French Kissing Lessons: Paris, Part I
The plane from Florence to Paris is delayed for eight hours while we camp out like refugees in the airport. Airports appeal to the street-urchin side of my personality; nowhere else is it acceptable for adults who are not homeless people to sit on the floor eating stale pretzels out of a bag and muttering to themselves. I make myself right at home.
Airports also make me incredibly chatty, and as I have no idea what is going on, I appeal to those around me. This is how I meet an enormous lovesick Parisian, holding his suitcase in one hand and a bottle of Chianti for his ex-girlfriend in the other. “She broke up with me two months ago,” he tells me, ripped up in all the same places as me. “But I’m still hoping.”
We share the common tongue of those who can not let go, and when finally the airline bashfully confesses that our plane is actually at the Pisa airport, over an hour away, and that we will need to find a bus to meet it, I hang stubbornly onto my new best friend’s gigantic sleeve. In the movie of our travel adventures, I tell him, we would be trying to make it from Florence to Paris first with conventional planes, busses, and taxis, eventually enlisting helicopters and maybe submarines. In the film, the wine that Lovesick is bringing home for his ex-girlfriend would be forever imperiled; he almost lost it at airport security in Pisa, and in the film it would fall over a highway overpass into a truck-bed filled with cushiony hay and we would have to chase it down on stolen Vespas.
I try explaining all this to Lovesick, whose jet-lagged and exhausted English is not up to the task of following me. He all but claps a hand over my mouth and instructs the cabby to drop me in front of my apartment. I realize: I am in Paris.
The next day, I walk around, involuntarily squealing: at la Tour Eiffel, at the macarons, at all the French people. My ex-boyfriend Sketch liked to say about certain things, like tight underwear or neat little moustaches: “That’s so French.” At the Louvre, I take pictures of the portraits by David, Gerard, and Sketch’s favorite, Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. They are so French. I will keep these photos on my phone, like Lovesick, carrying that damn bottle of Chianti; somehow, having them means I will see Sketch again.
After a Musee d’Orsay / Louvre doubleheader, I get a text from Lovesick inviting me to meet some of his friends on Rue des Lombards at a bar. His friends are each foxy in their own way. One is funny and wildly flirtatious, with corkscrew hair. Another is trim and intelligent, the son of a French diplomat. He has traveled everywhere and speaks five languages fluently, including one language I have never heard of; he is an accomplished salsa dancer. The third friend who joins us was a former NBA draft pick, who blew out an ankle and with it his shot at the pros; he speaks no English, but watches me with moist, gentle eyes, his hands the size of trashcan lids. He places one on my leg and I shiver.
The guys tell me I have not experienced French kissing until a French person kisses me, and so first I kiss the son of the diplomat, leaning over the café table and toppling drinks. He bites a little, and he will bite harder as I proceed to kiss each of his friends: the funny one, who buys me a rose from a passing peddler, and then the one who speaks no English, who will use his phone to translate the question: Will you come home with me tonight?
I am sorely tempted. But as the night slips on closer to the hour of the last Metro, the guys have fallen into drunken argument. They take pictures of one another kissing me, threatening to send the pictures to the girlfriends whom, naturally, they all have at home. Under the table, their hands are all over me.
The smart one, the diplomat’s son, bites me too hard when I kiss him good-bye. My mouth tastes like blood. Lovesick, who has been talking quietly with his friend about his ex-girlfriend, begins sobbing into his hands. I walk him to the Metro, leaving his friends to their squabbles, clapping him on the shoulder. Of all these men, Lovesick is the only one who is single, and he is the one who is least available. I leave him at the Bastille Metro stop, thinking about how we are all prisoners, and how everyone who tries to love someone is a revolutionary, one who better be ready for blood.
The Tongue: Paris Part II
A friend sets me up with a wealthy, terrifyingly unapproachable man she knows in Paris, and he and I have one of those stiff lunches that make me never want to date again. He is sexy in a stern, unsmiling way, the sort of man I picture when I hear the word magnate, and he treats me to an upscale lunch at a bistro on the Champs Elysees, but we have the kind of agonizingly polite conversation you have when you are stuck on an elevator with your boss. He is a grownup, the kind with a summerhouse that has goats that live there; I am a kid, the kind who demands to be shown pictures of said goats, to which he replies dryly, “I don’t carry around pictures of goats.”
I spend lunch afraid I will drop my fork in my lap, and am sitting bolt upright when he leans over to kiss me. He is so certain that I will sleep with him that he doesn’t look behind him as he heads for his apartment, and he has to double back for me. “Why don’t you pop by?” he asks, looking directly at me for the first time. Frustrating men like this is a secret passion of mine, and I kiss him once more, there in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe, and neglect to tell him that he is covered in my lipstick before I bolt for the Metro.
Reenergized, I traipse around Montmartre, the streets a steeply pitched labyrinth looking for a Dali exhibit that I find after much cursing and rattling of my Paris map. I am so proud of myself, anytime I find anything, anybody, here on purpose.
