People tend to complain bitterly about the rentrée in Paris because the long-awaited vacation is over and the drudgery of daily work kicks in. It takes a good six weeks to catch up on the backlog of mail and phone messages, faxes and e-mail and to get the sand out of your loafers and ticks off your Wallabies. It takes another two weeks to find a place to hide your suitcases for another year in your crowded apartment. For many of us, there are the intense and illogical arguments to battle out at the local post office, tracking down the registered letters and packages that were returned to unknown senders. All par for the autumn course.
Complaints then begin to flow at a healthy pace as the weather turns nippier and the monolithic sheets of dull cloud-cover veil our beloved city. Gai Paris becomes Gray Paris! And everyone is prepared to be depressed – to the delight of the city’s swarm of psychoanalysts.
But face it, the fall brings with it the Paris we love most. The colors and heat of August dissipate and the city of natural light becomes the city of incandescence and chiaroscuro. Secretly, we all love the “grisaille,” in that the true Paris is a city of shade and shadow, of injured pigeons, green wrought-iron chairs and chilly water running in the gutters. An authentic Paris must be experienced in black and white, not Technicolor, Ilford or Kodak. The Paris to be in love in is caught in the black and white images of Doisneau and Cartier-Bresson. It’s no accident that the Mois de la Photo in Paris is November.
Admit it, the pleasure of Paris streets is intensified by darkness and melancholy; the cafés are better places to duck into, the espresso cups feel better in your hands, hot tea hits the spot and cigarette smoke is somehow less offensive. In the heart of the Paris grisaille, you dive deeper into novels, you read better books and languish in existential thought. You visit the remains of Chopin and Morrison, Sartre and Beckett, Wilde and Piaf. You buy a succession of cheap scarves and wear silk.
To Americans Europe has always been a black and white continent. Brightness is a question of contrast and definition, not color. You go to Hong Kong or San Francisco or Tangier or Provence if you want color. You walk along the small streets of the cinquième or quatorzième in late October if you want to feel alive. You sit beneath a Rodin sculpture half-chilled and read an airmail letter for the third time. You write poems that you’ll never show anyone.
The rentrée in Paris anticipates all sorts of highly Parisian annual traumas. Public service strikes, for example. These massive inconveniences sort of generate their own brand of nostalgia. People remember how it was last year or two years ago, the people they met as they hitchhiked at dawn from Nation to Denfert-Rochereau or the affair that ignited on the way home along the river. Or the affair they imagined on the way home along the river. And although the stalled Métro, undelivered mail, sluggish airports, unanswered telephones, empty classrooms and dimmed lights are hardly enticements for work or study, they also intensify degrees of personal excitement for the transplanted soul, the spectator in us, the artists that we want to be. Somewhere in the expat spirit there was that hope that life would be different, that society wouldn’t drone on ad infinitum like the future that had threatened back home. We didn’t come here to be promoted, to be practical or to feel secure.
The gray Paris rentrée is marked by the moment we wave good-bye to the noisy flock of tourists clutching non-refundable tickets and obligations to get back to, shooting Fuji and Ektachrome. It’s a time to praise the pen-and-ink drawings of lonely draftsmen on chilly bridges, the winter residents of the Place du Tertre, the hawkers of Macadam and La Rue.
Soupe à l’oignon, choucroute and cassoulet only begin to make sense in the deep fall.
As magenta, cyan, blue and yellow are the primary colors of commerce and publicity, Paris feels awkward “en quadri,” as if cross-dressed in someone else’s wardrobe, Barcelona’s or Miami’s. No wonder the Internet, the rainbow of mass communications, has had a hard time nestling itself into the landscape and mindset of Parisian habits. The happy-faced connectivity of its spirit is not lonely enough or sufficiently tortured for the Parisian soul; it doesn’t divide into left and right, and can’t be rendered into political tracks of protest; merguez can’t be blackened on smoky fires in its streets by threatened immigrants and union workers in the Paris fall. In the Paris autumn, finally, even those too young to remember are reminded of the war.
So, as we settle into the dank of the oncoming grisaille, let’s celebrate our protestations of this far side of the Paris moon – which we all love so much to deny.