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They may be snobs, but Parisians know how to live


Paris, direct nonstop round-trip, for $288. I brought the news to my husband like a hopeful pup nudging a tennis ball. “I don’t have any more time off,” he reminded me, shrugging stoically and omitting the fact that, aside from Napoleon’s tomb and the Vincentians’ history, he has no interest whatsoever in visiting Paris.

I, on the other hand, firmly believe Gypsies switched me at birth and my true home is in France. So when he added, “But you should go,” I gave it only a half-beat, a mere token of conjugal budgetary hesitation, before I agreed.

Four blissful days later -- four days soaking in the street life, the flowers, the bistros’ good cheap wine and the museums’ priceless art -- I slumped exhausted on the Metro and started to think.

Thinking, I had found, was easy in Paris. For one thing, people did it. Routinely, without ado. And not only did they think, but they talked about what they had thought. To each other. Like in grad school, only more relaxed.

So I paid homage to Descartes all the way to the Censier-Daubenton stop, by thinking about thinking. About why the intellectual life was more valued in Paris than in St. Louis. About how reflection can either be cultivated or killed. About whether there are ways to say such things without sounding snobbish and effete.

In America, we look upon cerebral activity as a necessary evil -- something that lets us pass a test to get a promotion or manipulate the stock market or press a civil lawsuit. Speculative thought we reserve for university eggheads, smiling indulgently, albeit uncomprehendingly, at their latest theories -- and privately deeming them masochists.

In Paris, thinking wasn’t as painful at all. A cellist was serenading the subway passengers, and his sweet chords helped plunk my thoughts into place. If I felt heady and detached, all I had to do was glance down at the scruffy urbanite terrier bracing himself against the stops. Or the glass benches and Egyptian art at the Louvre station. Or the Buddha poster at Jussieu, reminding those who didn’t get what they wanted on Sunday to wait until Monday.

Paris is full of wisdom-seeking -- witness the cafés-philo all over the city, where strangers meet weekly to chat about life’s deepest questions. Significantly, Paris is full of sensory pleasures, from the near-sacramental baguettes and wine to the long, unabashed kisses in the middle of the street. (I had expected to find that such clichés were only romanticizations. But people do shop for strawberries and lettuce at the market stalls; they do buy themselves bunches of daisies on a whim; they do quit early and enjoy each other’s company at sidewalk cafés.)

Paris boasts enough sights and sounds and smells to awaken even the numbest, most overstressed sensorium -- yet the stimuli are deliberately gentled. Street music doesn’t blare or thump; window displays are artful, not crude hard-sell. Even ambulance sirens keep a singsong rhythm. Shielded from brutalizing overload, the senses uncurl and stretch languorously. Their pleasure lets the mind think without turning gray, striving bloodlessly, shriveling into dry abstraction.

You don’t feel forced, in other words, to choose between your brain and your body. And you are surrounded by inspiration -- talk shows that probe beneath the surface; bookstores on every corner; beauty valued for its own sake; selves expressed unabashedly. Artists rent stalls along the Seine; clowns and musicians and skateboarding kids fill the crooked streets of the Latin Quarter. And Paris’ admittedly overburdened socialized system keeps poverty and homelessness to a minimum, so you’re not driven inward. At least, not the way I often am on the streets of this country: the ugly capitalist taking refuge in rationalizations; the have going numb to walk among the have-nots.

In many ways, we who live in the Superpower have made ourselves invisible to each other. We learn, from self-help books and seminars, how to greet, make small talk, make eye contact, make nice. But we keep as much distance as possible. If there’s even a tiny empty table available in the back of the restaurant, we’re sure as heck not going to sit down right next to the other couple at the larger table, where a French maitre d’ seated me and my mother without a second thought. We glanced nervously at the couple, sure they’d mind the intrusion. They didn’t bat an eye.

Nor did they smile. Parisians don’t feel obliged to be sweet to strangers; instead, they offer a clear-eyed stare that makes you feel like Sartre’s Other, objectified by the hostile gaze. After a day of ducking that gaze, I realized it wasn’t hostile at all. Parisians live publicly, they are curious and they feel no need to avert their eyes. They don’t gush to reassure each other, either. They don’t need to; their ritual dance of courtesy is quite enough.

Everywhere you go, your presence is acknowledged with a cheerful “Bonjour, madame!”; your departure eased with the “Au ’voir” that anticipates another meeting. You can’t walk into a boutique and paw disdainfully through the merchandise without first greeting the proprietess; you can’t slink out of anywhere without a proper goodbye.

It changes how you feel about yourself. And it changes how you deal with others.

So do the centuries of history that unfold in front of you. So much of Paris dates to the 1500s that you somehow feel confident of your own existence. If all of this has endured, human civilization must have some value, non? Especially when symbols of great faith anchor each place and square, usually in the form of a grand cathedral, a saint’s garden or a medieval stone church.

We resent the French for being arrogant about their culture, purist about their language. But implicit in that arrogance is the conviction that they have a culture to be proud of. Steeped in Catholicism, rooted in an ancient and relatively homogeneous tradition, they have shaped a common sensibility.

Even the metro stations take their names from holy places, and the church courtyards serve as sociable moats, lively with boys kicking balls, dogs walking people, lovers kissing yet again. Concerts are held in the small cathedrals, while Notre Dame draws the whole world onto her lap.

We hold a few core principles of which I am deeply proud, and we’re heirs to a tradition in which civil rights, democracy and egalitarianism are at least goals. But the ways we lead our individual lives (for they are not communal in the least) feels more like something to apologize for. Skipping meals and vacations, working nonstop late into the night, boasting to our friends that we are too busy to see them. ... A Parisian, I’m now sure, would be appalled.

It’s a good thing we don’t take time to think.

Or we’d be appalled, too.

Jeannette Batz is a senior editor at The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis.

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999