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Notes from Paris

posted at 12:01 pm
on Aug. 10, 2003

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I’ve been telling people that the apartment in Paris we rented was in a culturally diverse, lively area with plenty of people out and about and a great variety of ethnic shops and restaurants.  I’d even convinced myself of that description, but on the way home from the bakery today, I passed a short, burly guy standing behind a stack of cardboard boxes playing Three Card Monty with some possibly drunk victims, while his sidekick eyed me and my camera warily.

OK, fine. It’s not diverse, it’s just plain sketchy.  There, I said it.  But it is a lovely street.  Today, we purchased dinner at, variously, a Polish food store, a French fromagerie, a fresh fruit market, a wine shop, a supermarket and a bakery.  We ended up eating 4 courses involving 11 kinds of cheese—and we skipped parmesan on the ravioli for fear it would be overkill.

Dinner was a quiet occasion for our friends Thomasin and Mike.  Mike is a perplexing Brit who at first never seems to be joking, but once you get to know him, you realize that there’s never a time when he’s not joking.  He told us a story about the time he was with his wife, Thomasin, who was in the hospital in labor.  She was hooked up to a contraction-detecting machine, which could detect the arrival and magnitude of a contraction just before Thomasin would experience it.  He said he had a very hard time keeping himself from impishly declaring, “Ooh, honey… better get ready for this one,” or “Well, what do we have here…” Luckily for their continued relationship, he refrained.

Thomasin is American, and though she has lived abroad for at least five years, she’s not at all European-ized, though she does sometimes show her overseas-ness when I reference a recent pop culture event or geographically U.S. reference into conversation.

But unlike those folks who move to Europe and “go to ground,” who may have left for Europe in order to refute American culture, Thomasin is in Europe because she really likes this European guy that she married, and because Paris has many things that make it the most wonderful place on Earth.  As Susie and I are rediscovering.

It’s a little, no, it’s wrenchingly depressing to write, to enjoy writing, to find something really interesting to write about, and then to discover that there are hundreds of people who have already written exactly the same thing about the same place, and some of those people are Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, Henry James, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens.  Trying to write observations about Paris is like trying to write about UFOs, murders and spooky goings-on in Bangor, Maine, or writing a gritty detective story set in New York.  Like, it’s, uh, been done.  But at the same time, it’s useless to resist.

The city cries out to be described, in the way a wedding cries out to be photographed, a baby cries out to be held, a mountain cries out to be climbed.  To go to Paris is to talk about Paris, before, during and after your visit, sharing secrets with other Pariphiles, sighing and shrugging when asked what your favorite part was—What kind of a question is that? That’s like, What’s your favorite part of Susie, Travis?—eating a ham sandwich at your desk and thinking about the warm baguette you were handed at the bakery, the one you brought home, split open, spread with yellow, silky, “ultra-superior” butter and marbled, pink, textured “best cut” ham. How can you resist describing what Plato himself would have agreed was the ideal lunch, the proto-ham sandwich? It can’t be helped. And if the famous Oscar Wilde already wrote about Paris, well, we’re fortunate he had such good material to work with.  Would Oscar Wilde writing about Spokane have the same resonance?

There are two kinds of humor writers.  There’s the kind of writer I am not, and here I am thinking of Dave Barry, who can write about anything, and it becomes hilarious.  If Dave Barry wrote a book about The Disposal of Industrial Solids, it would sell a million copies and I would end up reading bits of it out loud to Susie while she was trying to do her email.

The other type of humor writer doesn’t have that Olympic-caliber ability, so he puts himself in funny situations, and then describes it, documentary-style.  The advantage of being this type of writer is that, if the writing isn’t funny enough, you can just call it a descriptive essay and still get paid.

The disadvantage of being this type of writer, is that it’s difficult, wearying and occasionally hazardous to find funny situations, situations of the type where you start by saying “Well, we’ll laugh about this later…” and end with something like “...once it thaws completely,” “...at the inquest,” or “...I’m sure of it, Susie.”

Did I ever tell you about the time Susie and I went shopping for an engagement ring?

Overheard

“The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil.”

...who said it?

“Almost every American I know does trade large portions of his life for entertainment, hour by weeknight hour, binge by Saturday binge, Facebook check by Facebook check. I’m one of them. In the course of writing this I’ve watched all 13 episodes of House of Cards and who knows how many more West Wing episodes, and I’ve spent any number of blurred hours falling down internet rabbit holes. All instead of reading, or writing, or working, or spending real time with people I love.”

...who said it?

“Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.”

...who said it?

“I play with variables constantly.”

...who said it?

“Only the person who has learned Continual Love coming from a heart of Gratitude/Worship can effectively deal with the problem of loneliness.”

...who said it?

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