How to be French pt. 2: Fleurs & Femmes

I must have flowers, always, and always. // Claude  Monet

The light sank below the city and fell across the faces of Parisians laughing with glasses of wine in their hands. They laughed beautiful laughs and talked beautiful talk and smoked their tragic cigarettes. I sat with two friends, eating the greatest tasting cheese crepe in the whole world. We sipped our own small cups of wine, celebrating our last night in Paris. I will spare you the incredibly embarrassing story of how we destroyed the cork of the wine bottle by trying to open it with a cheap corkscrew from a tiny souvenir shop because, according to the French, we don’t think things through anyway. And we are American. We were trying really hard to blend in and we managed to get the bottle open, and it was an even more celebratory night because of it. We sat next to the Seine, waving to all of the river boats that passed by, sort of starting to feel like we fit in, if only just a little. 

The cigarette haze tends to hang over busier parts of the city, but so does the smell of fresh bread and the least-bitter cappuccinos I have tasted. It’s one of the most dazzling of combinations to wake up to in the morning. Along with the sound of the steady hum of bustling traffic and the unmistakable hum of life, bursting at the cracks in each gorgeously old building, Paris is a city of otherworldly wonder. 

Van Gogh once said “There is but one Paris and however hard living may be here, and if it became worse and harder even—the French air clears up the brain and does good—a world of good.” 

While the air here is a little questionable, it does do you some good. Walking through the streets of this history-clad wonderland, I began to notice more than the monuments or city lights. I noticed the people and how beautifully they carry themselves and interact. Whether it’s a kiss on the cheek to greet a friend or a fashionable woman sipping delicately on her expresso, there is a certain dignity and sophistication about this city. It makes me want to be more confident in how I carry my own self and how I sip my coffee. It makes me want to write novels and know everything about Ernest Hemingway and Victor Hugo. 

Yeah, the air has done some good, 

But with that said, Paris has also taught me something else. Something rather contradictory of this. 

Today, we visited Versailles. It’s stunning and aesthetically dignified just as the Parisians are. The gardens stole my heart, though. I could have spent all day feasting my art-hungry, flower-loving soul on the beauty of the fountains and the wonders of the green labyrinths of shrubs and hedges. While I was walking through part of the labyrinth of shrubbery, listening to the classical music echoing throughout the gardens, I felt compelled to go explore a little on my own. To take this all in as I wanted to without the distraction of my peers. I knew if I stayed with them I would be tempted to go along with what they wanted to do, which I knew would be fun. But at the same time, this was my experience too. 

So I left them at the entrance and wandered through the gardens by myself, not paying attention to the map. It was one of the most radical feelings to not care so much about what everyone else was doing and focus on what I wanted out of that moment. Before I let myself go into the gardens like that, I cared an awful lot about what others saw on the outside of me: my appearance, how confidently I spoke French, and how I spent my free time. But in those moments of freedom, as I pondered each sculpture, pretending to be une femme d'elegance, admiring the vastness of beauty on the outside of the chateau, I realized it didn’t matter to me what anyone saw on the outside. 

What mattered in those moments was what was happening inside. And let me tell you, something beautiful was stirring in my heart as I gazed out at the art and the wonder of it all: at what the gardens held for me to capture internally, and how flowers made me feel. At what Paris held for me to embody, not just cloak myself in, as the hazy cigarette dust cloaked the streets in the morning. 

What I understood walking through les jardins was that Versaille was much like my struggle with what people saw on the outside, as well as like the lovely people of Paris. Yes, we might appear to have it together on the outside. We probably care a lot about how others perceive us: are we beautiful enough, confident enough?

We don’t always take into account what’s happening on the inside.

Versaille is incredibly grand on the outside. It convinces you that there is nothing more beautiful. The Parisians are wonderfully fashionable and chic, walking down the streets of their city, appearing quite confident on the outside about who they are and their city. 

I might strive to speak French well and appear confident in who I am and what I want. I might be perceived as a generally nice person who enjoys wearing skirts with flowers on them. 

But on the inside of Versaille, chaos in the luxury ran the beauty of it all into the ground. All of those cigarettes that those hip Parisians smoke are indeed tragic to their insides. And me . . . well, I'm work in progress. Just like any other twenty-something who doesn't always know what she wants because she has not had enough time to focus on what's going on inside. 

The gardens of Versaille ironically awoke this realization in me. I love flowers and art, and gosh dang it! I was going to see every inch of that beautiful place because that is what I wanted in that moment. I was focusing on what was happening inside. 

Paris is in fact a place of unreal aesthetic that brings me to tears and makes me emotional more so than I would like. It's art and it's people evoke a certain physical beauty and confidence.

Hemingway wrote in A Moveable Feast "But Paris was a very old city and we were young and nothing was simple there, not even poverty or sudden money, nor the moonlight, nor right and wrong, nor the breathing of someone who lays besides you in the moonlight." 

Indeed. Nothing is simple here. It is a city of contradictions. But at the same time that's what makes it lovely, in all of its dazzling splendor of people and culture. Versailles, no matter how lovely, is not simple for the exact reason it fell apart with the lavishness and worry over how it appeared. I am not simple. There is so much more I want in life than to look a certain way or to be dignified. 

Charlotte Bronte also wrote, “I would always rather be happy than dignified.” 

If that is the case, than I choose flowers over fashionability, art over aesthetic, and what’s going on inside of me and my heart over what others perceive.