In Pursuit of Happiness

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Paris is surely the biggest, and to my mind the best, pleasure palace ever built. I’ve heard it said, by other Americans, that their idea of paradise would be Paris without the French. What this fantasy fails to take into account is that Paris is the French. If it’s hard for us to grasp this, if we tend to view cities as stage sets animated by people who just happen to live there at the time, perhaps it’s because no single city is the outward expression of our innermost convictions and the workings of our minds: not Washington, D.C., not New York, not Los Angeles, not Boston, Miami, Chicago, San Francisco. Paris is the product of a -centuries-long collective endeavor—a society’s accumulated wisdom on the subject of civilization, put into practice.

It was the French who alerted me to the fact that pleasure is both something to be discovered, there for the taking, and something to be cultivated through my own efforts. Its pursuit, as it turns out, is not a mindless slide into debauchery but a science, rigorous and exacting, discriminating between the merely good and the sublime. The thing about pleasure is that it immerses you in the moment. The present becomes more compelling than the future or the past. There is no better cure for heartache.

Had I been as happy in Paris as I recall? Thinking back on my life there, I have to remind myself that there were long weeks in February when the heat in my apartment was no match for the damp chill; that there were times when disappointment or failure or frustration dominated my thoughts, as it would have anywhere; that there were occasions when I felt as if I didn’t belong. I have to remind myself because those aren’t the things I remember. What I remember is walking home from a wonderful dinner at the apartment of some friends: It’s two in the morning, my footsteps reverberate off the walls of the buildings that flank the winding Rue de Babylone. The moon is full, and except for the gendarme on the corner, the street is all mine.

I lived in Paris for six years and held on to my apartment for seven more, until the building was sold. I cried the day I left, not dignified, silent tears, but embarrassing, heaving sobs. The movers came for my furniture and put it into storage—an absurd extravagance, necessary at the time, since the only way I could bear to leave was by telling myself that someday I would again live in Paris. And I still believe that someday I will.

Just recently, a friend asked me how, having lived there, I could ever be happy living anywhere else. But that’s not the lesson that I came away with. It’s no exaggeration to say that Paris restored me to my senses. But it also gave me something more. Because in the course of learning to love the city and its inhabitants, I learned to savor the texture of my everyday life, not only there but anywhere.

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