Tuesday, July 12, 2011

A Letter on Paris and the Past

"The old man caught my attention...'Do you know...the single biggest regret of old age...It's nothing to do with making more money or taking better care of the old body...The old folk say their biggest single regret is not having taken more risks.'" - Keith Donohue, Centuries of June.

Dear readers,

I hope this letter finds you well, and that you have wonderful food to nourish your body and soul, books stirring your imagination, and you are taking a slower pace now the summer is in full swing.

I've enjoyed the first sweet corn of the season, a peach sorbet cone on a steamy July night, and I've just started Stephanie Cowell's Marrying Mozart, which I found at a thrift shop for 25 cents and my mother and a coworker already borrowed and devoured. When I see so many people mindlessly scrolling through Facebook statuses on their phones, I think how much more fun it is to be with young Mozart in Mannheim. The modern impulse to project or follow emotions constantly in real time isn't for me. Real time is fast moving, slipping out of our hands, too precious.

I've been thinking a lot about the line about taking more risks. What risks do you wish you had taken? Reflect on them silently, or share them out loud. Is it too late? Famed French singer Edith Piaf sang how she regretted nothing, but I think most people have some regrets.

I wish I had lived in Paris, even for a semester of school or for a year. I've lived in New Jersey my entire life. I slept walked through my twenties through a boring job in suburbia I didn't like and a series of bad relationships (not abusive, just time-wasting relationships). I sadly consider my twenties my lost decade. If I had a life do-over, I would trying something brash like living in Paris. A week's vacation there several years ago wasn't enough time to fully explore her soul.

Owen Wilson's character Gil in the film Midnight in Paris wanted to live there too. Unable to cope with the present, Gil, a writer, keeps time traveling back to Paris of the 1920s, where he encounters F. Scott Fitzgerald and his tormented wife Zelda, Hemingway, and other great writers as well as painters of the era. Of course, many of his heroes have their own demons. Demons transcend time. But who can blame him for wanting to be part of a thriving arts culture and one not focused on Keeping Up with the Joneses or living life for appearance's sake?

I too feel unable to cope with the present sometimes and wish I lived in another time, before reality television, texting and phones out everywhere (including among the Kindergarten set now). I went to hear historian David McCullough talk about Americans who moved to Paris between 1830 to 1900 in The Greater Journey. He spoke of how people went to Paris to excel not for ambition for money or power, but to excel in their fields: medicine, writing, painting, and such. Why don't we want to excel as individuals in our lives even just to better ourselves? He spoke of the idea of people passing on what they learned in Paris back in the states. Why don't we embrace of the idea of cultivating knowledge and passing it on?

In addition to wanting a better arts culture, Wilson's Gil couldn't cope with his materialistic fiancee and her parents, shopping for possessions for a house not even bought yet and Gil worrying about how he'd pay for it all. He'd have to take writing jobs he'd hate to maintain a lifestyle society tells him is required. How many of us do that? How many instead of rejecting what society tells us is needed work excessively to get it? I'd rather work less and make less money and live without things (cable, expensive clothes and bags, upgrading home interiors and electronics, etc.) and have time for my books, my passions, my ideas. Even if I had a lot of money, those things aren't so desirable to me. Gil craved ideas - those can't be bought in a store.

I want a mysterious car to pick me up in the midnight hour and go back in time. Do you?

Perhaps it's human nature to want to go back. A character Gil encounters thinks the era he so idolizes is nothing special - she longs for the era of La Belle Époque. Go back then? Those crave to live among the artistic geniuses of the Renaissance era. We need to make peace with the era we are born with (at least I do). But we can say no to ideas and things society thrusts on us.


PS- since it's Bastille Day this week, and Paris is so on my mind, I think I shall do a few French-themed posts.


  1. Henry Miller is a good example. He decided that his life in New York, his job at the Flatiron building translated into a life of quiet desperation. He quit his job one morning and walked up Broadway feeling like a free man. And upon the suggestion of his wife, he sailed for Paris at end of the 1920s to "search for himself" with only a few bucks in his pocket. His life which teetered between starvation and one good meal a day was well-documented in his book, Tropic of Cancer. In spite of the uncertainty, he was glad he took the risk and lived to tell about it.

  2. Hi Ted. Thank you for sharing this story, which I was completely unfamiliar with. I have a coworker who was in Paris for just a few days and was so dismayed by the cost of everything with the unfavorable exchange rate.

    I long to go back (the prohibitive cost is partly a reason I don't). There are also so many other adventures to have, even in my own country. I long to see the Southwest, where I've never been. But my Paris memories stay with me, and I do long to return again.

  3. This post really brought back a lot of memories for me. I moved to New York from England in my late twenties and it was a choice of Paris or New York but my French didn't pass muster. (I still only speak textbook French and even that grates on the ear of the Parisian.) I was also wasting my twenties and the writer's life in New York seemed like the thing and it was. However, I now wish I was back in Europe and time travel in my head! I'm obsessed with history and if I had more time I think I would write some historical fiction. Anyway..

  4. I also considered Thailand, but as my husband was quick to respond: but then you might have died in the Tsunami...

  5. Thanks so much for the comment. Your French is probably better than mine. Immersion would have helped us both. I wonder if there's a woman of my age (35) in the outskirts of Paris who travels into the city each day and studies her English and dreams of New York. I pass tourists each day and maybe some think working there is exciting (which it in many ways is). I do a lot of be armchair traveling and remember my fond memories there. Could you still write some of that historical fiction?