The American in Paris is a literary trope nearly as old as our country itself, and the contrasts between the two cultures are as numerous as the Atlantic is wide, and yet I think — for this American, anyway — one can summarize the delta between the two thusly: purpose vs pleasure. Americans always have somewhere else to go. The French appear to have somewhere to belong.
Take, for example, New York — America’s lone alpha world community on par with the French capital — with her numbered street grid, swift walkers, imposing skyline and compact downtown. It’s a ruthlessly efficient place — the kind that runs on time, all the time, should traffic or heaven allow. New Yorkers live in New York for a reason — to work, to move and live at a certain breakneck pace, to say if they could make it there, they could make it anywhere.
Paris is different: it is breathtaking in her commitment to inefficiency. Her 12 million people, all parked at sidewalk cafes, smoking or nursing an espresso or glass of vino, or seemingly scattered across blankets on slender lawns haphazardly tucked between zagging streets, looking longingly into their lover’s eyes over lunch — never really in a hurry to go anywhere, despite an orgy of old world charm laid out before them.
Paris is a leisure city. No one seems to wake up before 10, no one seems to work, and no one seems to care what you do for work. Conversations with Parisians are pointless in the best possible way — as in, no one is looking to prove one — they’re merely looking to learn, to laugh, to find charming company in whoever they happen to be chatting up at the time.
It is a city par excellence for this reason: rather than a brutalist, fatalist center of the universe, it’s a self-contained universe unto itself–an aurora of unfurling and uncompromising grandeur, an artistic masterpiece of nuance and confluence, a weird and gritty place that’s both exactly what you’d expect and the exact opposite of it. It is a city that takes its time with you, should you take your time with it.
Yes, the sites and sights of Paris are what you’d imagine, all granite and brownstone, ornate in the level of attention paid to detail, yet far from opulent until you cozy up next to or shuffle into one of their many Catholic cathedrals. They’re stunning and imposing, yet scattered aimlessly across the city concentrated precisely nowhere. Yet concentrating on their majesty sort of misses the point. I want to talk about the 37 miles of white space I walked or ran in between the towering beacons. The mundane underneath the magic.
For it’s the corner bakery, the artisan florists, and the gregarious kindness of her people, that make the city what it is: a self-contained factory of miniature moments that compose one of the most memorable and singular cities on Earth. Strangers at a street-side cafe wandering in to gregariously converse with you over wine — often on the house when they find out you’re not only a visiting American, but a visiting American who’s not a loud, ugly asshole. The macaron vendor willing to put up with your butchering of basic French words to let you sample sweets flavored with rose, elderflower and lavender. A morning commute metro on a rainy Wednesday.
Just a day after running 11 miles along the Seine — crossing every bridge along the way, I found myself awake at 7 a.m., slightly hungover from the unplanned wine-down, and so I again laced up my sneakers to run again along the Seine. The jaunt ended at the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and — since I was already there, anyway — I went inside (it was free!) and had a look around. I’m glad I did.
It is, quite simply, the most massive and mystical place I’d ever laid eyes upon. A light-up sign (surely not in the original build) pointed out mass started at 8 a.m. inside a closed off area in the center of the cathedral. I gazed inside the gated confines, and saw there may have been 13 total people in the pews. I crept inside and became one of them.
Perhaps you’re new to this space, so if you are or if you’re wondering, my religious beliefs can be pretty solidly classified as “retired Catholic.” A second-generation American, I was raised by Irish-Italian Catholics on one side of my family, and French-Italian Catholics on the other. I’m baptized and confirmed, I had a first communion party that looked like something out of opening wedding reception scene in The Godfather, yet the last church service I attended voluntarily ranges somewhere between two decades ago and never. However, as I found myself inside the dark walls illuminated only by candle and mild sunlight through stained glass, I felt drawn to observe by a magnetic pull beyond my own ability to articulate it.
Although the mass was entirely in another language — French, I would assume, although I wouldn’t rule out Latin, which says a lot about my knowledge of both languages — I heard every word. I lit a candle. I made peace. I took communion. I knelt in prayer and did the sign of the cross a lot. (Something I still do in moments of high anxiety or nervous excitement.) It was amongst the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced.
It’s been well documented here and everywhere that I don’t believe in God. I do, however, believe in religion. And not just Christianity — all of them. Catholicism is mine — not that it belongs to me, but I belong to it — but they all, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism and so forth, at their core, are magnificent and achingly transcendental. They are pathways to Enlightenment, meditative and contemplative ruminations on mortality and morality, a code of ethics on how to treat fellow humans. And in that moment I spent knelt before one of the holiest sights in the western world, sans camera, sans expectations, and hours before most of the world I left behind in the Americas woke up, I felt it: maybe not god, but something like her. I felt peace. I felt my past. I felt my culture. I felt loved. I felt what religion was supposed to feel like. Religion, in that moment, did what it is supposed to. And did it for me, the heathen non-believer, of all people.
I made polite conversation post-service with a young nun visiting from the Philippines. She was joyous and vibrant in ways Americans don’t commonly associate with the convent. We walked in the massive square outside the structure, and went out for espresso and croissants. We tried to communicate on levels beyond pleasantries, me with my hodgepodge of native English, decent Spanish, passable Portuguese and butchered French, and— as it had been with everyone in this beautiful city — it was more than enough to make a friend through the universal language of kindness and laughter. I remembered when I was cruel, not all that long ago, and felt the rage that used to fester continue to melt away. And so now, here I am in Paris, my mind, body and spirit as full as they’d ever been, feeling not just at peace, but at home.
