Paris Archived Features
•  La Vie En (Neon) Rose

La Vie En (Neon) Rose
Jean Mandel

Apart from its pure physical loveliness, and a softness of light that approaches a kind of cashmere haze, chief among the beauties of Paris are that it is both highly accessible on foot, and seemingly inexhaustible. This is a special combination of virtues. Los Angeles, though it offers superb hiking, is overall a hostile environment for pedestrians. There, in addition to the threat of heavy and fast-moving traffic, one risks--literally--running out of sidewalk; of bumping up against a freeway, a no-fly zone, or a similar and sudden rip in the landscape that demands retreat. Manhattan is surely as inexhaustible as Paris, an easy-to-master grid, but its proportions (just over two miles wide, and over 13 miles long) make it easy to end up much farther from home than you ever meant to go.

Paris, however, is compact and dense and navigable. I am consistently pleased to find myself able to walk to my heart's content, never in danger of running out of trottoir, nor of things to look at, nor of steam. In Paris, it is not unusual for me to wander for entire days at a stretch (provided it's not raining, or too hot). It’s just not that hard to do, because in Paris, there always seems to be another something that beckons: another street branching off, another bridge, another vest-pocket park, another display window, yet another statue of a lion (no city can have too many).

So it was a bit ironic that my first Christmas in Paris would find me with a broken foot, unable to walk without the aid of crutches, and thereby deprived of the one thing that I loved to do above all others: walk aimlessly all day around Paris.

Following a brief and weepy initial period of house-arrest (treatable only, it seems, with an ice-blue cold-pack and heavy doses of ibuprofen, Côtes du Rhone, and cable TV), I did come to see that Paris didn’t have to shrink to the size of my apartment. The truth was, having strolled over many long and short days what had to have been hundreds if not thousands of miles on foot, I had a rather rich, detailed, and three-dimensional mental map of the city at my disposal. I could wander it freely, from the safety of home--from the sofa, if need be--and picture in reasonable detail what I would be seeing, block by block. It was consoling, in some way. Certainly it had a kind of Proustian thrill to it, withdrawing from the world for health reasons, and then re-creating it all anew in my head.

Good as this was, it did not take long for the fundamental weaknesses of the imagined walk to become apparent: first, it’s not really all that consoling. And second, being imaginary, it precludes the possibility of new discoveries along the way. Like, for example, the perfection that is pink neon.

It had just struck me like that one day while out walking. Whether it was a sign above the Tabac Hollywood in the rue Clichy (broken and blinking, calling to passersby like a barker in front of one of the neighborhood’s strip joints), or Le Calumet in the rue Notre Dame des Champs (the word “tabac” gleaming in slender, graceful cursive), or one of a dozen others, I don’t know. But there it was: pink neon. How wonderful.

Because Paris is so monochrome; there's a continuity you find, between the persistent opacity of the sky and the regularity and neutral palette of the buildings--an evenness of color and size and texture. This evenness of tone and proportion makes details stand out all the more: a well-polished brass kick-plate on a door; the geraniums standing guard on a balcony rail; the green leafiness of a courtyard just glimpsed through a porte-cochère as it shuts. In this city of oyster grays, slate blues, off-creams, and off-beiges, a city with a slate-green river running through it, pink is the just-right color to set it off.

Once you start noticing the pleasant effect it has, not just on the landscape, but on your morale, it becomes addictive. To move across the city is to embark on a safari devoted to quietly observing glass creatures in their native habitat: the looping script announcing the Jean Nicot café in the rue Saint Honoré; the strong rectangular proportions of Le Rouquet on the Blvd Saint Germain (the “Q” is so nice); the strange serif font of the institut de beauté Reeva in the rue Vivienne; the vertical “Hotel” sign that hovers above the super-soigné rue de Bourgogne (and yet could be just as at home in the “old” Times Square, or in any forgotten street around the corner from any train station, nearly anywhere in the world).

Once you really get going, the pink starts to reach critical mass in your imagination. At that point, you appreciate how it is a much stronger choice overall than green or blue neon, which, though more frequently on view in the city, have none of pink’s warmth.

Nor its romance, admittedly.

Because you want to see that, that big-R Romance, when you come here. And you will, certainly. However you choose to define it. Paris, the city you imagine, the city first encountered in the Madeline books, in "The Red Balloon," or in the postcard someone sent you as a child, is easy enough to find. (Los Angeles, I think, by contrast, can be difficult to find. It doesn't have the same thematic or architectural consistency. It also sprawls too much, and has too many micro-environments, to deliver a continuous dose of itself.)

