by Joan Z. Shore
Most cities in the world impose their character on you, like it or not. New York shoots you with adrenalin, and implants grandiose dreams. London revs you up in a more subtle way, making you impatient and irritable. Rome scatters your energies and overloads your senses. St. Petersburg dazzles, and cuts you off from reality. Cairo submerges you, ignores you. New Delhi claws at you and gives you no peace.
But Paris — it is all things to all people, and a different thing to everyone. It can change moods from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour, and those changes are simply reflections, or projections, of your own changing moods.
You can wake up on a dark, rainy morning and feel utterly exuberant; you can walk down St. Germain on a sunny afternoon and feel dismal. The city does not impose its sentiments on you; it respects you, it lets you be.
Café life supports this, encourages it. You are in the world, but not of it. You are among other people, but not with them. You are part of the human race, pardieu!, but you are autonomous, even anonymous, if you want to be.
So the city is a kind of barometer, a psychological litmus test, of your inner state at any given time. Like those rings that change color according to your mood.
I might even go further and say that tourists who come to Paris and hate it are simply sensing their own unhappiness — the sorrow or discontent that they have brought with them. The city is not going to cheer you up, like Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Barcelona; it is going to throw you back on yourself, into yourself, just as a very good analyst or a passionate lover will do.
So it may be a sign of great self-indulgence to live here year after year as I have been doing. It may actually be a chronic case of narcissism, of self-referral. For I am not involved with the city, but with myself; the city is my framework and I am swinging in and out of it as I swing in and out of my moods. When I spend twenty minutes waiting on line at the post office to retrieve a stupid registered letter, I may be working up a blind fury with French inefficiency, or I may be calmly contemplating my marketing list. It all depends on the mood I was in when I entered.
….Because there is nothing inherently good or bad, nice or nasty, about the way things go here. Example: that same day in the post office, I put a couple of large coins into the change machine in order to buy stamps from the automatic dispenser. What emerged sounded like a Las Vegas jackpot: about twenty coins of tiny denominations. I began to load them into the stamp-dispensing machine, but it took so long that the machine shut off and spat out all the coins. No way to buy my stamps! I cursed it, but it was comical, too.
Another example: on my way home one evening, I stopped at a local butcher to pick up a chicken. I didn’t want a raw one, but I didn’t want one of his barbecued ones either; I wanted one that was only half-cooked, so I could add my own herbs and sauce and finish the roasting in my oven. He refused, flatly, to sell me a half-cooked chicken! Do you scream bloody murder or do you laugh in his face?
There is one moment when Paris truly invades me, overwhelms me, knocks me out. That is just before dusk, as the sun is setting, close to the Eiffel Tower. On clear days, the entire sky is suffused with a mystical golden light. On cloudy days, there is a fast-changing pageant of blue and pink and mauve. The river shimmers in response; and for a few minutes, ordinary buildings turn brilliantly bronze.
I don’t know whom to thank for this. God, probably.