Princess cards she sends me, with her regards“For You,” Bruce Springsteen
Barroom eyes shine vacancy, to see her you gotta look hard
The first cards — written in a familiar, flowing cursive; one smudged with a wine-stained fingerprint — arrived in mid-Fall 1974. My kinda girlfriend, Kyle — my wife, now, of 40 years — was in Avignon studying French Literature and Philosophy through her university’s exchange program. The cards, postmarked from across the south of France, Rome, and the Greek Islands, were set along my bedroom windowsill when her mother telephoned to inform me that a university official had called. It appeared that our Kyle may have gone AWOL.
Picking grapes in Greece, the card with the fingerprint read. Meet me in Paris?
I didn’t meet her. She returned with a report card of straight As and a trust-fund hippie from Canada whom she had met on Crete. That was it between Kyle and me for a while, before the more practical aspects of maintaining a distant relationship with a guy she hardly knew brought me back into the picture once again. She was contrite and I was willing. We were young. No harm, no foul.
She conspired. Cards from friends. Coucou, Joe! Ça va? Rejoignez-nous? Richard Linklater movies. A never-ending flow of magazine articles left out for me to read. Paris had no allure over me. I resisted the appeals that I would love it once I walked its streets — especially at night — citing familiar stories of French disdain for all things American. My own disdain for urban getaways, especially on limited vacation time where I needed to de-stress from work, made it only more unattractive.
“Give it a chance,” Kyle implored. Her friends shook their heads at my obstinacy.
My refusals hurt her. She wanted to go with me. She took our kids a few times. Their postcards raved about the city with perfunctory wish you were here messages and xxxxxx’s and oooooo’s scrawled into the margins. They took photos of themselves mugging it up, attaching them to emails, or posting them on social media when it became available. The requisite ‘Where’s Joe?’ questions followed. There is no convincing him, Kyle would respond. Frowning emojis poured in.
Four-plus decades. No Paris.
A recent set of circumstances converged to open the case for it once again. Our 40th wedding anniversary in early September of 2019 called for something big: I had retired, rendering weak my I only have so much time and I don’t want to spend it in a city with people who don’t like me excuse; a friend offered us her cottage perched on the bluffs above Ballycotton Bay on the south coast of Ireland. Kyle, sensing an opening, noted the proximity and easy travel between Charles de Gaulle and Cork Airport. “I’ll make the arrangements,” she said. I didn’t object. She searched Airbnb, focusing on the Marais district in the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements. The places seemed comfortable enough; safe and secure, relatively quiet — prerequisites for me. She found what looked like a beautiful apartment overlooking a shaded courtyard behind massive, carved wooden doors across from La Place des Vosges. In mid-September, we were off to the City of Lights for five nights before heading to Ireland.
The script reads like a Hallmark Special: Intransigent husband succumbs to loving wife’s entreaties. Paris transforms him. He’s shamed and repentant — not just to her, but to the gods of all things romantic and magical and spontaneous.
It kinda goes that way. And, it kinda doesn’t. The narrative — not the scripted one above that I had hoped I would end up writing, but the one flying off my fingertips as I type this all out — appears to be more nuanced, requiring one, as Springsteen sings, to look hard.
We touched down in the mid-afternoon of a beautiful late summer day. The cab ride through the outskirts of the city seemed, disappointingly, like those of any other: Uncontrolled sprawl, drab architecture, the highway littered with debris, graffiti on every paintable surface. We entered through the city’s north side. Ragged tents were clustered on concrete islands at the end of the off-ramp where bands of men stood waiting for the light to turn red before surrounding our car to look for handouts. I tried to follow along while Kyle chatted in French with our cabbie, an affable young man named Simon. Simon told us to keep our windows closed.
Five days, I thought to myself. I can do this.
Things improved the closer we got to the Marais: The streets narrowed, the concrete and asphalt gave way to polished cobblestones. There were galleries, small shops, restaurants, and bars just like the movies and articles. Couples strolled arm-in-arm, casually conversing and gesticulating at something only they were privy to, oblivious to the crowds and hustle surrounding them. A chanteuse with a three-piece band sang under an archway leading into a shop-lined alley.
Our place, though true to the Airbnb photos, was uncomfortable and uninviting; nice enough to sleep in, an acceptable base camp to return to, nothing more. We freshened up and headed out in search of the River Seine. Small café tables — crammed so tight against each other that I thought they might be welded together — spilled out over the sidewalks from boulangeries, patisseries, and bars where patrons sat in rattan chairs facing out toward the street sipping espressos and reading newspapers under curlicues of cigarette smoke. A few of them looked up to take us in with an amused disinterest. We stopped to check our route on a map Kyle had brought along. An older gentleman craned his neck to scan the space around us as if we were blocking his view.
Within a half-hour of setting out, we stood mid-bridge on the Pont Louis-Phillipe. The Seine coursed slowly away from us under a clear, bleaching blue autumn sky. The leaves on the trees lining the river were all shades of reds and purples and yellows. Low, elongated barges sat moored along the thick concrete floodwall, wet from being hosed down after the day’s work or being readied for their night stints as restaurants and bars. There was no mistaking this city for any other. The scorched towers of Notre Dame, swathed in scaffolding, peeked out from behind steep, slate blue roofs on the riverside buildings of Ile Ste. Louis as if to scream I live on. I am still here. Vive la France! It was as if we were the only two humans in a dream city that had been patiently waiting for our arrival. We stood in the gloaming light of a Fall evening in Paris, in love.
