“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” –Ernest Hemingway
I can’t quit you, Paris.
I’m not familiar enough with the rest of France, and it’s been too many years since we drove to Beaune for a family vacation and my parents raved about the wines. But there’s a good chance I could explore every square inch of the country and still only think of you.
When I close my eyes I smell and taste the doner kebabs with frites stuffed right on top that are everywhere in the 10th arrondissement. I see Euterpe weeping at Chopin’s grave, blurred by creeping darkness in the Père Lachaise cemetery as night falls.
I feel the neighborhood of Le Marais around my shoulders, demonstrative but still testing, like the embrace of a new friend. And I hear the heavy anticipation of an early morning Metro station after a long night of revelry.
My versions of you are strong in my mind, and as a glutton for dreams, it’s these aspects of you that I gorge on.
You’re a past lover who indelibly lit me up and now regularly interrupts consciousness, seizing my attention long enough to wonder, sure-but-unsure, for the millionth time: That couldn’t have worked out, right?
First There Were Gauls
The first comic book I ever read was Asterix and the Golden Sickle when I was 7 years old.
You were introduced as “Lutetia,” the old Gallo-Roman name that endured until 360 AD. I didn’t get the jokes about fashion, traffic, and pollution, but the art was great and I understood even then something about your importance to that mostly-pre-historical France and its people.
My mind was further ignited when my father explained that Lutetia was actually present-day you, and that Germany, where we lived, shared a border with France. He made me realize that you were real and not that far away.
That was kind of a big deal, because what 7-year old doesn’t want to go to a place in a comic book? I stuffed my backpack with some snacks and some socks and Asterix and headed out. But then the harsh reality…
So I didn’t, and you were filed away.
Soon I was only interested in castles and knights and legends and myths. I didn’t care about cities, but I did like reading about how to defend or attack them. Germany had more than enough of that going on so it wasn’t really a question of whether I was going to focus on you when I lived in Heidelberg. I was a child.
But as I grew and became aware of more of the world–and it could have been Clark Griswold throwing Rusty’s beret off the Eiffel Tower, I’m not saying it wasn’t–you became “Paris” in my mind and something I needed to spend time thinking about. From time to time, I did.
And later, when I became very interested in girls, I naturally became very interested in you.
Stendhal And Le Surmâle
When I was 19, I was enamored with The Red and the Black. I wrote quotes from the book on my walls and shoes, like this one: “Souvent femme varie, bien fol qui est s’y fie.” It’s supposed to be a Francois I quote but it fit nicely in the novel and worked every time I had trouble with a woman in Georgetown, Texas.
Stendhal clearly had a special relationship with you, and one that I found intriguing. Because in that book you were revealed as a place for adults: artists, criminals, intellectuals, social climbers, and lovers–sometimes all the same person.
He saw in you things it would take me years to discover and understand, but he also planted seeds that stressed the imperative of seeing for myself what you were all about.
The mere mention of you made the speaker’s lips just a little more cosmopolitan, didn’t it? I occasionally dropped your name when I wanted to impress a visiting foreigner who thought Central Texas was only for Branch Davidians. It didn’t always work, and that’s when I realized you weren’t as consistently loved as I thought you should be.
As you and I know, Paris, that is truly their loss.
In my third year of college I had the opportunity to study abroad, and it was either you or the medieval city of Seville. I knew I’d fallen a little bit in love with you by then, but I chose Spain because I thought it was important to investigate my supposed bloodlines.
I know I don’t need to explain that decision because it was a powerful time of learning for me.
I loved Sevilla as much as a young man could then, but you were regularly in my thoughts as I went on to read the ideas of many of your past suitors: Flaubert, Voltaire, Hugo, Foucault, Rimbaud, Camus, Dumas, Sartre, and more.
The most impressive to me, however, was a little-known pataphysician by the name of Alfred Jarry. His book, The Supermale, was completely in line with what I was growing to believe was important in the world, and I was determined to go find other men and women like him.
Meeting you post-graduation seemed like an excellent opportunity to grow, and I was certainly ready for that.
But then I scored a lake house and an older woman and started playing in bands in Austin, TX. And those were good days, but numbered.
As Julius would say, “Alea iacta est.”
Your pull is constant and neodymium, and while it felt like slow motion, I was hurtling toward you at an inevitable trajectory.
Aesthetics And Starving
When I finally met you face to face, I was almost 25 and convinced that the zenith of life was a constant bacchanal. It was May and you were grey and I had booked my first well-paying campaign as a Boss Model. Everything was flowing and rhyming and I squinted and pretended to smolder and smoked Marlboro Reds. I know I was ridiculous.
