“America is my country, but Paris is my hometown.”

— Gertrude Stein

 

1952: I HAD a chance to go to Paris, to live my dream. But because of a girl (it was always about a girl with me), I chose to stay at school in Louisiana and lost the chance. Never mind, it’s a long story and not salient.

New York 1957: I was dating a girl (see what I mean?) who ran the French department at the Berlitz Language School in Manhattan. A free trip to Paris was offered, but I had just been cast in a major part in a play and had to turn Paris down.

Paris, like most of my generation and all those before, was a magical name for writers, for painters. Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald created that. After all, the same cafés that served Vin Rouge to Cezanne and Picasso, and absinthe to Toulouse-Lautrec, were still there with their basket-weave chairs and marble-top tables.

James Baldwin and Louis Armstrong went there to escape racism in America. The great black poet Langston Hughes worked as a bus boy in a jazz club in Montmartre; Ho Chi Minh, the future leader of Vietnam, worked as a kitchen helper at a café in Paris. It was the flame for migrant moths, the mecca for artists. Next question?

Long before I knew I was a writer, I fell in love with Paris. It was at the movies that I really caught the bug. I was kind of a weird kid when it came to the movies. I was always drawn to adult movies set in Europe, and of course, Paris, especially during the war years and just after when Free Paris was the focus. I remember “Arch of Triumph” with Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman in 1945, and the great French films we all saw in the ’50s, the age of “Nouvelle Vague.”

Jean Luc Godard, Truffaut, Rohmer, Chabrol. A good date night was to take a girl to the Trans Lux theater in Manhattan and impress her with your knowledge over a bottle of cheap wine. It was always about a girl, and for me, Paris was the girl, a gorgeous, far away, desirable, unattainable girl, who always knew the right thing to wear, who always looked good in moonlight.

I wanted to be Fred Astaire in “Funny Face” dancing in front of the Eiffel Tower in bright sunlight. I wanted to be Gene Kelly dancing on the banks of the Seine with Leslie Caron, or wear an old raincoat like Charles Boyer, and have a cigarette with Ingrid Bergman at the Le Cafe des Deux Magots.

In 1958, I had another chance, but again, I was a young actor in love with a young actress. I had to work, pay the rent and the bill at Joe’s on Second Avenue. But she was a girl from Maine, and I soon noticed that only two blocks away from her my loneliness began, and she was a French girl after all, close enough.

This week’s unthinkable, horrible tragedy exploded across the world like a meteor, and left us all stunned and shaking. The Mideast had long become a stone in our shoe, but we had kept walking. Benghazi, Syria, the Sudan, Boko Haram, The Gaza Strip, all horrific, but so far away. We wanted to close our eyes, fingers to our ears, humming loudly until it went away.

But Paris? Our city of dreams? Who could do such a terrible thing? And why? The victims were cartoonists, the descendants of Daumier and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Clearly now the tigers are at the gates. All bets are off. She was bloodied, but still she is Paris, the girl of our youthful dreams, with stars in her eyes,the smell of chestnuts in her hair.

It’s night in Paris as I write this, a very dark night, the darkest since June 14, 1940, when the Germans walked in. Her streets are stained with blood and tears, full of armed men, and the sun has finally set on a week of horror and unforgettable pain.

But Hemingway was right when he took from Ecclesiastes to give us “The Sun Also Rises.” Je t’aime mon amie, ma Paris, Je suis Charlie.

J.P. Devine is a Waterville writer.

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