The theme for the day is kissing men in front of French landmarks; I’ve arranged to meet some guy I met online in front of the Bastille monument that evening. I had only clicked the heart beside his picture by accident, but I was glad I did. We’ve traveled to many of the same places, and I chatter happily at him as he squires me around the neighborhood of Marais, pointing out buildings built before the first American colonies were a thing. He is older, more diminutive than I generally go for, but he writes reviews for the opera world and he is well-read and delightfully informative. He indulges without commentary my wish to have chocolat chaud even though it is August, and he brings me to this amazing place beside the Louvre, where they put crème fraiche instead of whipped cream on top.
Afterwards, I think he’ll kiss me in front of the Louvre’s glass pyramid, illuminated and surrounded by brides having their photos done, but he doesn’t. Nor does he kiss me on our stroll over the Pont Neuf bridge, or at the Paris Plage, where we sit with our feet dangling over the Seine and watch the Eiffel Tower go all disco. The lights twinkle madly for five minutes on the hour.
He waits until we are in front of Notre Dame before pulling me in close. He is slim and smart and kind and thoughtful, and the moment is beautiful, and I wish I could feel the lust and joy I think it ought to elicit, but I don’t. I really like him, but my vagina is tapping her watch and pointing out that the last Metro is in ten minutes.
What is it that makes chemistry with some people, and not with others? I would be delighted to feel it with this informed, charming man. We could make out in front of monuments all over the world. I want to feel it, but I don’t.
I am running out of time here in Europe, and I still don’t have any answers. In Paris, the leaves are already changing color and skittering along the sidewalks. I want to feel what I feel with Sketch, with someone else, anyone else, but I don’t. I want to call him, from across the world, even though I know what it will cost me.
I get an incomprehensible, Google-translated text from one of the men who demonstrated real French kissing on the Rue des Lombards the other night. He wants to meet up, and I think about his enormous hands, and I put my hands on myself and I am tempted, but it’s too frustrating trying to conjugate all the verbs in someone else’s native tongue. Maybe there is someone other than Sketch that I could love, but maybe he is on the other side of the world and we do not speak the same language so I will never know him. It is a depressing thought.
There is a language barrier here, a concrete dividing wall between me and even the English-speaking Parisians. I ask for something: Avez-vous le wifi? Or Are you still serving lunch? They answer with a curt non. Not: No, I’m sorry, I wish I could help you, I’m sorry you don’t have the thing that you need. Just non, with the implication that it was rude of me to even ask.
This city is making me crazy, so I try to do the things that make me feel more like myself: I go to a Bikram yoga class, and although it is all in French, I can follow along. I know what ouvrier means, and I do. Amidst the reeking carpets and the jacked Parisians, I open.
I decide I need to spend a day by myself, and I go to Pere Lachaise cemetery, where the crows call out overhead in French and I visit the graves of Jim Morrison and Balzac and Delacroix and Charlie Chaplin. Alone, contented, I spend time with the bones of Collette, a French writer who asked her man to lock her in her room and not let her out until she had finished her writing for the day. I identify with Collette.
I eat my lunch near the grave of Oscar Wilde. I had gone there, looking for something pithy on his tombstone, and here’s what I found: “And alien tears fill for him/ Pity’s long broken urn/ For his mourners will be outcast men/ And outcasts always mourn.” It’s not funny, and my eyes fill up unexpectedly. No other grave has been so defaced with lipstick kisses; they had to put up a plexiglass screen to protect it. I kiss the glass, leaving a mark amidst the gathering crowd of outcasts.
Home: Paris, Part III
When I do finally bring somebody home in Europe, it is a man so adorable that I want to photograph him sleeping. Squeeze is so cute it’s like making love to something out of a legend, a merman or a wood spirit, and I long to document him because I don’t think anyone will believe me. He is so cute he should be a tourist attraction here in Paris, one that a bunch of Senegalese guys are selling selfie-sticks and bottled water in front of. The sight of his face on the pillow next to mine makes me grin with unbridled pride and pleasure. It’s like having a baby owl in your bed.
Squeeze is here now, in my Paris apartment, sleeping off some jet lag while I furtively write about him. I haven’t fallen asleep with anyone since Sketch, and I had sort of forgotten how nice it is to wake up in the middle of the night with someone else in the bed, to pull yourself close to him and protectively cover him with the blanket, kissing the vulnerable skin on the nape of his neck.
Squeeze is not French. He’s a Venetian living in Paris. I think about my friend suggesting a few weeks ago that I go make out with some Italian guys, and how I felt like I missed my chance in Rome and Florence. Luckily, the universe provides us with do-overs. Much like the streets of Amsterdam, if you go in one direction for long enough, you end up back in the same spot, at the same intersection, and you get to make the choice again.
I’m heading home this week, back to New York. My time here is finally up, and I’m feeling like this is the part of the film where Sam Elliot comes out and summarizes the life-lessons imparted by our adventures. So here are a few of the things that I learned in Europe:
- There is a global hegemony, and it is Pringles. Every country has Pringles, flavored alternately with seaweed or brie or jalapeno, depending on which continent you are on.
