Dear diary, on the 25th I will be 63 and I have finally been to The City of Light! It’s thanks to two charming young friends. It was a glorious gift and Paris is certainly astonishing! But, I ought to have gone so much sooner. How splendid, though, that on St. Valentine’s Day, dining alone, my friends became engaged to be married!
I was 29 when my first chance to go to Paris came in 1985. With a scholarship to study English country houses at the Attingham Summer School, I only needed a couple hundred dollars in my pocket to cross the channel and stay a few days, fulfilling a dream touring the Louvre and visiting Versailles. At a farewell dinner, after everyone else left the room, an unmarried man as old as I am now, made me an offer — “You are going to England, but you should see Paris and go to Versailles as well.” He said. “And I would like to give you $400 to go to France, but, only on one condition.” Silent with downcast eyes I wondered, what, might he want from me?
“On the condition that you give me the recipe for that blueberry pie you made …” (My secret? Simply lower the heat and leave the pie in the oven for an extra hour or more.)
Following in the footsteps of other real and fictional aesthetes — Langston Hughes, Little Billie, Ogden Codman, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, Elliot Templeton and James Baldwin — my sojourn-of-a-lifetime to Paris ought to have happened then. But leaving some cash at home in Ohio and buying a half-dozen books, I abruptly ran out of money. It took so long to wire funds back then, that even getting a loan from the Travelers Aid Society I had to stay a couple nights in a tent encampment for refugee men on the London outskirts.
Other chances came and went. Then six months ago Kimberly Morton and Roy Paul called saying they wanted to meet to tell me something. My friends had spent their very first date eating out at Spoonbread with me. Telephoning Roy to come along, he explained he was on a date having drinks. ‘Bring her too,’ I’d urged.
We had a great time and as they’d now been together for a couple years, I’d hoped they were about to announce they were engaged. Instead, they proposed a 7-day trip to London and Paris, to include St. Valentine’s Day. They asked me, “Would you please come as our guide and guest?!”
Arriving in the heart of Mayfair, what a difference a few decades and catalytic converters have made. Unfortunately, the forceful clash of new buildings amongst the old is still popular. This is a device the present generation likes to use affirming its presence. Yet, no doubt about it, gone was the wan vastness without a skyline, beyond banal council flat towers that overwhelmed even St. Paul’s and Big Ben.
Sidewalk cafes, smart shops galore and a new cosmopolitan gloss belied the sad metropolis one once found so wanting compared to New York. Indeed, everything seemed to compare favorably with my expectations of Paris. And this was just as well, because on a pilgrimage to the West’s shrine to style, for me, the entire trip that didn’t involve visiting the Palace of the Sun King, was either preparatory for, or adjunct to, that holy mission.
From dinner at the Wolseley, to lunch at the Ritz and even drinks and jazz at Marcus Samuelson’s Red Rooster, our meals in England seemed to have a Gallic flavor and flair as well. Beyond distinctively British architecture, the way London most forcefully asserted its importance, was with fashion.
Moving on to Paris we saw the same severely silhouetted sports clothes, shearling coats, skinny jeans, boots and “trainers” we’d seen before. Only the Londoners’ ubiquitous black and white checked Marks & Spencer bags, carried as an accessory, were missing.
Departing, one worried about the folly of risking so much success. Should Brexit actually happen, who will provide the wonderful energy and diversity that London is currently infused with? Who will do all the work foreigners do now?
Paris is a marvel of beauty and uneven pavements. As African Americans we went looking for reminders of Josephine Baker and others lured here before us. At the Musee d’Orsay information desk, a woman said she would look, but she was sure there was “no such artist as Henry Ossawa Tanner in their collection.” Discovering she was mistaken, she seemed to take special delight in informing us that all three of his works are in storage.
Finally we took the Left Bank train to Versailles. Like a first kiss, a first dance or a first lover, the experience of Versailles did not fail. Its splendors are France’s embodiment.
In Paris there is so much to admire, but it is like admiring a young beautiful film star one has long fantasized about and finally meets and shares a weekend.
The French Republic’s superb landmarks, mile upon mile, only make me appreciate more my old loves of a lifetime. I adore Newport, New York and Harlem, more than ever before! For they are the “mothers of our children,” my books, articles and talks. All the conceits and imitations by which these beloved places emulate Paris or London, instead of seeming pathetic, now only seem ever so endearing.
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