But the pictures turned out cool.
I loved two other women then, but Amber and I managed a decent enough chemistry while carousing in our underwear or less. I was disappointed that she was falling in like with one of the camera assistants, but Francois Rousseau made our toilet paper ad look like a fragrance campaign, and we were all happy about that. (Peep the porcelain in the upper right.)
My old friend, Darius (who loves you, too), and I lurched around you each night after shooting, drinking scotch and beers and smoking cigarettes feeling electric because that’s what you do to us when we leave it up to you.
You took the reins and we made everyone roll their eyes.
That was a Top Five Hangover but made worse because I didn’t get a chance to tell you that it was real. It was a three-night stand that actually mattered, that wasn’t going to go away after the next fleeting obsession or the cruel, amnesia-inducing passage of time.
Those things couldn’t be left unsaid, and when I came back to stay for a couple of months it seemed like you were smiling. I signed with a new agency and things looked good. Perhaps that is because I am a superficial creature and easily intoxicated by the aesthetic.
And you, Paris, are very aesthetic.
You have this tremendous ability to allow us to say and do outrageous things, to express ourselves in authentic and, perhaps, inappropriate ways, but not shame us for it. You are uniquely patient and tolerant that way.
And I think I was grateful to you for that but then the inescapable: I ran out of money and mostly we were alone.
It’s very hard to be broke with you, but you taught me so many things about myself that can only be learned struggling as a penniless foreigner.
Every sunrise I looked across rooftops like many rows of teeth rising up from your permanent laugh, wondering how much longer I could last and if you had a special prize waiting for me the more I suffered. I got very skinny because I went for long runs through your secrets.
But I never blamed you for anything.
The harder it got, the more I loved you, but finally my imminent return flight pulled me back to Texas. By then I was mostly ribs and the practical humans in my life convinced me that just wanting to be close to you wasn’t a good enough reason to neglect everything else.
And so I stayed away for a while.
After August: Osage County
When the Zach Scott play ended I shaved off my mustache and put on a suit and I took Ashley to meet you and we had a ball. I wasn’t as young but I pretended I was and things didn’t feel quite as exciting but I pretended they did. I had changed, and I wasn’t sorry for that.
Time blunts the senses in ways that surprise and disappoint and mellow us all. But you were different and the same and more beautiful than ever.
We inhaled Lebanese food near Île de la Cité and pantomimed reverence at Notre Dame. We kissed hard under the Eiffel Tower and skipped around the Arc de Triomphe at sunset. We did museums and markets and monuments and cafes and you gave us a second-third-fourth wind.
I was very happy to share you with a woman that I loved because she’d heard me talk for years about how you make magic normal and then she saw you deliver.
She had a very good time getting to know you but she doesn’t love you like I do, Paris.
Ashley was ready to go back to our old life in Austin, and I was ready to start a new one with you. I looked into it, half-heartedly, knowing that it would take years to acquire the level of French proficiency required to get hired as an actor.
So I left knowing that as long as Hollywood remained the hub of English-speaking movies and I remained not-Johnny Depp, my path at that time wouldn’t lead me back to you in any permanent capacity.
But I did fool around and make this:
Roland Garros And Beyond
Most recently I went with a friend to see Roger Federer play at the French Open, eat at very good restaurants, visit the Louvre and Picasso museums, and to do the thing: fall in love with you repeatedly.
There were some bucket-list items, for sure, but the love part is something I needed. It’s a recharge–good for my soul. I only stayed out til the sun rose a couple of times because now I prefer to spend my time with you clear-headed and sharp.
And while an early coffee at a sleepy bistrot or a cold white wine and shellfish lunch are nice, I don’t need them anymore. Food and drink seem to disrupt the direct signal that my imagination has to what you really are. It dulls the connection with the simple walk that reiterates the historical footsteps of greater men and women.
That’s important, because every one of those steps throws a little more dust on your once-unchallenged position as the capital of the civilized world. The peak of gentility. The epitome of romance. And it’s sad but dust eventually covers everything.
For now, though, somehow light shines differently on you and you make me feel alive in an ancient way, a way I’ve struggled to articulate this whole time. Is it because you’re over 2000 years old and have had millions of lovers and we’ve all felt you in different ways?
Or is it because there’s a common thread in all of us who love you, and you’ve seduced us like marionette puppets at every incarnation?
If that is the case, I love you in this body as I loved you in every one before, and will in every one after. Because it turns out it never really mattered how many times I went away. I will always come back.
See you soon.
PS–Thanks so much for reading! It takes a lot of effort to write posts like this, so if you enjoyed it would you mind sharing?