As I type this, I am looking out my window at the flying buttresses of a church, admiring their beauty, and thinking of the unknown medieval craftsmen who built them to the glory of God. Paris provokes those kinds of contemplations, at least in me, in a way that other places do not. Some men are moved to think deep and wide thoughts by the mountains, or the forests, or the ocean. I am moved to think them by flying buttresses, and bookstores, and the loving care with which a dignified wine vendor with good manners and bad teeth explains to me why this inexpensive bottle of red wine from the Loire Valley is a thing to be cherished.
This is why I’m happy in Paris in a way that I’m not happy in Altoona: Because most of the things that matter most to me in life — faith, food, beauty, contemplation, conversation — exist here in a degree of harmony and intensity that they do not anywhere else. Put another way, I am most myself here, or so it seems to me.
Except that I’m not, not really. I could never live here permanently; I am an American, and will never be anything other than that. Travel is wonderful because it tells you who you are, but also who you are not. My feet haven’t yet touched the ground in Paris, my delight is such here, but I am comforted by the thought that in a month, I will be back home in St. Francisville, which is my place, and where I understand, and am understood, in ways not possible here in Paris. It sounds paradoxical, and I guess it is, but I am confident in the accuracy of James Baldwin’s insight about how all the things he loved dearly about Paris were an illusion concealing from himself his fundamental Americanness.