Why do these people look so much better than I do?
As I’ve mentioned before, this is a question I ask myself — often the start of an internal harangue — whenever I travel in certain European cities. I’ve just had occasion to revist my notebook from my last trip to Paris, and found therein the following note: “aesthetics matter! beauty matters! the details of life matter. In some ways I don’t live up to my own ideals.”
I’ll spare you the rest, but also on that trip, I picked up a fantastic book called Paris Tales. It’s an anthology of 22 short stories, set in Paris, and each keyed to an included city map.
As it happens, when I jotted down my little notebook tirade, I was in my room at the InterContinental Paris-Le Grand, right across the street from the Garnier Opera. So when I cracked open Paris Tales today, I decided to first read the story set in the 9th arrondissment.
It was “A Parisian Adventure”, by Guy de Maupassant. It’s about a married woman “from the provinces” who nurses a fantasy — albeit different from my own! — about Paris.
“The reports of society dinners, fashion and high life made her seethe with longing…living where she did, she viewed Paris as the apotheosis of glorious luxury and vice.”
So she arranges a trip to Paris, where her machinations put her in the path of a famous writer, whose looks she doesn’t even notice, so caught up in the Parisian fantasy is she.
She sips absinthe, she goes to the theater, she is in the company of the fabulous and eventually winds up in the writer’s bed. In the middle of the night, in the…
“…yellow light of the Chinese lantern, she looked in despair at the little fat man lying beside her, his distended belly making the sheet swell like a gas balloon. He was snoring noisily like an organ pipe…from out of the corner of his half-open mouth ran a trickle of saliva.”
It’s a major let down, to say the least. She returns home in the morning, with the feeling that her “excited dreams had also just been swept away.”
I’ve never had my particular fantasies about a fashionable life in Paris or Rome or Florence so entirely punctured. And while I am in general an advocate for an examined life — and also have tended to agree that travel writing should do a better job at penetrating the layers of a place — I think the moral of de Maupassant’s story is that it’s sometimes nicer not to.
Sure, there is a certain kind of satisfaction that comes from the reality of our global shared humanity — in realizing, for example, that Parisians drool on their pillows too. But let us also remember Guy de Maupassant’s epithet, which he wrote himself: “I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing.” And take caution when we consider dismantling the pleasurable travel fantasies we covet the most.