Out on the Surface of Life

“I do things quite purposefully now to get out on the surface of life.”
— Alice Munro, on her retirement from writing

I saw many performances in Paris – contemporary theatre, modern dance, a ballet, a concert of Fado music. One night following a performance at the Théâtre de la Ville, I went out for a bite with my colleagues. We sat outside at a restaurant across the square from the theatre and split a couple of demi bouteilles of French wine and some saumon fumé, scrumptious cheeses and warm, crunchy bread. It was a wonderful post-theatre snack, and it was also 10:30 at night. I thought, in that moment, about being more open, uncharacteristically open – to new things, to new experiences, to different ways of being, to meeting new friends and spending time with people. Where I might ordinarily have begged off because I was tired (which I was) and because we had class early the next morning (which we did), instead I bought in completely to the idea (not to mention the reality) of being in Paris. Just the night before we had done the same thing, following another performance at the Théâtre des Abbesses in Montmartre. A friend of Mary’s met us for the performance and afterward we went out to toast the purchase of her new apartment. As we were pouring the champagne I glanced at my watch: 11pm. Mary saw me look and elbowed me conspiratorially. “We’re in Paris,” she said, as an enormous smile spread across her face.

A couple of years ago, after spending eight days in Paris, I wrote, “I’ll never be an insider in France — not even if I lived there twenty years, I don’t think. It’s something not just about being foreign, but about being American. Even with my outsider status, though, I felt among Paris, among its people. It’s difficult not to; they live in the city, on it, all over it — on the sidewalks, in the cafés on every corner, in and around the magnificent parks and public spaces, walking, always talking, drinking espresso and eating a snack or resting for a moment in a chair in the Jardin du Luxembourg or the Tuileries, reading a magazine, taking a nap. I found a quote from Mark Twain, who wrote that Paris street life is `so frisky, so affable, so fearfully and wonderfully Frenchy! … Two hundred people sat at little tables on the sidewalk, sipping wine and coffee; the streets were thronged with light vehicles and joyous pleasure-seekers; there was music in the air, life and action all about us.’

“As an outsider it is easy to mingle with Parisians, because Parisians are everywhere. But I am likewise everywhere noticing them, which simultaneously puts me both intimately within and forever beyond their ordinary life.”

I felt more intimately within this time around. Maybe it wasn’t within the lives of others, necessarily, but within my own skin, within the language, within the experience. And perhaps it wasn’t so much about being more open as it was about being less closed, if such a distinction even matters. Either way, I went with the flow. I stayed up later, I took longer walks, I stood on bridges and watched the river, I drank the second bottle, I spoke French without concern, and I reveled in the unfamiliar: it still being light at 10:00pm; eating dinner at 10:30; drinking wine on the river bank; the vibrant living that goes on in parks and squares; wearing jackets in summertime; accepting every invitation. Even when – especially when – I wanted to say no, I kept saying yes.

There are trade offs to this sort of approach. I have written very little. This is not to say I haven’t been productive – I’ve taken lots of notes, done some reading, and spent time slashing a draft of a chapter about France. I’ve done a lot of work for both courses. But the main thing about always saying yes is that it’s exhausting, and I wonder whether or not it’s sustainable. Maybe it only works in Europe.

I’ll find out soon enough – I go home at the end of next week. I’m not looking forward to being home, but neither am I dreading it. It will be nice to be back; I’m looking forward to being still. And I’m curious to see if – or how much of – Paris Bill translates back to Washington. Though maybe he isn’t supposed to. Maybe that’s part of what makes Paris so special – what it does to us when we are there, how it stirs up something within us, changes us, and then sends us home renewed. I love the way of life in Europe; it makes sense to me when I am here. These weeks in London have been very different, but still delightful. I’ve loved the manic pace of things. The rush. The whiz. Where Paris has a coffee, wine, and fresh bread in front of an open window sort of charm, London is more a tea, beer, and cooked pie in a pub kind of place. The size and scope – the symbolic energy – of their respective rivers sums up their differences nicely.

Each place I’ve traveled has reminded me that there are other ways to live. Different ways. Wonderful ways. Ways that are so much more out on the surface of life than what I’m accustomed to. And that’s the point, the beauty, of travel: new perspectives, new ways of seeing and appreciating the world.

Berlin is next, and I look forward to arriving there tomorrow.

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7 Responses to Out on the Surface of Life

  1. Jill Johnson says:

    Dear Paris Bill,
    I loved every word of this post–every word. It seems to me the great work you’ve done is : Even when–especially when I wanted to say no, I kept saying yes. When you return, all the living you’ve done in Paris and London will show up, ” in the sentence(s) that could change your life.” I’ m toasting Alice with you. Much love, JJ

  2. Jenn says:

    Paris Bill sounds delightful, but I quite enjoy Washington Bill- don’t sell him short.

  3. Keri Cole says:

    I’ve heard tell that Paris Bill really likes Vermont…

  4. Pingback: Boulevardier | Randa's Fans

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