What We Learn by Living Somewhere Else

The morning after the terror attacks in November 2015 at the Bataclan theater and several restaurants, a young man wheeled his keyboard out to the République Square. The city, still in shock from the horror of the previous night, was quiet and numb. The man started playing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and a crowd gathered, some weeping, some quietly singing along.

It was a near-perfect balm for what had happened. Parisians would not give in to savagery and fear. They would go on making music, making art, and living their lives. I became obsessed with the statue of Marianne while I was staying there. Most mornings, I walked around the Place twice, a little over a mile. I began collecting photos of this statue. She is a powerful symbol to the French and a fierce reminder that liberty, equality, and fraternity are what their country is built on. She is a wonder. And she is a reminder of what we owe to our own republic and to one another.

Autumn Saint (The Saint of Red Children)

Art by Tony Fitzpatrick

Paris has traffic of every kind — four-wheel, two-wheel, motorized, and human powered; it is everywhere around you, and you have to step into the street gingerly or you’ll get pasted. I saw scooters banging into cars, bicyclists getting “doored,” and much traffic-related calamity. But the recklessness of it is deliriously musical in a way. And don’t try to cross the 12 lanes of traffic that swirl around the Arc de Triomphe. There’s a tunnel that will get you there.

The city has a bike rental program. The bikes are lovely objects by themselves — elegant and beautifully designed. Their functionality is almost an afterthought for me. I found myself taking pictures of them, parked alone or when I saw a whole station of them. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because of how the French are mindful of how much beauty there is in their surroundings and infuse it in the objects they make.

My wife and I rode with a cabdriver named Monique who festooned her taxi with all manner of Mickey and Minnie Mouse plush figures as well as lavender candies that she insisted we sample. She smiled a coquettish smile and told us she loved us and explained that she was driving her cab because she was on the prowl for love.

“I am only 76 and not ready for the shelf quite yet,” she told us. She sang an Edith Piaf song to us when we got out of her taxi.

The Watchman of Père Lachaise (At the Break of Day)

Art by Tony Fitzpatrick

It’s odd to stroll around Paris and imagine Charles Baudelaire, Pablo Picasso, André Breton, and Camille Pissarro having walked those very same cobblestones. While there, I read Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years, a history of the avant-garde around the turn of the last century. It traces the path of four flawed men who possessed creative genius in spades: writer Alfred Jarry, painter Henri Rousseau, composer Erik Satie, and poet/art theorist Guillaume Apollinaire. They ran around Montmartre and were fond of throwing banquets and getting pie-eyed on absinthe. Montmartre still hosts the ghosts of that generation, and we’re rewarded for losing our way in its twisty streets.

It’s not lost on me that laying my head to rest every night in the cradle of surrealism has had its way with me. It’s also not lost on me how much I love this city, and how I would like to live here part time at least, because it has a way of unlocking ideas about what is and is not possible with great poetry and great hope.

Nearing the end of my four months in Paris, I realized that it would be hard to leave — and that when I did, part of myself would be missing. I felt so alive and connected to the ghosts here, I wanted, in some way, to belong to this magical place. Close to my final day of filming, I went to the Père Lachaise Cemetery to honor the ones who lit the way for me.

I’m astonished by the list of luminaries who occupy the afterlife there. Many Americans make a beeline for Jim Morrison’s grave. I sought out Max Ernst, Honoré de Balzac, Honoré Daumier, and Colette. I listened for nocturnes from Frédéric Chopin’s grave and arias from Maria Callas’. I hope that Edith Piaf found love among the gray stones and that Oscar Wilde found peace. I like to believe Marcel Proust is still busy with his remembering in this quiet ether.

It’s impossible not to want to be part of this city’s landscape and among its luminous ghosts, the ones who shaped its poems, music, dance, paintings, and all the other forms of magic.

No tragedy, hardship, or darkness can extinguish her joy. No matter what, she dances, she sings. She is a poem, and she awakens a singing hope in me.

Tony Fitzpatrick plays Jack Birdbath on Amazon’s Patriot. His artwork is included in the Play It Loud exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

• This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.