Letter from Paris

(Once again, these blog posts are out of order.  This should actually have been the first post.  Please pay attention to the dates at the tops of these posts)

June 15, 2012

  On an impulse, I bought a ticket to Paris. A friend of mine has been living here for a year so I decided to visit her. Visiting her was just an excuse. Subconsciously, I wanted to travel alone; to test my mettle; to see if I could get around France by myself.

I was here four years ago, for four days at the end of a whirlwind European tour. I was a little sick then, and Paris seemed like a big noisy blur. The food seemed ordinary, perhaps because my traveling companion had no appreciation for it and insisted on going to the cheaper places. Or perhaps because we were staying in the St. Michel area, full of tourists.

But this time, it is a different story. The friend I am staying with is busy with her studies, which turns out to be a blessing in disguise, for I am all alone, wandering the streets and noticing things I did not notice before.

The very first morning, I awoke naturally at 5 a.m. I could not figure out my friend’s stove—I spotted the valve on a vertical pipe you had to turn on to get the gas flowing but I could not fathom what was wrong with the burner. So after waiting for three hours, I headed to the café next door.  Superficially, the place seemed like a diner back home but quickly I began to notice subtle differences.

The waiter, a towel flung over his shoulder, asked “Café?” as I entered. He was single-handedly serving the tables, even occasionally pulling the broom and dish pan out from behind the counter to give the place a sweep, working with such alacrity that I could only marvel. American service was the best in the world, I had always thought.

I was wrong.

When I said “thé?” in response to his query, guessing the word for tea, which, in Spanish is “te,” he brought me a teapot with hot milk on the side. The water was just the right temperature, the milk frothy and rich and in that moment I understood why the French feel frustrated with the rest of the world.

French sensibility dictates that things have to be done just right.

I notice this everywhere now.

I walked next door to the boulangerie that first morning and bought myself a croissant, something I never eat at home because of the carbs. But the thing was light and fluffy, not heavy and rich like American croissants and it just melted in my mouth. I decided to bring home a salmon and avocado sandwich too, a long thing that, when cut, became two sandwiches—a CEO from Subway must have come to France and decided to fashion his product after the French idea—and it too was a thing of artistry and perfection. The bread was not chewy like some of Bay Area’s best French bread like Semifreddi’s, but soft, and, once again, light. 

A waiter in another restaurant, this time near Napolean’s tomb, explained it to me this way, “Bread doesn’t make you fat; it fills you up and has very few calories. It depends on what kind of bread you eat.” 

So we discussed supersizing and American food versus French food. American food was big, he explained, French food was served in little portions. He was right of course.
The dinner and lunch courses everywhere are a sensory treat, the food cooked to perfection. And the French walk a lot, speeding through Metro turnstyles as if they are on rollerblades.

My waiter declared with some flair, “I propose to you a Panacotta for dessert.” And when I left the tiramisu half eaten, he pointed out that the French would never imagine leaving a plate of food uneaten, nor would they ask for a doggie bag. 

I felt guilty.

I am beginning to understand what France is all about. You get the sense of living inside a great civilization in which there is style and history and identity. Where you don’t have to give a tip because waiters get salaries. Where the façade of every official and academic building is engraved with the motto “Liberty, Egalite, Fraternity,” the legacy of the French Revolution.  Where the way people hold themselves in spite of the economic downturn, you sense pride and grace.

It is the way people treat one another that distinguishes the old world from the new, I suppose. You get that sensibility in India; you get it among the Maya in Mexico and Guatemala. And you get it in France.

During a boat trip on the Seine, a man on board had a medical problem so we docked by the riverside. The ambulance boat came. The paramedic ran to the road to wave the ambulance van onto the pier; the police arrived in a tire-raft kind of a speed boat. It was all done so efficiently and so cheerfully! Afterwards, the policewoman, who looked like the boss of her crew, kissed the chief paramedic on both cheeks the way the French do. The French have a sense of style, an etiquette and a way of doing things. No wonder they frown upon the rest of the world.

You see that kind of etiquette in personal interactions in India too.

I decided not to do the touristy thing this time but to sit in cafes like Hemingway, and in more recent times, Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker staff writer.

With such illustrious traditions, how could I not be a writer in Paris?

As I sit alone in the cafes or t’he Luxembourg Gardens where old men—and an occasional woman—play a game of boules, I experience the kind of poignancy I have not experienced before. Being alone here is beautiful. I am much more alert and observant. My isolation makes me feel sensitive in a way that I am not with company. I notice a vacuum beside me; I miss the person who is not there. I am forced to appreciate everything just a little bit more. The life around me seems fuller and richer. 

In the past, whenever I have heard people talk of making a “bucket list,” of seeing certain places before they died, I have wondered what the point was if you were going to die anyway. Would you remember what you saw in the afterlife? 
Was there an afterlife?

Now I realize that it not about seeing places but about the adventure of getting there. I have only gone on one organized tour in my life and I hated it. Traveling on my own, on the other hand, teaches me to be brave, to observe and learn and explore. What is the point of that, you might ask?

The point is that I can use the lessons I learn this way in my journey through life. After all, I am not dead yet; I might yet live for decades. 

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