It’s summer and you’re here for the first time. Or maybe you’re back again. If you hadn’t noticed, take a look around: you’re not alone. In fact, over five million Americans flit over to France each year and another whopping 19 million francophiles cross over or tunnel under the Channel, making the “Hexagon” the number one destination of choice for anglophones.
And for every American who visits, about 700 dream of coming. One guidebook editor says more than 25 percent of Paris travel guides are purchased by people who’ll never make the trip. Clearly, there is a gap between the celestial experience and the one that American Airlines takes you to.
You all know the feeling when you mention to friends or strangers, “I’m going to Paris this summer,” or “I’m going back to Paris for three weeks.” They look at you hatefully and think of you as a rat, as they mutter, “Oh, that’s great!” Some find revenge in the retort, “Oh, we were in Paris in November and had a fabulous time.” Some of us know just how gray it is in Paris in November and how polluted the city air is and how overpriced everything seems and how hard it is to evoke unsolicited friendships. But that is not the point: Everyone is happy to be going to Paris and everyone secretly wants to live here.
On the flight back from the book fair in Chicago last month, I sat across the aisle from two of the five million, a pair of Paris neophytes, clean-cut newlyweds from eastern Connecticut who’d picked Paris for their “lune de miel.” Privately, for their sake, I hope they’d not booked themselves into one of those 5×5 cubicle-type hotel rooms in which the narrow and sagging bed occupies 93 percent of the room and the window overlooks a noisy construction site behind the Gare de l’Est.
“Why’d you pick Paris?” I asked nosily.
“You know,” the bride answered, “because it’s Paris.”
So, why do you all come here and what brings you all back? Since Chicago, where I spotted a cool 200-plus guidebooks on France and its capital, the question has not ceased to haunt me.
Paris is a great city, undeniably, but its magnetism does not originate in its sites and monuments, its cuisine or its shopping. Surely it’s not the service, the prices, the outgoing citizens or the weather. Its museums? Okay, to some extent, but by now more tourists may have visited the virtual Louvre on the Internet than have ever stepped into the real Louvre.
I think the answer lies elsewhere. The charm of Paris is less in the visiting and touring and more in the anticipation and returning, the before and after rather than the present. A Paris trip is 25 percent a collection of enchanting details, 25 percent pure hassle and 50 percent memory. The real joy of Paris is coming back and verifying that a few special details are in place, the echo in the Gare du Nord, the croissants aux amandes in the boulangerie around the corner from your first hotel, the green chairs by the pool in the Jardins du Luxembourg.
Paris for many visitors is the pleasure of being unplugged, of being free to stop and look at the stonework around doors and windows, to linger on bridges, to eat very late and linger at a table, and to feel anonymous – in other words, what Robert Frost identified in nature as the “momentary stay against confusion.” This ironically happens in Paris to people who remain unimplicated and leave only to return in a year or 20. The pleasure comes from the illusion of participating in Parisian life while in reality you’re a happy spectator. From the outside visitors create a temporary bond with the aesthetics and the local concern for form, the culture of “look.”
Ask a tourist randomly what he or she likes best about Paris and you’ll be told most likely something like “the way all those little cakes are decorated and lined up in the windows.”
And the sight of those strawberry génoises and café éclairs is all the more delicious when you find it there next time.