“I am convinced that the fate of France is sealed,” Jean Raspail wrote three years ago in Le Figaro. “The deed is done.” Strolling down Rue de Mogador toward the Place de l’Opéra in Paris on a bright September morning with a copy of that paper rolled under my arm, I found Raspail’s words close to incredible, a dark illusion. Yet the illusion that the prophecy is an illusion is the principal reason why its realization is a virtual certainty. That same evening, one of France’s keenest minds, most discerning intellects, and uncompromising voices confirmed Raspail’s prophecy as we drank champagne at twilight in his flat on the Left Bank with a view toward the brooding banlieues of Africa on the city’s perimeter. In the spring of 2006, haute couture became couture carnage—Moorish headwraps and tunics stained with splashes of red expressing a macabre sense of popular humor recalling that of Paris during the Reign of Terror.
And yet, the illusory has a reality of its own, like the artistic creation that it is. Paris is so lovely! Rome is the universal as well as the Eternal City, an endless arrangement of labyrinths arrayed vertically in descending layers that seem to approach the center of the earth. Rome has infinite variety, infinite complexity, deepening shades of mystery as impenetrable by reason as the Faith Itself. And Rome has grandeur, too, and the amassed, overwhelming, nearly alarming beauty of piled civilizations threatening to topple over or, more likely, sink even deeper into the earth beneath their unfathomable weight. Its beauty is that of the Old Jerusalem. But Paris’s beauty is a more uniform beauty that shines with the refulgence of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem. Paris is the Perfect City. To behold Paris is to understand what Beauty looks like, and to experience it is to learn how Beauty feels.
It was a rather grand outing we were making—a trip to France over a long weekend to attend a birthday party thrown for a dear friend from college, and for a decade after in Manhattan, by his family in celebration of his 60th birthday. I had not laid eyes on Stephen and Catherine Pierce for 30 years, since they moved from New York in the late 70’s to Paris, where Stephen continued to work for J.P. Morgan while Catherine, a Frenchwoman, pursued a brilliant career in administrative law. (She was the presiding judge in the Alain Jupe case several years ago that nearly brought down Jacques Chirac’s government.) In that time, the Pierces had reared three children, now grown to adulthood. Only a previously scheduled visit to Rome a year earlier had prevented us from flying to Biarritz instead for Pauline’s wedding. On this occasion, Maureen and I had booked a room at the New Orient Hotel on Rue de Constantinople, around the corner from the Pierces’ flat on Rue de Copenhague, in the 8e Arrondissement. We checked in at 10:30 on a humid, overcast Saturday morning after the taxi ride from De Gaulle and threw open the tall windows onto the Paris street beyond the potted begonias and the glass-and-iron fan spread above the hotel entrance. Workmen were jack-hammering the pavement to get at the waterline beneath, but, in the relative silences between the mechanical blasts, we could hear the sounds of women’s heels along the sidewalk and snatches of conversations in the native tongue. French is not so beautiful a language as Italian, but it has greater dash, making it a greater pleasure to speak (if one doesn’t have much Italian, especially).
I had last visited Paris in 1972 where, after several nights in a cheap hotel, I met up with Stephen at his parents’ flat on the Quai d’Orsay, and we began a trip by car together through the Loire Valley. That had been a fine visit, too, yet my impressions of Paris were distinctly mixed. The city had struck me as somewhat dirty; the hôtelière had attempted to cheat me in the amount of several times what I owed her (and pretended it was an accident when I confronted her with the discrepancy); my prep-school and college French, in which I had an overbrimming confidence, failed to stand me in very good stead; and M. Bolduc’s passionate testimonials to the superior beauty of French girls appeared to me to have been, to say the least, overwrought. Thirty-four years later, everything was—or seemed—different. Paris looked impeccably clean (save for the Boulevard des Batignolles a couple of streets from the hotel, which was littered and stank of garbage); the hotel staff—and everyone else we encountered over the next four days—were friendly and accommodating; my French had developed legs since the 70’s, to the gratifying extent that, at times, it ran away with me for minutes at a stretch; and the women were gorgeous, as M. Bolduc had promised so long ago they would be. Also, Parisians nowadays dress much more formally, and with far greater modesty, than do the Americans or the Italians. Apparently the blanchisseries of France, alone among the nations of the West, have mastered the art of laundering without drastic shrinkage, allowing a Frenchwoman’s blouse to overtop her skirt or pants without an interval of three or four inches of bare belly occurring between them.
There are Americans willing to navigate the traffic of such European capitals as Paris and Rome. In fact, I’m acquainted with one—Catharine Taylor, another member of the old New York circle in the 70’s. She and Ken picked us up at the hotel shortly before two o’clock that afternoon to take us to Mouchy-la-Ville, a little more than an hour’s drive north from Paris, where the Pierces maintain a country house. Though Catharine made the ride across Paris Centre look easy, I refused to be fooled. However, the freeway through the northern banlieues seemed no more daunting than I-25 across Denver; later, traveling the two-lane roads through the lovely French countryside, I forgot we were in Europe at all: the low wooded hills, ragged treelines, and gently rolling fields could as well have been New York State or western New England. This was the region I had viewed from the air that morning as the plane, after making landfall over Normandy, lowered toward Charles de Gaulle Airport. From 20,000 feet, the country had appeared as green and innocent as Iowa—also, less populated. An illusion, I know: It is astonishing how, given (or, perhaps, on account of) the population density of Europe, the Europeans have managed their land so much better than we Americans have troubled ourselves to do. Six hours before, the valleys, dells, and river courses had been packed with pockets of gray mist that had since lifted and annealed themselves with the lowering sky, which itself began to dissipate as we approached Mouchy and the sun burned through, cutting ragged holes of pale blue overhead.
