Saturday Single No. 530

Forty-three years ago today, I spent some time in Paris’ Montmartre district, touring the Sacré-Cœur Basilica and then walking to Place du Tertre, where painters gather to ensnare the tourists. Many years later, I looked back at that walk and wrote this:

The basilica’s neighborhood – including Place du Tertre – seemed almost too French, a little too close to what one thinks of when one imagines a Parisian neighborhood: Nattily dressed men, arms waving as they argue on the sidewalk; a student in tattered jeans sipping café au lait at a sidewalk table, jotting his thoughts into a journal and peering through the smoke of his Gauloise at the girls passing by; an older woman trudging to work or to the bakery past a row of parked Citroën autos; two priests walking rapidly with their heads down and with their cassocks flowing in the breeze made by their rapid passage down the sidewalk and into a side street; and the artists with their easels and their palettes and their berets, eyeing their own works critically and their neighbors’ works enviously.

It felt a little like a movie set or a collection of clichés, and it took a few moments of reflection for me to realize that it’s not often that life so perfectly mimics a stereotype. As I wandered from the basilica and into Place du Tertre, the image of Paris that I carried around inside me from books, movies and music was superimposed on the reality of Paris that was in front of me, and for a few brief and sweet moments, the two were congruent: I had found the Paris I had imagined I would find.

Of course, moments like that aren’t at all durable. In a few minutes, maybe a garbage truck came by from a nearby alley, or two backpacking travelers began laughing loudly at something that only they found humorous, or a group of Japanese tourists clustered around their flag-toting guide to hear what she had to say about the square, and that small corner of Paris was still Paris, but it was no longer as nearly perfect as it had been.

And as I look back, it seems to me that for those few moments of near-perfection, the only thing missing was the sound of an Edith Piaf song playing in the background: “No, je ne regrette rien . . . .”

So here, forty-three years later, is Edith Piaf’s “Non Je Ne Regrette Rien,” recorded in Paris on November 20, 1960. It’s today’s Saturday Single.

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