Yesterday's most popular (that is, most e-mailed) article in The New York Times travel section was one entitled "Frugal Paris." The City of Light and all things chicer than thou beat out articles about Puerto Rico and gangster hideouts in Wisconsin, as well it should. The "Frugal Paris" article, by Matt Gross, is lyrical in tone, speaking of a "ruffled, fractal edge of the trees in full green bloom" and "low pale buildings with their amber lights just turned on."
And this is just in the first paragraph. Paris does that to people. Writers are especially susceptible. Countless bad novels have been set there, as have unwise and sudden romances. The article goes on to explore the writer's desire to seek out nostalgie de la boue, which is described as a keen appreciation for the gutter (NB: Read The Maids, mes amis). The writer argues that Paris, with its boulevards and monoliths and haute couture, is misperceived as being too expensive. The reader with an appreciation for France's second-greatest export--fine fragrance--would disagree. I, for one, would be unable to board the plane home without having purchased a bell jar of Muscs Koublaï Khän, that infamous scent of riding hard across the Mongolian steppes on a very sweaty horse.
What makes the American lust after Paris, and what separates Paris from Grand Rapids or anywhere else in America? On our own domestic front we have cherry blossoms on the Mall, rogueish graffiti in Brooklyn, and the La Brea Tar Pits, not to mention Death Valley, the Idaho Panhandle, and Mt. Rushmore. The French have rien on the windswept desolation of Little Big Horn Battlefield, so why isn't the sad vista of Custer's Last Stand inspiring the next generation of postmodern novelists?
The answer is romance. America is not romantic (Canada is even less so). It's too practical throughout most of its mass and it is home to too many silly, albeit useful, inventions that are hawked on the Home Shopping Network. The French, on the other hand, imbue their butter keepers with elegance. They aren't concerned with popping massive numbers of corn kernels in a dry, fat-free environment. Who are we kidding? We're starving. No wonder articles like Gross's are so appealing.
There are many permutations of romance possible in Paris, outside of the sexual. Indeed, most of the romance is sensuous and may involve large numbers of pistachio macaroons or the criminal act of eating, without fear of penalty, real heavy cream without FDA intervention. Horse meat? It is better than you think, a real historical chomp, and it is low in fat.
For the creative--the painter and the poet--the opportunity to reculer pour mieux sauter must seem inescapably alluring. Not being of Paris is experiencing a setback in one's lifestyle, so what better place to learn to work harder and better?
So evocative of missed romance is Paris that the reader is tempted to breach it in August. That the whole of the city pretty much shuts down during that doggy month isn't mentioned. There could be soggy sexual skirmishes à l'apres-midi for those of us evincing a persistent American bravery. And don't forget that being drunk in Paris is far more fun than being drunk in Bayonne.
Most everything is better in Paris, and the French know it. That is why they sneer at us over our shoulders. We do not know how to live and when we do live we live in denial and self-abnegation. Big business would shudder to a stop should Americans adopt any French (or European) habit of lingering over coffee and small gossip. That this might contribute to a betterment of American health seems not to have crossed our minds as we race through our days, constipated with rising interest rates and choking on the bile of the impossible health-care system.
A short list of things that are better in Paris, or at least with a French accent:
Our longing for Paris is a case of melancholy for places that we have never been. In a strange psychological quirk, humans develop mysterious funks for bridges, illuminations, apartments, and trains, none of which most of us will see. This explains the sudden and deep pangs felt upon seeing a neighbor's pictures of impenetrable lines of German tourists in front of the Louvre or stumbling upon a photo of a pissoir taken by an anonymous stranger and shared with the world via Flickr. This then creates an unhappy envy, but guess what? Garlic breath really does smell better in the Bois de Boulogne.