On our way back to the apartment, we found an outside table at a crowded restaurant on the intersection of Rue de Turenne and Rue de Francs Bourgeoise. There was enough chill in the air to justify the light sweaters and scarves we had wrapped casually around our necks. We held hands under the table and sipped wine beneath the shimmer of stringed lights on a beautiful Paris evening. The meal was forgettable. Our arms pushed against those at the tables on both sides. Everyone talked in low voices and puffed away on what seemed like a never-ending supply of cigarettes. Kyle’s hand tightened just enough to get my attention. She leaned over to whisper in my ear.
“Quand à Paris.”
The script was holding, line by fraying line. We spent the next five days walking the length of the city, visiting all the must-sees, slipping in a few more local and intimate places that friends had recommended. I had brought the wrong shoes for pounding out an average of eight miles a day on the Paris streets. But the idea of exploring Paris in any other way was out of the question.
The city between the destinations enthralled me most. Young parents pushing their strollers on the Seine’s embankment promenade. Ornate carvings on the bridges. Vendors selling books and prints from long rows of green plywood kiosks under massive sycamores and horse chestnuts on the streets above the river. People reading on park benches under the shade of linden trees. Kyle and I sitting with our feet up on the edge of a massive fountain at Tuileries Garden. Watching my wife bliss out in a city she loves; with me, her loving husband, beside her.
A husband who was fighting a familiar, grumpy annoyance building up within him.
I don’t like being a tourist, being among tourists, doing touristy things. But how does one visit Paris — uncertain if he or she will ever return — and not go to the Cathedral at Notre Dame, the Eiffel Tower, L’Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Le Musée D’Orsay, Tuileries Garden, Champs-Élysées, Musée de l’Orangerie, Shakespeare and Company Books?
Kyle has a limitless ability to see past the distractions and negatives that I lack. I felt myself trapped in a nether world between endless groups of tourists and indifferent Parisians who distanced themselves from visitors with a nonchalant, though unyielding, resolve. Selfie-stick-wielding sightseers poured out of bulbous-headed buses at every park, museum, or historical landmark to take photos of themselves before moving on without even a cursory display of homage to the substance or significance of the place or attraction itself. I recognized a group I had seen in the Louvre courtyard now posing in front of the Monet’s on the curved walls inside L’Orangerie. Unsuccessful in finding a rationale to separate my presence from theirs, I felt a strong sense that I had compromised myself.
The Parisians provided me no comfort. They ignore outsiders with a trained precision. It was as if there were two Paris’s overlaid upon each other in an M. Night Shyamalan movie where residents and tourists walk the same streets, eat and drink at the same restaurants, shop at the same stores, completely unaware of the other’s existence. I would have loved to talk intimately with them, to immerse myself into the details of Parisian life; to hear stories about its history, its quirks, its hidden gems, France, the EU, the Yellow Vests, whatever. No go. They weren’t rude. There were no insults. When our eyes met, they stared through me. Vacant, uninterested, bored.
I did my best to keep my growing unease from Kyle other than a mini-tantrum driven by the selfie-stick-wielding crowd which greeted me on the parapet at the top of L’Arc de Triomphe after the strenuous climb up. I turned around and climbed down, mumbling to myself. On the street, Kyle swatted my petulance away with a scolding, disappointed glance.
On our last full day, we walked through the 11th Arrondissement street markets near Place de la Bastille and up the park-lined Boulevard Richard Lenoir to attend a breathtaking multimedia art exhibit at L’Atelier des Lumiêres. It was hot, a little humid. The pain in my feet was impossible to ignore. I was worn out, ready to leave. Paris was wonderful. But I’d had enough. I longed for the quiet of a small Irish village overlooking Ballycotton Bay and the Atlantic Ocean where there were no busloads of tourists. Where people would return my greetings and look me in the eye and smile a greeting back.
We returned to our apartment in mid-afternoon. I begged off Kyle’s invitation to join her for an impromptu picnic on the lawns of La Place des Vosges, opting, with some guilt, for a small nap and some indoor reading. But I couldn’t sleep knowing that I should be with her on our last day in Paris. I grabbed my book and went out, slipping unseen through one of the wrought-iron gates of the park and sat on a bench in the dark shade of an arbor watching my wife of forty years at rest on a small blanket in a Parisien park on a beautiful day.
She was leaned back on her elbows over the grass lawn near the fountain in the southeast quadrant. Her face was turned up to the sky and her eyes closed — I knew from experience —under dark sunglasses. Around her, young parents stood in groups, talking and laughing and gesturing. Children ran wild across the grass and paths, shrieking in delight.
I had been looking into the wrong eyes. What’s the matter with you? I chided myself. Springsteen started playing in my head.
I came for you. For you. I came for you.
I didn’t have to look hard at all. I let the unimportant noise around me slough off.
I was in Paris with the woman I love.
Kyle turned toward me as if she knew I were there all along. She was smiling. I got up and walked toward her.
Transformed? Probably not.
Shamed and repentant — not just to Kyle, but to the gods of all things romantic and magical and spontaneous?
Oh, yeah. Not for the first time. •