Monday, 18 April 2011

Paris, France

I'll say it upfront:  I love the way that French men smell.

I had this thought for the first time when I was 17 and riding the metro in Rome during World Youth Day.  I was boxed in by a group of French.  Boxed in does not adequately describe the overcrowdedness.  My head was very nearly shoved up some French man's hairy armpit.

When we left the metro, a person I was with commented that the French smelled horrible.  "They don't shave their armpits and I swear to God they don't wear deodorant in that damn country!" 

My reaction was quite different.  It was more along the lines of, "Mmmm baby, I want myself a French lover." 

Sadly, this was the last time I would smell French armpit for quite some time.

Eleven years later I read an article on CNN which confirmed that I'm not quite mad.  According to several large-scale studies, appreciating a person's natural smell is a sign that you are genetically compatible with them and would produce high quality offspring:

In two large studies led by Brown University olfactory expert Dr. Rachel Herz, women ranked a man's scent the most important feature for determining whether she would be sexually interested in him.

As it turns out, scent may be the main way in which women literally sniff out genetic compatibility with a potential mate.  How we smell is an external expression of the genes that make up our immune system.

Like fingerprints, each of us has our own unique "odor print," which is part of a region of genes known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC).  Women prefer the scent of men whose MHCs are different from their own.

So when we say that opposites attract, we may not be talking about differences in personality, but rather differences in immune systems.  This is one of Nature's ways of ensuring that we produce the healthiest offspring.

So, according to this article, I should move to Paris, find myself a nice French man and get to work producing the best and brightest spawn... 

But anyway, now that I've completely blacklisted myself, where to begin...

I adore Paris.

It is, without a doubt, the best city I've visited on my RTW trip.  There have only been three cities that I fell in love with at first sight:  New Orleans, Seattle, and Tel Aviv.  Paris was the fourth.  And as I write this I can already predict how much I'll miss Paris...even though I haven't left yet.

In three days, I've come to appreciate French culture, a culture that non-French people have repeatedly described as pompous. 

I understand now that the French are not so much pompous as fiercely proud of their culture and determined to preserve every vestige of it.

There are also cultural differences that may account for this misperception. 

I notice that people don't smile at me on the street.  Someone explains that the French do not believe that you have to smile in order to be polite.  A smile is only rendered when the person legitmately feels like smiling.  It's not like America where we give eachother hundreds of forced, fake smiles each day because we feel we must.

And I see that the smile analogy extends to all aspects of life... 

Little here is forced or fake.  Things are not done out of obligation but because the person genuinely wants to do them.  People don't buy mass quantities of healthy food.  Instead they buy small quantities of their favorite foods...the richest, most decadent foods...and they savor them slowly over three hour long meals. 

So many things endear me to Spain's cooler cousin.  I'm enchanted by the lyrical, cooing, whispered way that French words sound as they swirl out of someone's lips...

And the incredible artwork...the chic boutiques...the lazy Seine...the sun dappled tree canopies...the smoky, cavernous Bohemian cafes...the endless bottles of vin that are sipped rather than chugged...the male cyclists in spandex shorts... 

I mean, God, even Jim Morrison is buried here! 

...One evening in the Montmarte neighborhood of north Paris, I met a painter named Aloin.  And I let him sketch me in charcoal.    

It reminded me of that picture Javed's friend, Danesh, took of me at the Monsoon Palace in Udaiper on Valentine's Day.  I want to save Aloin's sketch so that I can look back on it one day and see an image of myself when I was still young and "almost fearless," still idealistic, unruined, living at the cusp of my late 20's and early 30's. 

I'm finally old enough to know how young I still am...

Aloin and I shared a bottle of rosè (blush wine) on a lawn near the Sacrè Coeuer.

Sacrè Coeuer.


He conversed with me in French, and in two hours I relearned everything I absorbed in a semester of French classes at the Academy.  I'm amazed at how easy it is to learn a new language when a Parisian painter and a bottle of rosè are involved.

I asked Aloin to show me where else French is spoken in the world.  In typical artist fashion, he created a grand sketch of the earth in charcoal on a shred of napkin and he shaded in the countries where the people speak francaise. 

There is Madagascar, parts of west Africa, and the Carribbean.  And there's the south Pacific island of Tahiti, an island that I became fascinated with due to a song by Crosby Stills and Nash...

Ever since I heard that song on the radio on the way to work one rainy morning, I've wanted to take a sailing expedition around the Southern Islands.

After the bottle of vin was consumed, I left Aloin and walked the dark streets of the City of Lights.

I knew then what I've known about so many things in my life.  It was not a revelation reached in a logical, systematic, connect-the-dots sort of way.  Rather, it was a spontaneous leap of consciousness:  it was my intuition.

I knew at that moment that my life would continue to involve the French.  That one day I'd sail around the island of Tahiti, that I'd practice public health in a French speaking African nation, that I'd love a man who's smell I cherish...

I made a pact with myself somewhere on those dark streets of Paris:  I will learn French when I return to America.


  1. I love Paris and France in general. So glad you get to go there. Are you going to the south of France at all. The people are lovely -Molly

  2. Molly! I know, it's a wonderful city. I go to Berlin next and then head toward eastern Europe and the Balkan peninsula. On my way back to Madrid I may try to stop in Nice or Bordeaux...that is I have the money, ha.