Energetically, I dieted. (All Parisiennes look like a size 4, and of course we would be feasting for a week.)
We rented two furnished apartments for our extended family, which included our other son with his German wife and our niece with her three-year-old daughter. On the first morning, foggy from an overnight flight and unable to occupy the apartments until afternoon, we gathered at a sidewalk brasserie to drink cafe au lait and eat baguettes spread with pale, unsalted butter. Under the influence of the best coffee and bread I had eaten in a decade, I became blissfully aware that something had changed - and i t was not Paris.
In the bright morning sunshine, a ginger cat watched a man in smock and espadrilles sweep the sidewalk in front of his shop. A group of mothers and children chattered by on their way to the maternelle, nursery school. A little uniformed band marched up to the island at the intersection, laid a wreath, played a tune, and marched away again. No, Paris had not changed.
Clustered around us, our grown-up children conversed easily in both French and English, and our niece took charge of the only child. Fifteen years earlier they were all too young to go on the metro alone when we lived here; now they were world citizens, comfortable and capable on both sides of the Atlantic. Had the timing of our residence in France really been wrong? What better time and place could we have chosen for those critical child-rearing years than Paris in the 1970s?
And, reluctantly, I had to admit that the timing, while unexpected, had been right for me, too.
In those years of much cooking and entertaining at home, where else would I rather have been than France, where food is a fine art? Yes, I had to rush back from Paris after every cooking class to meet the school bus, but on the way I allowed time for a stop at the market to buy the fresh ingredients needed to duplicate what I had just learned to make. And where else could I have explored home decorating and gardening more creatively than in our rented house in the old ville that was fast becoming a subur b? Our warm-hearted French neighbors thought any failed experiment in the house or flower beds was some exotic American touch, anyway!
AS we ordered more coffee, I thought about my literary aspirations, and the frustrations of those years in France when I was donating my writing to newsletters and brochures for American organizations in Paris. Could I blame it on Paris? Get real, as the young people might have said. I would have been doing the same kind of volunteering no matter where we had lived. Besides, I thought with a small smile of triumph, my first book contract, freshly signed, was waiting for me back home.
Later that week, after the newlyweds had flown to Morocco for their honeymoon, the rest of us ate dinner outdoors under the awning of our favorite Paris restaurant. The midsummer sun lingered in the sky until after 10 p.m. The air was still and warm. After dinner we, too, lingered - over the dessert - and in that timeless Paris moment I unfurled my flag of surrender.
Under a nearby street lamp, a middle-aged couple held a long embrace, unaware of my gaze. I might have been too old and burdened at 40 to love this city, but now I was just the right age. My war was over.