I am standing in a bar. It is my second week in Paris.
I hope this doesn't come off as condescending, an Australian says to me not unkindly.
I'm sure it won't, I say, although I'm sure it will.
Before I decided to move to Paris, he says, I searched online and there are literally hundreds of blogs written by women, in their 20s and 30s, who have come to Paris looking for love.
Love is not what I'm writing about, I say. I can tell he doesn't believe me.
I understand love like I understand French, which is to say very little and mostly through translation. With respect to Raymond Carver, I don't understand what people talk about when they talk about love.
I am not interested in Paris as a labyrinth to find my platonic ideal. I am interested in Paris as a place for escapees and exiles; a backdrop of history and a birthplace of creativity. Love demands some level of anchor and commitment. It is about finding a home reflected in another person. This doesn't interest me at all.
I am looking for Henry Miller's Paris, the Paris he describes in his 1934 masterpiece, Tropic of Cancer. At the start of the novel, the narrator has been living in Paris for two years and enough time has passed for him to feel romantic about his early, hungry days when he was still struggling to write art.
"With that bottle between my legs and the sun splashing through the window I experience once again the splendor of those miserable days when I first arrived in Paris, a bewildered, poverty-stricken individual who haunted the streets like a ghost at a banquet." He goes on to describe the "weird sort of contentment of those days. No appointments, no invitations for dinner, no program, no dough. The golden period when I didn't have a single friend." Those days, the narrator got erections "looking at the dumb statues" and wandered "along the Seine at night, wandering and wandering, and going mad with the beauty of it, the trees leaning to, the broken images in the water, the rush of current under the bloody lights of the bridges…." And on he goes, describing a series of vibrant Parisian moments that helped to change Miller from being an aspiring artist to being an actual artist.
In Miller's estimation Paris is the key ingredient for this particular alchemy.
It is no accident that propels people like us to Paris. Paris is simply an artificial stage, a revolving stage that permits the spectator to glimpse all phases of conflict. Of itself Paris initiates no dramas. They are begun elsewhere. Paris is simply an obstetrical instrument that tears the living embryo from the womb and puts it in the incubator. Paris is the cradle of artificial births. [Tropic of Cancer]
Each expat artist in Paris, Miller suggests, has something to say about their home and their own people; something that becomes clearer with distance. In Paris, each foreign artist "slips back into his soil: one dreams back to Berlin, New York, Chicago, Vienna, Minsk. Vienna is never more Vienna than in Paris."
For Miller's young-ish narrator, Paris, the physical city, is the stage against which his work must be displayed.
Other people might be here for soulmates, and they are welcome to them. But I want something else entirely.
I was drinking with a Spaniard at an awful Irish pub when I met a Frenchman. He was very tall with thick eyebrows stretched over dark eyes. Eyelashes for days. He was beautiful. At the end of the night, a drunk Irish woman whispered a warning in my ear: Be careful of French men, they just tell you what you want to hear.
I laughed. I wanted to say: Lady, I'm a visitor from the land of cyborgs, where people are two-thirds human and one-third machine. I come from a people who spend more time looking down at their machines than glancing up. A place where we often confuse messaging for honesty, exposure for vulnerability, and proximity for friendship. Frenchmen sound refreshing.
A few days later, the Frenchman takes me to a cocktail bar, which is behind the wall of a 10-seat taquería. Behind the wall, people are beautiful and bartenders take their time crafting drinks with complicated names. We find a place to stand. He asks me about work. I ask him about travel. He tells me about the book he's reading. He moves closer to me. I watch him notice my details. He remarks on the color of my skin, the contrast of my eyes and the color of my lipstick. My hair is different tonight, he says. He takes my hand, he strokes it with his thumb as he talks.
I break away to get us another round of drinks. When I return the couple next to us is locked at the lips. I glimpse flashes of tongue.
Can we move? I ask. I feel every inch the American.
His hands are on my waist as we walk to the other side of the bar. He's says things that make me want to laugh at him. I take big gulps of my Mexcal drink so I won't.
I think you must be the Frenchest man in the world, I tell him, the Frenchest man in all of France.
Have you ever dated a French man? he asks me.
A European? he asks.
Nope, I say. Just Americans and a couple Brits.
That's sounds quite boring.
Boring? I laugh. I suppose it is a bit boring, but most of them have been funny.
You must make men afraid, I think, he says. He slouches down in an effort to get me to look at him. His arms are around me. I place my palms flat on his chest and push against him gently to give myself some room.
I think, he says, you must make me afraid.
I smirk. It doesn't seem like I've scared you at all, I say.
You must, he says, Or I would have kissed you already. I laugh out loud.
There is a DJ standing in the corner of the bar. He doesn't have any room and is moving stiffly, right and left. He puts on an old doo-wop number from the 1950s. Something slow and croony.
Do you like to dance? the Frenchman asks me. Let's dance.
He is trying out different strategies. One moment he's bossy, the next moment he's coaxing.
Let's play a game, he says.
We are lazily moving with the music. He lowers his face so his lips are resting on mine. I close my eyes. I don't kiss him. He pulls back.
Have you left someone behind? he asks.
In D.C.? I glance over my shoulder, as if my hometown is somewhere in the bar.
Yes. Is someone waiting for you?
Oh God, no. I shudder without meaning to.
And you? I ask, Do you have a girlfriend?
He pulls me closer. Do you think I would be touching you if I had?
I do, I say. He laughs, but he doesn't answer.
Let's play another game, he says. His face comes close to mine.
Look in my eyes, he says. The first one to laugh loses.
OK, I say. We stare at each other. I laugh first.
You lose! he says. I want to show you something, he says after a minute. I want to say something snarky, but I don't because I am in a place filled with humans and he is a human. I am trying very hard to let people be.
We leave the bar and take the Metro five stops and then we are standing at the steps leading out of the station. He takes off his scarf and wraps it around my eyes like a blindfold and I think: This is not smart of me. This is not safe. But I let him anyway.
Frenchman, I say, I honestly can't see anything.
I am laughing. I am having fun. I can't believe I'm letting you do this, I keep saying. We stop and he says I'm not allowed to open my eyes until he tells me. I keep my eyes closed.
Ok, he says. Now.
I open my eyes and they fill with the Eiffel Tower. It is lit up and flashing; yellow lights dancing across the Seine. I look around me. There is a fountain, dried up for the winter, with red graffiti scrawled on the side. Behind us is a dance club, but it is still too early for lines, so no one is around except a single smoker pacing.
The Frenchman lifts me up so I can sit on a stone platform. He kisses me. And it is a beautiful scene and I try to memorize the view of the sparkling tower behind his head. I am taking notes. After a while, we leave. His arm is around my shoulder, while I lean into his side.
This is nothing at all like love. Just another story I'll try to write.
Read Neda Semnani's entire Paris project here: