Wendy Barker, "Beyond a Certain Age, I Look for Paris in Paris"



I know about le Syndrome de Paris, triggered when a greenhorn's
          rosy-lensed image turns muddy, but I'm no wistful
                    Francophilic neophyte, so why am I
feeling like my British uncle who, forty-five ago, said when I told him
          I was bound for my first trip to Paris: "Why bother
                    with that filth?" When friends
heard I was heading again for the City of Lights, they said "Paris?
          oh! yes! in a breathy, pre-orgasmic voice, as if they
                    were picturing my lounging
outside a café on the Boulevard Saint Michel over a coffee or glass
          of Sauvignon Blanc as prelude to a blissful night
                    with my husband in a cramped
but oh, so charming chambre double, forgetting that I can't do caffeine
          or alcohol, and that, as I'd also forgotten, in mid-July
                    the sidewalks, the Métro, and
the galleries would be chock-a-block with chattering Brits, Italians,
          Yanks, Germans, and Brazilians, along with—since
                    it's the week of the Tour de France—
clusters of hard-bodied cyclists, so we're jostled by tee-shirts emblazoned
          with slogans like "Endurance Conspiracy" and
                    "Tourminator." The outing
we'd planned to Giverny is canceled, too much traffic, when for months
          I've been yearning to peer down into the waters that
                    spawned Monet's Nymphéas:
those rounded walls in l'Orangerie, depths that lead to more depths,
          dissolving boundaries. Where is the Paris of my mother's
                    rebellious cousin who painted with
Max Ernst, or the Paris of my grad student and her new husband,
          eyes aglow on their Facebook post, noses nuzzling
                    before la tour Eiffel? Or the Paris
of my twenties, when I first floated into Monet's water lilies, when
          the Seine glimmered like a thousand liquid candles
                    as I sauntered across Pont Marie
at midnight. On l'Avenue de Clichy, on Rue de Rivoli, I see only
          dog poop, crumpled plastic bags, and unfiltered
                    butts. A two-hour wait to enter
Notre Dame, the façade blocked by tawdry bleachers. Pebbles
          from the Tuileries have collected in my sandals
                    though I keep jiggling, trying
to shake them out. Maybe I have actually become my British
          uncle. Yet the young ones are kind, give up
                    their seats on the Métro. Even
last year, when I'd tell people my age, they'd say, "No! You can't be
          that old," but no longer. I've lived three—if not five—
                    more decades than everyone else
strolling the Champs Elysées. Samuel Johnson said if you're tired
          of London, you're tired of life. I'll bet he'd put Paris
                    in the same category—after all,
didn't he say French faces shine with "a thousand Graces"? I can't
          begin to keep up with my mountain-goat,
                    marathoner husband who'll
cover seven arrondissements on foot at a greyhound's trot. Yet
          now, on the day before leaving, I'm fueled by
                    a breakfast of hard boiled eggs,
and he says, how about Sacré Coeur, it's only a ten-minute walk,
          we'll take our time. So we do, and the hill with
                    its rounded, gleaming white
cathedral is washed with breezes. Inside les Jardins Renoir,
          we are alone in the courtyard, red poppies
                    brimming at green edges of
stones, a silence glistening through sudden empty space. And here
          it is: not Giverny, but a round pond, and, oh! yes!
                    pink and white water lilies, their
shimmering pads like clean hands open to sky, their stems trailing
          into the barely visible muck, and tiny speckled fish
                    burbling to the surface, then spiraling
back down to the silt, murky depths, the dirt that underlies us all.


Wendy Barker's poetry was included in Best American Poetry 2013; others have appeared in numerous literary journals, including Poetry, Gettysburg Review, The American Scholar, Georgia Review, Boulevard, and Southern Review. Her most recent full-length collection is Nothing Between Us (Del Sol Press, 2009), and her third chapbook was also published that year. Barker has received NEA and Fulbright fellowships as well as a Rockefeller fellowship to Bellagio. She teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she is poet-in-residence and the Pearl LeWinn Endowed Professor of Creative Writing.