Good Americans when they die go to Paris.
– Thomas Appleton
The magic of Paris lies in the religious quality of its architecture, the juxtaposition of that which is greater than man, beyond him in every way, with that which is exactly his size and precisely meant for him. The imperial monolith of the Haussmannian boulevards—the vast wings of cut stone, the uniformity of the limestone facades against the slate of the mansard roofs, the precise alignment of every balcony, floor, and window on the block—all of these communicate that one is part of something larger than oneself. But the uniform grandeur of the boulevards hides smaller, quieter attractions. It hides cafes and arcade corners and little markets of every sort. It hides charm.
The city—like other continental cities, especially the Latinate ones—is very public. People spend more time outdoors, and public spaces are much more frequently used. Young people are almost always picnicking on the banks of canals, more old men read newspapers on park benches, and almost every restaurant has a terrace on which dark, brooding Frenchmen and waifish ingénues with disheveled hair smoke with great abandon and with no apparent concern that they are perpetuating stereotypes. I’ve always loved this about Paris. The city feels so alive and vibrant; there is energy and, finally, a great esprit de corps.
But, as the fox says to the Little Prince in France’s most beloved story, nothing’s perfect. There’s a code of conduct for public space that is as peculiar as it is complex. You can stay as long as you like on a restaurant’s terrace with no fear of lurking, disapproving servers, but there are certain times of day when only food, not beverage, will buy that right. There are public monuments at which you can do any activity whatsoever—no matter how amorous—but at which you absolutely cannot eat. Feet are filthy, shameful things and ought not to be propped up on empty benches. Anywhere. Ever. Ever. This particular rule is enforced not just by the disapproving public but by security guards who emerge from the shadows to scold. Being a young woman in France buys you a good number of favors and discounts and a great deal of immunity—but not that much.
So though I love Paris, I wasn’t always à l’aise there. Privacy is elusive, a fact particularly unsettling for homebodies like myself. I had corners of public gardens that became mine in a way, but they weren’t invulnerable. Sometimes it rained, and sometimes the amorous couples arrived before I did. In these cases there was nowhere to retreat. Letting my mind wander in the anonymity of the metro was the closest to privacy that I could come.
It was this acutely urban life that I left when I went to visit in Philip in Oxford for the first time. Oxford, a city that is the opposite of Paris in every way, was the perfect place to catch my breath. Old, medieval, idiosyncratic, and above all cozy—that is Oxford in the fall. Everyone called me “love,” and the guestroom in Philip’s university housing had exposed timber beams. We and a friend had champagne and strawberries at ten o’clock in the morning, surrounded by the extravagant autumnal splendor of Addison’s Walk, because we assumed from having read Brideshead Revisited that that is what one does at Oxford. We put our feet on benches. It was the antidote in every way to the parts of Parisian life that had become exhausting, as great pleasures can.
There was just one thing I didn’t love in England—London. I had gotten hopelessly lost while looking for a bus stop and the very last bus of the night, and what should have been simple was incomprehensibly difficult. My exhaustion gave way to a kind of feverish terror, and it became clear no one in the whole damn city spoke English. I can see now how that might be wonderful in its own right, but my strait was blinding me to charm, as straits will do. When I arrived back in Paris, tired and lonely, I was oddly relieved to hear someone say, “Pardon, mademoiselle.” “Thank God they speak my language here,” was my thought, a brief and lovely thought.
Of course I saw the irony immediately; French is not my language, and in fact my French is only middling. But I was sure not to be lost or terrified in Paris. If you are a young woman in France and you stand still for more than a few seconds, men of all ages emerge to offer you directions in the clear, uniform French of the Académie so that you, a pretty but undoubtedly stupid foreigner, will be sure to understand.
I told my host mother about my relief that night, told her against my better judgment, for she was an eccentric Parisienne of the most vehement sort, and a tirade was never far from her lips. I was certain she was about to launch into a lecture about how very française I was not, but instead she said the only truly kind thing she ever said to me, something motivated at least in part, I am sure, by her undying hatred of the English, but also in part, I like to think, by something else. “Of course,” she said, in French. “You felt yourself at home here.”