Last day in Paris. Heat and blue skies, and I am tired, my own body’s tiredness that has nothing to do with Paris, but Paris is like something seen through water; it shimmers and seems unreal. Everything would be that way if I were to see it. Or is it this: I have become accustomed to this place to the point where I no longer see it with that wide-eyed intensity. I walk past the Notre Dame thinking my own thoughts; I go to the Seine because friends will be there and I remark about how beautiful the river looks at night in the lamplight because I am happy, not because I would expect the night to be any other way.. (But the city is also always full of amazements. Just now, down the street came a burly man in a toga.)
Last day in Paris. I am in my favorite square, the one with the roses. Only a few are still blooming, and the leaves of the trees are the tired green of late summer. The man who was snoring on a park bench last time I was here is snoring on a park bench this time. His leg is slung over the back of the bench, as if he was frozen in mid-action. He has been that way for a long time. Two men were playing gypsy jazz guitar when I got here, but now they have been distracted by talking to two women in ugly pants. One still holds his guitar; I hope there will be more music. And there is
Last day – did I get what I came for? I have been pretty much everywhere I meant to go. I have a favorite square, a favorite bar, and I am recognized by the fruit vendor and the Turkish soup waiter on my block. People ask me for directions; some think I am French. My French has not gotten much better, but my pantomiming has and I am happy in my friendly public silence. I have eaten enough éclairs and pain au chocolat to last me a while – I think my dentist will second that opinion. I have a new taste for blue cheese.
While I was writing, an elderly French woman and her daughter, a retired teacher, have joined me on my bench. They sit contentedly, tapping their fingers along to the guitars. Will you be back? they ask me. Yes, I say without hesitation. I love Paris. They smile. I love it too, says the daughter. She says it almost fiercely; it is not just conversation. It is happiness.
Is any of this why I came here? To be sustained without the things that usually sustain me – wild nature and the people I love – was one thing. And it’s happened, through parks and the Seine and aesthetical architecture and sometimes holing up in my studio, which is a study in blue, I have had plenty of the kind of beauty that sustains me. Enough even, to be able to launch out into the crazy human river that is Rue Faubourg St. Denis and to find I could float on it.
Another thing was to do a quick study in whatever it is that the French have got down that I envy – call it a certain sense of style, but it’s more than that. And a calculated exercise in loneliness, which is a feeling I have barely felt here. Whether that makes the exercise a failure or a success, I don’t know.
The snoring man has woken up, straightened his yarmulke and lit a cigarillo. Then, testing a bum knee, he heads out of the park. A young man in a white rabbit costume has settled on the grass with a beer, his rabbit head in the grass beside him. The old woman beside me is amused. The shadows shift and people come and go. After a cigarette’s pause, the musicians play on. The daughter leaves her mother and me to muddle on without her translations. Now comes a flock of boys, fast as starlings, leaping the fence around the grace and crowding around the musicians, who play, unfazed. Then the boys are over the fence again and climbing on the ruins of pedestals and fountains along the wall of the square. One poses as a statue, then flings himself off the pedestal into the grass. The old woman cringes. Is any of this why I came? Yes, though of course I couldn’t know that.
The laughter of the children echoes off of the buildings, and the light comes in slanting and full of shadows. Finally, the musicians wipe off their guitars with a ripped white shirt, wave to the old woman and me, and go.