I want to talk briefly about bread. Namely, the baguette. I ordered a baguette traditionale from a local boulangerie near the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, and traversed up the hill to drink in a morning view of the city. I ripped pieces and slowly chewed, sitting on a park bench and contemplating just how something so achingly gorgeous could rest before my eyes. The warm, soft notes of the flour and yeast rolling around in my mouth with each successive bite. And I genuinely thought to myself: “When was the last time I truly just enjoyed a loaf of bread?” Not a sandwich. Not a bruscetta. Not another kind of carb. Just … bread for bread’s sake.
I flashed back to when my Papa — born in Marseille, of course — would stop at local bakeries in Buffalo to load up on loaves before we’d make a trek into Canada for a trip to the cottage that sat on Lake Erie. He would always rip the first piece as soon as he got into the car, and pass the piping hot baguette — sometimes French, but usually some kind of rustic Italian — to the kids in the back for us to peck away at. That was 25 years ago. I gave the uneaten portion to a beggar on the Rue and treked across town, literally stopping to smell roses and buy Spanish nectarines and French berries to complete my breakfast. Again … simple foods. Simple pleasures. The bread of life.
I often wondered what I’d be like completely out of context: alone, on a different continent, around people whose language I did not speak, with no itinerary and an (almost) unlimited budget. Just me being fully me, fully immersed, and fully present. I found my answer: I’m pretty much the same everywhere, all the time.
I run. I explore. I eat breads and cheeses. I drink wine and coffee. I take pictures of buildings and streets and water. I try very, very hard — too hard, even — to charm and relate to people. Sometimes I succeed wildly and leave with new friends and lasting memories (or do I have that backwards?). One in particular stands out.
While on the flight from New York to Paris, I had the pleasure of meeting a charming, loquacious, walk-into-a-pole gorgeous 39 year-old nomad. We chatted for some six hours on my first day in town, and then agreed to meet for a date the following evening, consisting of a lengthy pasta dinner and a jazz club. Pasta and jazz remain two of my four love languages. The other two escape me at this moment.
I’m seeing a couple (several?) women back in the States but, come on, who says no to a night out in Paris? We laughed. I told (too many of) my trademark dad jokes. I asked meandering questions and told long-winded stories. She giggled and made just the right amount of eye contact to make me feel warm and welcome. And she was fucking smart and strong and fierce and kind. By the time we looked at the clock, our 6 p.m. start time hazily and woozily turned into 1 a.m. We gasped, and with a kiss we went our separate ways. Her on to Normandy, me returning to my hotel with a 375ml of champagne and all the buzz in the world.
Yes, out of context, I am the same. I didn’t come on this trip to have my “eat / pray / love” moment, as so many often assumed. Nor did I have it. I didn’t come on this trip to find myself — I had a damn good idea who I was going in. Through my time in Paris, that idea has only crystallized further: I am pretty delightful company most of the time, easily amused all of the time, and captivated by people and places that are beautiful, carbs that go down smooth, and hours that fly by smoother. Long live this iteration of me. It’s fine — not perfect, but fine — the way it is. Doesn’t matter where I am, or how I say it, I’m good with how I turned out — context be damned.
And so, with Paris Sunrise #4, the sun sets on my time here. It is — as many would consider it to be — a beautiful city. But of course it is. It is also delightfully a departure from the tragic norms of the US, where ambition is our drug of choice, where capitalism is the force that enslaves us, and where extra can never be enough.
Paris is a place where all cultures seem to gravitate and congregate — and how could they not? Liberte. Egalite. Fraternite. All literally etched in stone on the sides of buildings and breathed in deeply by those lucky (and wealthy) enough to call it home. A morning spent with a baguette in a parc. Fresh produce lovingly and longingly offered at roadside vendors. The beaming glow of the Sacre Coeur up close yet off in the distance.
In between the cheese plates and pizzas, African-owned chicken establishments and macaron patisseries, she still sighs. A breathtaking yet life-breathing place to do nothing in particular, yet everything all at once. Perhaps at nearly 36, I am late to this party — yet I feel I arrived right on time. A nobody in a sea of somebodies. A friendly face in an ocean of even friendlier ones.
This sojourn across the Atlantic to a strange and singular place, the championship trophy that awaited me on the other end of a hellish, brutal journey through the depths of all the self-inflicted sadness and struggle, and to the top of a mountain I never fully expected to scale — an iterative, dead-end-laden shedding of several skins that took nearly 36 years to get just right.
I am lucky. I am privileged. These go without saying and I am fully aware of just how good I have it, and how people who don’t look like me or have all the cheat codes I do have to struggle and suffer needlessly, senselessly and seemingly endlessly — some of whom will never get to experience a moment such as this. I held these gallons of thoughts and feelings in my head as I sipped on a sidecar and smoked a cigar on a Parisian rooftop. I savored them. And all I wished was to gift it all to someone else more worthy of it than I could ever be, my heart bursting and overflowing with a yearning for nothing and an appreciation for everything. I could spend weeks here, I thought, and never eat every meal that I want to, nor explore every street corner worth crossing.
So, yes, perhaps it took me longer to arrive here than it should have — perhaps the brightest flowers bloom latest. Yet I am here. Now. And this coordinate in space-time is all that I wished it to be and then some. Wherever the road (or plane) leads you — follow it. There’s always something waiting on the other side. It could be duck comfit. It could be your heart spilling into the streets of a place you’d only read and dreamt about.
A Paris sunrise — however you define it, wherever that place resides for you geographically or existentially speaking — is there for you. It’s waiting for you to arrive. You’ll find it, whenever you’re ready, and no matter how long it took you to see it, nor how long you’re locked in it’s warm embrace, that sun will still set too soon. May you all one day bask in its glow. Au Revoir. Je’taime.