Feature, May 1992
Springtime in Paris is synonymous with love the world round. One sighs just thinking about it. Ahhhhh, yes… It’s time to put the top down, get a haircut, hold the stomach in, bleach your teeth. The hormones are working overtime and anything seems possible – seductions of epic dimensions, successful conquests right out of the Greek myths, peak experiences to rival the Alps. Mating behavior – with its stern accompaniment of catcalls and racy one-liners – is the central rite of the Parisian spring.
But why? Is it because of the city’s charm? French tradition? culture? people? history? Latin roots? The amatory spirit coursing through the Parisian spring is, like most everything else concerning the heart, not at all simple.
Take the name of the city itself, for example. The celebrated Paris of Greek myth was a favorite of Aphrodite, the voluptuous goddess of love. Paris was one of the most inflamed lovers of all time, willing to risk his title, his fortune and his homeland for the love of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. While traveling through Greece, Paris seduced Helen and whisked her back to his native Troy. Naturally, Helen’s husband, Menelaus, King of Sparta, did not approve, and the nine-year-long Trojan War ensued, bringing.
Could it be then that the city’s namesake invested it with a tremendous will to love, no matter what the cost? No way. The Trojan Paris connection is quite literally poetic, and one dreads disseminating misinformation. Any dictionary will tell you that “Paris” comes from a word meaning “marsh,” a reminder of the former disposition of the Ile de la Cité. Matters of the heart, however, are rarely logical.
Ask most Parisians about the Paris/Spring/Love triumvirate, and you’ll get the “outward bound” response, meaning that this is a city that, despite woozy plumes of auto exhaust, likes to be outside. Correction: it’s a city that thrives outside. After months of monochrome gray, we’re all chomping at the bit, ready to trade turtlenecks for t-shirts and finally get over that sore throat. And it’s no wonder. At northern latitudes, the warmth of spring sunlight has instant, undeniable sex appeal. With palpable cosmic force, it lures us all outdoors. It’s the perfect place to be in Paris, since it’s a city built to walk in and through.
From street to street, quai to quai, bridge to bridge, café to café, seat to seat, Paris architecture, gardens and public art are designed to please the discerning eye. Endowed with a highly refined sense of aesthetics, the French cornered the luxury market, giving us, among other things, beautifully dressed women who turn heads and raise eyebrows. But the dress, while helpful, does not a beautiful woman make. There are plenty of attractive cities with attractive people where the annunciation of spring is greeted with only a half-hearted whoopee.
Could it be then that the willingness to be outside, uh, ah, “wasting time” is the critical ingredient in the annual Parisian courtship ritual? Certainly it’s hard to fall or stay in love if the day moves from appointment to deadline to briefing without respite. The French idea of the flaneur has no easy equivalent in English, which suggests that in the Anglo-Saxon view, all this circuitous wandering about or flaneuring is a dubious pasttime, possibly one that risks God’s ire. To be idle is, after all, to be the devil’s plaything. But it is just this measure of idleness that is necessary to initiate and nurture love relationships. Perhaps being a plaything is not so bad after all.
So put on your shades and go for a stroll. What do you see? Public displays of affection. One can easily sight half a dozen couples necking just on the way to the corner boulangerie. As the temperature grows warmer, they multiply, like the lingerie posters, out of thin air. A beautifully landscaped garden pulsing with chlorophyll lends itself to romance, but even the most banal setting provides a convenient backdrop. In Paris, kissing is an urban activity, as natural as eating seasonal strawberries, drinking a pastis, or joining the queue to see “L’Amant.”
With the French, as with the Italians, culture is sensuous, love a tradition. The names of Famous French Lovers fall like petals from a dogwood tree: Heloïse & Abélard, Chopin & George Sand, Rodin & Camille Claudel, Rimbaud & Verlaine, Sartre & Simone de Beauvoir, Françoise Hardy & Jacques Dutronc, etc. This is, after all, the country that spawned both the boudoir and the mistress. And while I don’t have any hard statistics, an astute friend schooled in such matters assures me that French has the most highly developed vocabulary of intimacy among the Romance languages.
And no wonder. The French tradition of love can be traced back to the tenth century (if not earlier), when the medieval troubadours composed popular racey poems, sort of the In Bed With Madonna sensation of the day. Because the poems were sung in court as well as at the corner café, the “troubadour ethic” spanned the high/low culture bridge, touching the hearts of queens and peasant girls alike, giving us the Marquise de Pompadour on the one hand and Kiki de Montparnasse on the other.
And the legacy of the troubadour tradition – having found a…fertile soil – is alive and well today. From the Minitel rose to Bizet’s “Carmen,” the non-repressive stance of the French has led to the greater social good. Braless women in mini-skirts can, more or less, sidle through the streets of Paris without risking life and limb – perhaps because physical love and affection are an inherent part of the cultural fabric.
But I still have not answered the question. Why, among the cities of love in Western consciousness – Venice, Bruges, Rome, Copenhagen, the islands of Mykonos or Capri, etc. – does Paris cinch the Golden Eros Award? The answer is as natural as the smell of jasmine wafting in the breeze. In addition to all the seminal features mentioned above, it’s because the City of Love is also the City of Light.
From Homer and Aristotle through Lucretius, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Spinoza, Wittgenstein et al., love has always been linked to vision – to, that is, light. Think, for example, of our mutual idioms, “love at first sight” and “coup de foudre,” lightning entering the heart. Love and light are intermingled from the get-go in the Western tradition. And nowhere is their splendor more conspicuous than in the Parisian spring.