Listening to, Patti Smith, Horses. Drinking, chai green tea with honey
Recently a dear friend gave me Patti Smith’s newest memoir, Devotion, as a birthday gift. This friend and I have a shared love affair with Smith’s recent spate of memoirs, from Just Kids to M Train. At one point in Devotion, Smith is in Paris, both experiencing the city as a seasoned visitor and artistic pilgrim and remembering her visit there as a young woman with her sister. She writes:
“Paris is a city one can read without a map. Walking down the narrow Rue du Dragon, old Sépulcre Street, which once boasted an imposing stone dragon. No 30 a plaque in memory of Victor Hugo. Rue de l’Abbaye. Rue Christine. No. 7, Rue des Grands Augustin, where Piccaso painted Guernica. These streets are poems waiting to be hatched—suddenly it’s Easter; eggs everywhere.” (16)
It occurs to me that Paris is never really fully present, overlaid as it is with preformed beliefs in it.
Ernest Hemingway said that, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” (A Moveable Feast, epigraph)
Gertrude Stein claimed, “America is my country, but Paris is my hometown. … And so I am American and have lived half my life in Paris, not the half that made me but the half in which I made what I made.” (“An American and France.)
More recently, although reflecting a long and dynamic history of African Americans in France, Ta-Nehisi Coates writes after a day spent walking around the city, “It occurred to me that I really was in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation—even it if wasn’t a part I relished. … But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, a sailor—landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before.” (Between the World and Me, 124)
Paris carries not only circles and layers of history but the perpetually tuning symphony of all its artistic versions. Film, literature, visual art—all have taken a piece of Paris and added another layer, crafted another iteration. Centuries of experiences and art and tellings and retellings have made the city more than itself. Paris is a palimpsest.
One can go to Paris in search of a certain version, the flavor as captured by Baudelaire or Gertrude Stein or James Baldwin or Patti Smith. And one may find traces of that version but the taste will not be just as expected. Instead, the only functional way to experience Paris is as it is that day, taking deep whiffs of all that rises on the air and sipping what you find—both expected and unexpected. And know that a screen filters every sip, for Paris is undrinkable without this barrier.