In my early 20s when I was teaching ESL, a student told me his dream had been to come to America. He’d wanted it his whole life—or at least until his 20s—and was finally living his dream by studying in Seattle for the summer. I told him my dream was to go to France. “Didn’t it make you nervous?” I asked. “Weren’t you afraid that the reality wouldn’t be as good as the dream?”
“Now that I am here,” he answered and beamed, “it is better.”
This shocked me, this concept that the reality of your dream could be better than the dream. I stood dumbfounded, watching him smile over his fulfilled dream, and tucked my France dream away for another decade or so.
Years later, finally in Paris on the morning my friend who had been staying with me left, my dream awoke. We stood outside the La Closerie des Lilas, where Hemingway used to go. We hugged, she walked to the station, I looked up, and the city lit up. Paris was all mine. I could cradle it, kiss it, and do with it whatever I wanted. And I had five more days to do so. The shutters opened and seemed to wink at me, flowers tumbled out of balconies like Rapunzel letting down her hair, and I started to live all the Paris dreams I’d been holding on to for years.
I’d mapped the residences and cafes of the writers of the Left Bank. First I went to Gertrude Stein’s and thought about the pictures I’d seen of her salon. I turned a few corners and found F. Scott Fitzgerald’s place, and, because I was in the neighborhood, popped by Sartre’s. I went in Pierre Hermé pastries—my first time alone with these gorgeous creations. But it was odd; I didn’t feel a compulsion to eat the pastries. To me, it would be like chomping on a Haussmann balcony or biting off the tip of the Eiffel Tower. It would be destroying a thing of beauty. I had a similar feeling at Café Flore and Deux Magots, where Hemingway, Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir went to write. To be there was enough. Standing in front of history already eclipsed my dream of what eating there could be. It was already better. I spent those five days both a participant and a witness to a Paris outdoing itself over and over again.
I drank Aperol spritz in huge, Aperol branded goblets, realizing that’s the size they should be, not puny little wine glasses in the states. When my tour to Champagne was late picking me up, I grabbed a madeleine at the cafe across the street and ate it standing in front of my door as the garbage truck went by. It was the lightest, moistest madeleine I’ve ever had. The tour stopped, unplanned and unadvertised, in Rennes Cathedral. Each alcove dwarfed me. The tall, stone walls overwhelming and intimate as the red candles lured me from one room to the next. When the tour got underway I learned that instead of eight “tastes” of Champagne as advertised, we would enjoy eight full pours. That’s a bottle of Champagne per person. We sipped our “tastes” above the caves of Tattitnger, in the fields of Dom Perignon, over a paired lunch at a family’s estate, and at a small house where my last taste was oaked champagne. Like a buttery Chardonnay with bubbles. How could my dream be better than that?
“Really?” You ask. “Was everything really better than you expected it to be?” Of course not. My friend and I waited for an hour in the hot sun to get into the Louvre only to spend 45 minutes inside breezing past the tiny Mona Lisa in a room under construction. But then I turned a corner and found “La Grande Odalisque.” Musée d'Orsay was crowded too, but I saw more famous paintings that I’ve ever seen in one place. Just as I was pulled into Manet’s “Luncheon on the Grass” I spotted the real Monet that hangs above my bed in a print. Monet’s Gardens at Giverny were incredibly crowded, but I was able to look through the thin, white curtains of his kitchen and see what he saw. And although I got to the bus pick-up spot really early to make sure I didn’t miss my train, I walked along a stream and thought about how it was the same water Monet painted. At Angelina the Mont-Blanc cerise griotte pastry was too sweet and looked better than it tasted, but I was just so happy just to be sitting at Angelina because I thought I wouldn’t have time to go. For every tiny cup of coffee there was a huge spritz. For every soggy croque monsieur, a moist madeleine. And although my friend and I didn’t have the perfect picnic spread at the Eiffel Tower, we laughed more and the pictures were better than I could have imagined. For every letdown, there was a triumph.
My first solo morning at a café was both uncomfortable and triumphant. The waiter was short, the croissant dry, and I overhead French people standing next to me say “l’accent Americain” in a disparaging tone. But I was there. I was sitting in a quiet cafe across from a park reading a copy of Flaubert I’d waited 18 years to read. I was doing it. The girlfriend of the Frenchman next to me brought him a bicycle wheel and two boxes that read “tire tube” in English. This was real Paris happening around me.
Even though the trip had gone so well, with so many triumphs to override any disappointments, I had a tendency to overdo it. I’d purposefully marched across the Seine so many times, I hadn’t always paused to experience the things I’d come to Paris to experience. The night before my last day in Paris, I told myself I would slow down. I had breakfast at the café my friend recommended in Montmartre and lingered long enough for a second cup of coffee. Fueled by the satisfaction of finally having the cafe experience I’d wanted, I found the shoe store I passed two nights before and bought red, suede, peep-toe with gold piping espadrilles. The purchase was energizing: red shoes from Paris. I climbed up Montmartre to get a closer look at the original windmill. Then I went down the hill and bought another pair of shoes, supportive brown sandals. I went in two more boutiques and bought a red sweater with a gold and white design and a navy sweater with ruffled sleeves of red and white piping. I bought a lemon tart because I could, and six different mini jars of mustards. I was unstoppable. I ate the lemon tart in the Tuileries Gardens next to a field of lavender before Monet’s water lilies embraced me in the oval rooms of the Musée de l'Orangerie. And when I walked across the Seine for the last time on the Pont des Arts, I paused at the love locks that were piling up again.
Love has a tendency to do that. So do our dreams. My first day in Paris I took my friend to a puppet show at the Champs Elysees garden, the same show and garden from the 1963 movie “Charade.” It had been my dream to stand where Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant stood and exchanged: “The man and woman are married.” “I can see that. They're batting each other over the head.” The puppet show was one of my musts for Paris. We’d paid four Euros each and were two of the dozen guests. After the show, friends of the puppeteer overhead us speaking English and pointed out that today was opening day for the show. “But I looked online. It said the show is every Wednesday and Saturday.”
“No,” he said. “It’s been closed for years. They only just got funding from the city again. Do you want to meet the puppeteer?” And then I was backstage with the puppeteer and the puppets, looking at those expressive faces hanging on pegs. I shook the puppeteer’s hand and listened to him explain in perfect English, “I was a biomechanical engineer for Johnson & Johnson. One day I asked myself, ‘what is my dream?’ and it was to be a puppeteer. This is my first show.”
It had been his dream, too.
It all reminded me of the ending of “Pretty Woman” where the man struts across the street exclaiming, “Welcome to Hollywood! What’s your dream? ... Some dreams come true, some don’t. But keep on dreamin’!…” I’d dreamt of France for so long that even my first moments on the train outside of Paris made it come true. I watched the tiny towns of red roofs and white churches whiz by while listening to the Amelie soundtrack and started to cry. Even if I had never seen the puppets, eaten the madeleine, or drank the champagne, the dream had already come true. I was there. By making it happen, my experience in France didn’t need to be any better than being present and open to what could be. I finally understood my student from all those years ago. I finally knew he was right.