- In Europe, you stick your credit card in from the short side. It’s not a swiping kind of thing. Had I known this in Copenhagen at the outset of this trip, I might have gotten that soda.
- Dairy-free in New York, I can apparently tolerate cheese and butter in Europe. I’m not sure if this is due to how we stuff our cows full of hormones or what, but it was worth the trip just for the unfettered gelato access. I have no idea what my body is going to think when I go home this week and ask it to start living on quinoa and sticks and thorns again.
- Socially-awkward things I do here can totally be dismissed as American quirks. When I violate some museum protocol or have my yoga top on inside out, I can simply say, “Oh, that’s what we do in New York.” With a little sniff of superiority. It’s awesome.
- The French are terrible huggers. They only do that double-kiss thing, and are puzzled why I want to hang off their torso. “Oh, that’s what we do in New York,” I tell them.
- At the outset of this trip, I had wondered if somewhere in the world there are men who want a girl like me. Apparently, in France, there are men who want a girl like me; I just can’t communicate very well with them. In texts, instead of writing ha ha ha in response to my trademark American wit, French men write back ah ah ah, which I think sounds like Count Chocula laughing.
While I am trying to itemize the things I have learned, the adorable man wakes up and adorably puts his pants on. “I just can’t with you,” I tell him, wrapping my arms around his naked waist, his belt buckle jingling against my bare skin. I know he doesn’t understand the colloquialism, so I guess I’m mostly talking to myself. “I just can’t.” What I feel towards him: waves of unearned tenderness that I have to struggle to hide. Men don’t like to be told a hundred times that they are cute; they find it a little condescending. Also, I keep looking at him and laughing like he’s a puppy with his head stuck in a box, not hearing a word he is saying.
According social-psychologist Amy Cuddy’s Ted Talk about the power of body language, daily exposure to cute things is good for your mental health; it’s the reason why so many social workers’ office are kitten-bedecked. And it does feel good on my brain, walking Squeeze to the Metro, battling the urge to squeal at him doing ordinary things. Just knowing that I can feel this way about another person, that I’m not actually as cold and dead inside as I sometimes feel, is enough.
Squeeze and I are developing a running joke that he is unburdening me of all my cherished misconceptions about Paris. “I’m breaking your dreams!” he laughs, as he explains that it is actually forbidden to go in the fountains, including the one in front of the Trocadero with all the Americans in it, or that one can not stay the night at the gorgeous Hotel de Ville, which is apparently Paris’ City Hall.
“Stop breaking my dreams,” I say, nudging him playfully because I really just want to touch him. But this trip did rid me of some of the false ideas I had: about needing a break from the rest of my life, about how maybe it would be better to meet a man who doesn’t speak my language, so we wouldn’t have to pretend to communicate.
Some dreams need to be broken. We need to communicate, and if we can’t, we at least need to pretend to try. I walk up to unfriendly Parisians, trying to communicate, saying hi, until someone tells me that in France, the word hi is used the way Americans use the word ouch. It’s like announcing that I am hurt every time I greet someone. I think about how desperately I have wanted in the last few weeks to call Sketch, just to say hi.
On the Metro, getting closer to his stop, I kiss Squeeze and look around to see if anyone else is impressed. I think about that old joke: a man has been stranded on an island with a supermodel, and after he has been having sex with her for a number of months, she asks him if he has any fantasy he would like her to fulfill. In response, he dresses her in his clothes, tucks her hair under his baseball cap, and runs up to her so he can yell, “Dude! You’ll never guess who I’ve been banging.”
I look at this man and I need to tell the Internet: you’ll never guess who I’ve been banging. Picture the cutest guy you’ve ever seen and then multiply that by twelve.
He asks me what I was up to, while he was sleeping off his jet lag in my bed. “Writing,” I tell him.
“What are you writing?”
We are eating from a shared plate of fruit, and I take a long time chewing and swallowing before answering. “I write a blog.”
And here it is. How would the blog change were I to share it with someone I am writing about? Would I be less honest if I knew Squeeze was going to read this? Would I leave things out? Or would it force me to be fairer, to think about things from another point of view before committing my opinions to the Internet? I just met him, but I want to trust him, to share something other than my body with him. This blog is, afterall, about the search for connectedness with other people, but it is itself one of the ways that I try to connect, the digital searchlight with which I hunt for other wild, broken people who know exactly what I am talking about.
He asks: “What is your blog about?”
And I tell him: “Travel.”
I just can’t.
But travel is not a lie. Because even when I’m home in New York, this blog is about travel. We are all in motion. We move like atoms, wildly perambulating even when we’re just occupying a chair, moving armies of letters across blank fields, breathing our way closer to getting over things.
Squeeze, the adorable man from Venice who came to Paris for work, he is moving too. His company no longer needs him here in Paris, and he has been offered a promotion in a bigger, more lucrative city.
He is moving, of course, to New York.
Photo: Paris, France 1980 — Mark Wyatt
Photo: Paris, France 1980 — Mark Wyatt