“There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris.” ~Ernest Hemingway
“These things…are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.” ~CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory
What woman doesn’t dream of going to Paris?
In this regard, I am not unique. I had the chance to go once, when I was a student in Rome, but – being very young and very, very romantic – I decided to forego the opportunity in the hope of seeing it first with the man I loved.
That was eleven years ago.
Thus you can imagine my elation when, in early December, Dutch asked whether I’d like to spend New Year’s Eve with him there.
We left Christmas Day, after the girls had opened their presents, and returned a week later: in all we spent six exquisite days, without interruption, walking the streets of Paris, exploring approximately twelve of its twenty arrondissements. We saw the Royal Ballet - a dream of mine - at the Opera Garnier; we heard a gospel choir in the St. Germaine Chapel; and happened on a Christmas concert in La Madeleine where I wept through operatic performances of Silent Night in German, O Holy Night in French, and Ave Maria in Italian; and even managed a vespers service at Notre Dame Cathedral. We visited the world's most extraordinary museums, the Louvre, Musee D’Orsay, and the Jacque-Mart, which just "happened" to be exhibiting some newly restored tryptics by my favorite Late Medieval painter, Fra Angelico. I drank a glass of champagne in the library of the hotel where Oscar Wilde expired; and walked the elegant Vosgues Square, where Victor Hugo lived and wrote Les Miserables; we even sampled Hemingway’s signature cocktail in the bar that bears his name, located inside the glittering Paris Ritz.
After a few days walking the city I started to joke that in Paris everything can be cleanly divided into two categories: boutiques (for merchandise) and salons (for services). It truly is a city for gourmands.
I’ll never forget my visit to Laduree, the world’s most elegant patisserie or "tea salon." After paying 5 euro – approximately 7 US dollars – for an éclair au chocolat a smartly dressed, pinch-faced clerk handed me a mint green bag with the words Laduree wreathed in a garland of gold across the front. I stepped out of the shop onto the street, with all the excitement of Charlie after he’s been handed that winning Willy Wonka bar. Breathlessly, I pulled a rectangular pastry box out of the bag, and broke its golden seal: there, beneath a sheet of shimmering tissue paper, lay the most exquisite chocolate eclair I had ever seen!
It was a quintessential culinary experience, the kind you might hear described in scintillating detail by Julia Child or MK Fisher. The eclair was a perfect oblong shape; the texture, soft and chewy, without a hint of dryness; and the cream inside was cool and refreshing without being too sweet.
And that is Paris. Beauty of form. The cult of the senses. Artistry down to the detail. These qualities form the essence of a city whose culture revolves around the worship of beauty – beautiful buildings, beautiful parks, beautiful art, beautiful furnishings, beautiful food, beautiful clothes. To quote a line from Keats, in Paris “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, - that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Yet if I had to choose one word to describe my visit to Paris it would probably be iconoclastic. And I mean this literally; for the word itself means: “image breaking.”
With each day that passed, the ideal - or should I say idyll - of Paris, as it is so often represented by artists and writers, began to crack and splinter; by large and small degrees, reality began to burst in: there were the sidewalks crowded with sad faces, the homeless people on the steps of a bakery near our hotel, rattling Haagen Daaz cups full of change, the graffiti on old buildings, vomit in the Metro, trash in the streets.
On our last day in Paris, on a street near the Bastille, all those cracked pieces finally came loose and the ideal image shattered. It was New Year’s Eve and we’d just been to Bleu Sucre, one of the city’s most celebrated boulangeries. Our stomachs were full; our pockets, empty; and as we teetered along, without thought or care of anything save where to go for dinner, I tore into a warm baguette which the man in line ahead of me had insisted would change my life.
We rounded a corner and the sidewalk emptied into a kind of round-about. Not more than ten feet away, a mother and her three children – two toddlers and a baby – were camped out in a glass phone booth. They sat on a mound of tattered blankets and stared, vacant-eyed, at passersby. One of them - the youngest toddler - was guzzling Coke from an enormous plastic bottle.
A stab of something like agony pierced my heart. My mouth went dry and the morsel of bread I was chewing became a dead, tasteless thing, like ash. Disgusted with myself, and with the world, I felt a sudden urge to go home – home and away from here; home to a place unlike any home I’ve ever visited. Home to Heaven.
As shameful as it sounds, I think I’d have been more willing to “accept” the sight of this poor family as a representation of the brokenness of this world on the streets of almost any other city in the world. In LA or New York it would have been distressing, but not in the same way surprising. But in Paris, France? On a day so close to Christmas? In a street still dressed up with Christmas garlands and New Year’s streamers and twinkling displays of chocolate letters declaring "Joyeux Noel!" and "Bon Anee!" in every shop window? No. This wasn’t right at all. Not at all.
And this brings me to the heart of the matter or, should I say, the matter of my own heart – for in the almost tragicomic absurdity of that unbearable moment I saw the idols of my own heart exposed, clanging into one another like a shocking pair of brass cymbals. I realized, I had been drinking the kool-aid! I had been entertaining the false notion that there is somewhere in this world, some little pocket of perfection where - with enough money, enough beauty and talent and opportunity - it is possible to find lasting happiness.
But as CS Lewis would say, this is a cheat: Paris may be the city of lights; but it is hardly Paradise.
Another cheat today and, I think, especially for women, comes in the form of images. Images – like the ones in this post - which represent the world in an idealized way, and thus try to trick us into thinking not only that the ideal can be reality, but that it is achievable, if only for an elite few. Even now, as I look back at many of my pictures, a part of me doubts the veracity of my own observations. How truly astonishing and ridiculous! I was there; I took the pictures; I know that the moment captured was a real moment – full of ragged edges. Yet the desire to idolize it – to make it an idol – is intrinsic, tempting us to spend our energies running after God’s shadows, rather than looking to God Himself.
There is something quite liberating about seeing our romantic illusions shattered because the shattering frees us to enjoy the beauties of this world for what they are without turning them into idols. This is, I think, what Blake was getting at when he said, “He who binds to himself a joy / Does the winged life destroy / But he who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise.” God created us to enjoy the joys of being alive - but without setting our hope on them. When we try to “bind them to us” we not only destroy "the "winged life," the life of the soul as it pants for eternity, we destroy the joys that are chiefly meant to serve as their signposts. We become enslaved to the gifts rather than letting them lead us back to the Giver.
My conclusion, therefore, upon returning home to the desert on January 1st: never trust anything that doesn't have seams. Put another way, the beauties of this world should only be trusted to the degree that they lead us to Christ; to the degree that they awaken and undergird and magnify our appetite for Heaven. The woman who learns to practice this art - this art which is also a discipline - she is the one who "lives in eternity's sunrise," who has glimpsed, if only faintly, and from far off, a true vision of reality.