Have you ever been to Paris? Wait. Before you answer, let me quickly add that if you are an American, you have frequently visited the City of Light, though you may never have set foot on French soil. You see, Americans, perhaps more than any other nationalities, know a secret. The secret is that Paris is more than a geographical location. It is more than the capital of the French Republic, more than a city where natives sit chatting for hours over feasts while sipping crystals of vin ordinnaire. They know Paris goes beyond being a mere cosmopolitan center whose cafes are now community centers, debating halls and rendezvous sites for meeting one’s paramour or one’s mistress… and occasionally one’s spouse. (That is life. “C’est la vie,” as the French put it.).
In addition, Americans know the city goes beyond being a literary magnet where a would-be author can sit writing for hours at a café over a single demitasse of coffee and be assured that no waiter would have the audacity to tell him to buy more or move on. Americans realized that The City of Light is all the things above, and they also know it is more…much more.
Americans are aware that Paris is an idea, a state of mind, a metropolis of the imagination populated with sprinkles of stardust and magic. It is a destination one can visit in the blink of an eye. All one needs do is press the instant-imagination button and, voila, one stands before the Mona Lisa or Winged Victory, ascends the Eiffel Tower, browses the galleries in the Louvre, surrounded by the fruits of the greatest artistic minds of Western civilization.
Show me an American who has not at one time or another closed his eyes and “journeyed” to the City of Light. If you do, I’ll show you someone who, if he made the same assertion in a court of law, would be held in contempt and jailed for perjury. Parisian streets are flooded with countless” mental tourists. You see them every day and most are Americans.
For a year I lived in Paris, so allow me to give you a quickie “guided tour” of the City of Light, one that could supplement the reader’s mental excursion. For this sojourn, don’t fret about lost luggage, flight delays, cancelations or rebooking costs, or anything else that will diminish your America-to-Paris flight experience. So, are we ready? Good. All aboard. And away we go.
In the twinkling of an eye, we touch down at bustling Orly Airport, France, hop a taxi and we’re on our way. Relax. Don’t be frightened. All Paris taxi drivers dart in and out of traffic like laser beams on steroids. Seemingly, most are attempting to prove Albert Einstein was wrong when he proclaimed it is possible to exceed the speed of light – and thus go back in time. I think our driver has just shown how mistaken the great thinker Einstein was, for we entered his rig at Orly at exactly 10 a.m. and arrived in the heart of Paris at 9: 45 a.m. –fifteen minutes before we left our starting point, the airport. Immediately after our arrival, the driver, you note, angrily pounds the air with his fists, grumbling that he has never seen such reckless drivers in his life and that some should be taken off the road “maintenant…maintenant!” (now…now). Welcome to Paris.
Well, here we stand in the heart of Paris at Les Etoile. Ride enough taxies in Paris and you too can easily become a teen again – if you’re lucky enough to stay alive that long. (The ill-fated explorer DeSoto searched for the Fountain of Youth in Florida. He could have found it in Paris. In a taxi. Found youth and also a possible heart attack.)
Les Etoile is the bustling traffic circle ringing the Arch of Triumph, that grandiose monument built by Napoleon that perches like a king’s crown atop the highest point of the Champs Elysee. We take a quick look down the Champs. What do we see? A wide and almost ceaseless thoroughfare, at the foot of which is the famed Louvre Museum. Ribboning either side of the avenue are rows of chestnut trees, beaucoup magazines (many stores) and more cafes than you or I can count. Hum, there’s an interesting looking store on the other side of the Champs. Let’s dart over and take a look at it.
Careful. Don’t get hit by a car. In Paris it is important that you remember these steps before crossing a street: stop, look both ways, if nothing is coming, pause, pray, then run…fast. An additional prayer while en route wouldn’t hurt any, and many say that upon reaching the other side of the street they kneel and make the sign of the cross. Doing the latter may not work, but what do you have to lose? Getting to the other side of a street in the City of Light, you need every advantage you can get. Some even use mojos, I’m told. The heavy duty, industrial strength ones are suggested.
Finally, we reach the boutique I pointed out. Its façade is not very impressive, is it? The soul of simplicity. Do you know what store this is? It’s Cartier’s, home of the world famous jeweler. Other than in the eyes of your first love and those illuminating the northern sky on a clear summer night, have you ever seen so many diamonds in one place? I doubt it. And the lighting in the window is strategically placed to make each gem’s sparkle titillate the eye like tiny bolts of lightning. And no, we don’t have to pay to look at the gems. Looking is free. As is the sense of wonder and amazement.
Oh, look. There…no, there, just to your left. See that panhandler sitting on the sidewalk with a blanket covering the area below his waist and the sign he’s holding? The sign is in French so I’ll translate it for you. It says, “I am a destitute amputee. I have no job, no food, nothing. Please help. God bless.”
You say, “That poor beggar is so heartbreaking?” Well, let me tell you where you’ll find the “heart-breaking poor amputee” tonight at around ten. Standing at some nearby bar downing one Bloody Mary after another and counting his “charity donations.”
Where else can an amputee be totally healed – and at a profit, no less – in a matter of hours? (Johns Hopkins University Hospital doesn’t stand a chance.) The answer, of course, is nowhere but in the City of Light, for Paris is a metropolis of miracles.
Thus, I end our mini-tour of the City of Light. Perhaps the next time we’ll visit the Latin Quarter or the Louvre or the Eiffel Tower. Meanwhile, bon voyage on your own mental sojourn to Paris. Remember, fly safely. But this above all: while in the City of Light, take the Metro, never a taxi. Subways don’t exceed the speed of light – and their drivers, unlike Paris cabbies, never expect a big tip.
By the way, the next time someone asks you if you’ve ever been to Paris, pause, reflect, look him in the eyes…but say nothing, because if you told him the truth, that you often go, in fact, go on a moment’s notice and always without luggage, reservation or passport, he wouldn’t believe you. So, when the query is posed, respond by giving the questioner a shrug and a Mona Lisa-like smile…but again, say nothing.
Incidentally, why don’t we set up a point for a rendezvous when you make your next mental excursion to Paris? What do you say we meet at that little café next to Cartier’s? The view is perfect there, coffee is too. Agreed? Good. So, I’ll see you at Cartier’s. Till then…von voyage.