True friendship is a thing that can be set down and picked up at will, because it is never set aside. After a glass of wine and a look round the splendid 18th-century house and the cottage behind it, Stephen drove us to check in at the Relais du Jeu d’Arc in the neighboring town of Cires-lès-Mello, leaving our luggage to follow in the Taylors’ car. The town is built of dark stone houses standing above narrow streets intersected by channeled watercourses in which minnows dart and hold their own against the current and overlooked by the Chateau de Mello, owned at present by the daughter of Douglas Dillon. The Relais, a former postal relay station established in the 17th century, is separated from the Place du Jeu d’Arc by a tall iron gate fronting the courtyard, now sodded in to form a greensward backed by an ivy-covered wall, where horses’ harness and carriage wheels once jingled and rattled with the gaiety and excitement so exquisitely captured in the wonderful first act of Massenet’s Manon.
There is no opportunity on a three-and-a-half day sprint to the Continent to catch one’s breath, recover one’s sleep, slip back into Europe as if it were a well-worn pigskin glove. The challenge has to be accepted as such, and with a rush of spirit and adrenaline, the way a man accepts a duel: head up, chin high, glass raised, ready for anything, and prepared to make the most of it. My wife and I had traveled over 5,000 miles to a birthday party. While both of us experienced moments in which we despaired at summoning the energy to exert ourselves (or even to keep awake) in satisfactory conversation during the cosy dinner at the Relais and the grande affaire itself the following afternoon, something like the mechanical momentum of the transatlantic flight sustained us through the foie gras, veal cutlet, salad with brie, and apple tart, and on into the boisterous after-party of Calvados, white wine, and Perrier that followed in a sitting room of the hotel. Similarly, Mass in a small church on the other side of town—which, at eight the next morning, felt like an absolute impossibility—turned out to be a dignified and quietly joyful service, attended by 30 or 40 provenciales ranging in age from the elderly to the infant and celebrated by a well-spoken priest who restricted his sermon to an economical explication du texte. Following Mass, we ate a badly needed petit déjeuner of bread, fruit, and coffee at the Relais, after which it was time to make the 15-minute drive back to Mouchy for the party.
Americans are well advised to be skeptical of what they read in their country’s press, particularly as it relates to the French and the relationship that presently exists between them and the American people, four years after the furious international debate that ended (or became academic) after President Bush launched his attack on Iraq. Stephen Pierce’s birthday party, hosting upward of 150 people, was very much a Franco-American affair, in which Gallic profiles and Anglo-American features dipped and bowed amid the thrusting, parrying tones of the boulevardiers and the softer accents of the genteel Yankee Northeast. This spirit of binational cordiality appeared to find its overriding visual expression in the big white tent—the color of peace and comity—erected on the lawn behind the house, where French girls as pretty as M. Bolduc ever promised circulated with trays bearing champagne glasses amid the tiered towers of the elaborate hors d’oeuvres rising at intervals across the greensward; while, at the concert that concluded the party, presented by L’Octuor de France (of which Stephen is a valued patron) at the Eglise de Heilles, a quarter-mile from the house, the poignant rapturous harmonies of Mozart, and of the more modern compositions that followed, seemed to embrace and to reconcile youth and age, the foreign and the familiar, present and past alike.
We caught a ride back to Paris and turned in at the hotel to enjoy what seemed to us our first full night’s sleep in recent memory, while, around us, the city center subsided gradually for the night in its dreamy bath of warm display lighting.
Somehow, modern society makes do without what have always seemed to me essentials—namely, hats and walking sticks. The way to see Europe, as Hilaire Belloc understood, is by foot; and while I have never walked, as he did, the path from Paris to Rome, I’ve contributed my share of the labor of further polishing the timeworn cobblestones of several European capitals. For this, a walking stick is required, and, for a walking stick, I carry one of two lion-headed canes, hand-carved in Bali and Kenya, respectively. The Kenya stick is the heavier, tapering to a massive head of sculpted teak. With Zamba firmly in hand, and trailing Maureen behind me, I traversed several miles of Paris during our last, regretful hours in France. At 14:50 the following day, we embarked at De Gaulle on an American Airlines flight as far as Chicago.
Whether it was the hat, the walking stick, or the silver pocket watch and fob that betrayed us, we’ll never learn. (The modern world is quick to recognize its enemies when it sees them, and not all its enemies are Muslims.) In the event, our tickets were electronically tagged. My wife and I were separated, interrogated, carefully searched at a distance from one another. A uniformed security officer snatched Zamba ignominiously from the conveyor belt and brandished him aloft.
“Ce n’est pas une canne à épée!” I shouted.
“Mais c’est très dangereuse en tout cas! On peut frapper, frapper—!”
The official seated in the glass booth ahead of security who’d just checked my passport was sympathetic—indeed, he appeared somewhat shocked by the commotion—but appeal was futile. In the end, though not compelled to register the stick with the police (as some anonymous voice in the fracas had been heard to suggest), I was compelled to return to check-in and there consign Zamba to the hold of the plane, wrapped protectively in layers of plastic bagging. Then, I was directed through security again and forced to submit to a final search of my person and carry-on luggage—all this, in the absence of my wife, who’d been unceremoniously boarded a quarter of an hour before—in the boarding tunnel.
Well, we’d had a good run since leaving Denver four days earlier and couldn’t properly complain at this unfortunate conclusion to a glorious weekend. “The deed is done,” Raspail had said—and not just in the case of la belle France, either, but of the West as a whole. Though the War on Terror is scarcely begun, already our civilization has been lost.