The problem with Paris--among the problems of Paris--is that it is absolutely just what you expect, right up until the moment that is not. In the wake of being charmed, it's easy to forget that it's a big city. It belongs to a species that is by nature, and by turns, loud, hectic, snarled, and unpleasant. And the people who live in such places can be loud, hectic, snarled, and unpleasant, as well.

On a normal day, you might walk away at top speed in the opposite direction of any such unpleasantness. You can just outrun it.

But not on crutches. Not if you have a broken foot.

Which was precisely why one Sunday afternoon after New Year’s, as I painstakingly and agonizingly tap-tapped with my crutches along the rue Jean Calvin, eyes trained dead ahead, I began humming Charles Trenet’s “Que reste-il de nos amours?” rather loudly to myself. Condemned to moving slowly, making noise was the only thing I could do to fight off and drown out the sound of an unsteady geezer standing just a few feet from me, pissing what had to have been several liters of plonk onto the sidewalk and likely onto himself.

Ça c’est Paris! It’s a postcard moment that gets left out of the travelogues, but exists no less because of it. Indeed, welcome to the world’s most beautiful city! Don’t forget to wipe those shoes carefully on the mat! As his splattering continued with such force that I found it hard not to picture a tiny sailboat capsizing in the gutter, I made a note to self: never, ever, ever walk on this side of the rue Jean Calvin. Never, ever again. I could understand perfectly in that moment how the divide between the imagined Paris and the real one drives some people--and particularly some Japanese people--around the bend.

It’s true. An article in the French psychiatric journal Nervure described this illness' pathology and treatment. Its symptoms (which include physical and motor difficulties, delusions, and social withdrawal), it turns out, are very like schizophrenia.

In fairness, it's more than just the disconnect between the real Paris and the imagined one that does it. Apparently, it results from a combination of factors: the inevitable divergence between reality and fantasy, compounded with the linguistic and social isolation experienced by Japanese visitors to the city, and the inconsistency and unpredictability of the reception they encounter, coupled with the emotional strain that results from being both over-stimulated and jet-lagged.

(At the other end of the spectrum, we have "Stendhal Syndrome" documented in the 1990s by an Italian psychiatrist. It is specific to Florence, but not restricted to any ethnic or national group. It is, basically, the losing of one's marbles in the face of too much Art. The Art causes, figuratively, a sort of aneurysm; a beauty bomb detonating within the head. Or perhaps even within the heart. Symptoms include palpitations, delusions, and a desire to hurl oneself, weeping, at the walls of the Uffizi Gallery. Something like that, anyway.)

Granted, some of the Japanese patients documented in the article were exhibiting schizophrenic symptoms well before their arrival. (For instance, the woman who saw a poster in the subway in Tokyo that said, "France is Waiting for You" and took it to mean her, personally. She later claimed to be the Queen of Sweden. And later still, of Norway.) A number are younger people, who are seeking to escape the weight of the societal expectations, and restrictions, to which they are subject at home. You could argue that they were primed for eventual breakdown, anyway; one that their arrival in Paris merely accelerated.

And that makes sense. Paris has long functioned as a synonym for hope, and for possibility. But it is not hard to imagine how a fragile person, desperately fleeing from something, might be doomed not to find what they were looking for here. "Possibility" is only that; lose your faith in it, and you will be left empty-handed.

Under the supervision of a Japanese psychologist at the Sainte-Anne hospital (which is to Paris as Bellevue is to New York), they receive anti-anxiety medication (anti-psychotics, in some cases) and counseling in their native language. The assistance of the Japanese Consulate is enlisted as well, because some of the patients need to be escorted home.

That Sunday afternoon, tap-tapping as I went, I had no such escort home.

With only the sound of my own voice and two aluminum crutches for company, and knowing that at home only an icy-blue cold-pack waited for me, I tried to think the rosiest possible thoughts: my peony-colored umbrella; the sun descending into a pink sky behind the bare trees in the Luxembourg Garden; a Kir Royale; a raspberry macaron.

And the sight, on a cold winter afternoon, of a particularly warm-seeming neon sign above a café, blessing me with a pink halo and the promise of as many individually wrapped sugar cubes as needed to sweeten the picture.

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