Total number of museum visits during my sixth trip to Paris, France: 5.
Greatest number of cheeses tasted in one day: 7.
Number of mirrors in my tiny, rented apartment, rivaling Versailles in reflections per square feet: 9.
Number of times I checked out my own derrière in one of said mirrors after visiting the Crazy Horse: once…okay twice…three times tops.
Number of times French people have ever been rude to me: zéro.
Number of French Uber contractors, driving me around in Paris, who asked, “Mais pourquoi, madame? Why did Americans vote for this president?” — Every. Single. One.
Sadly, in neither French nor English do I know how to answer them, though I am quick to assure that, “Mes amis et moi detest Donald Trump!” And, then, I’m out of the car and my bit for international relations is over for the moment, and I’m going into some place extraordinary that reminds me I am, as the other side accused, privileged.
I don’t care; I’m buying the tee-shirt. I worked hard to be one of the so-called academic elite, and I had to do it between Sunday School and baling hay. So, bring on your Manets and Monets and Starry Nights. Welcome me, Auguste Clésinger’s lying woman, my favorite body on earth! In Paris, I will sigh at every sight, art like oxygen.
Paris holds too much loveliness for a lifetime. I know too well though that one can suffocate on saints, the single breast, the virgins and graces. Understand that to survive you will have to return to this city again and again for as long as you can, as long as Americans are welcome. At the Louvre, the Pompidou, the D’Orsay, for example, you must have a plan. Select just one thing you have read about in a coffee table book back home or seen on a holiday card or watched copied in chalk on a sidewalk for your pocket change. You won’t walk away empty. One lifted Botticelli fresco, for example, can sustain you for decades—even, I’m hoping, during a Trump administration, even when the delicate, the nuanced, the damaged are laughed at or hushed or sued into silence.
It’s three days after the election by the time I catch my breath and get a good look at The Gates of Hell. I imagine that tiny, squirming fellow at the top, swimming helplessly on what must surely be hot air, was Camille Claudel’s doing, not Rodin’s work at all, and maybe it was a form of politics that allowed even her mentor and lover to let her rot in an asylum for 35 years, long after the doctors said, “She’s fine. Take her home.” No Rodin. No mother. No brother. Nobody voted for Camille.
This year, I grieve her lost years and bludgeoned work more than usual. Camille and Hillary, Janet Reno and Josephine Baker, all blend together for me with my child and my mother and myself.
I wanted Hillary to be elected, this woman the same age as my mother. My mother? Now, she would have been a great president—wise and level-headed, the recipient of a gift for justice though I know not from where it comes, rising as it had to out of Texas oil fields and through the racial stereotypes she was weaned on.
But, my mother sniffs out the underdog in any room, applauds the benevolent, puts on pillars the moral, the ethical, the hard-working poor. She can spot a genius IQ at a thousand paces. But, my mother isn’t president, and neither is Hillary Clinton.
And, I stroll on, on cobblestones and past Paris cafés, soaking up the brisk French air with its bursts of perfumes and bread and smoke, knowing I have to return home soon, wondering and worried. What will I be in this new old America, in this again-time when I was nothing and you were nothing and your love was nothing, too?
I come to France because there I am still every chiseled marble delight I see—powerful, strong, feminine. What will I be when I’m not an American in Paris, girding herself with sculpture and wine, words and acts of kindness, jazz riffs, and the polite kisses of strangers?
I don’t tell my French Uber drivers that those who voted for Trump were oblivious to his preface song of destruction, his magnetism to ignorance. Oh, honey, I do want to tell 53 percent of American white women, no man is coming to save you. You better start painting that life boat yourself, because you voted for a clown. A clown!
And, it is for this reason, I pilgrimage to see Jean-Antoine Watteau’s Gilles this year. During the hour I am with this Pierrot in the Louvre, the young people glide by my chosen painting as if it were invisible. Well, what do they know of clowns and mistakes, unappreciative crowds? At their age, they lean toward musicians, an angel or two, a write-in vote for Bernie Sanders.
We gravitate to the sweet and the foolishly well-intended only after we have had time to fail, to make horrible, soul-crushing mistakes, only after we, too, have had to stand alone to be judged without props in costumes that didn’t quite fit us: marriages, jobs, cities, homes in suburbs, holidays with people who lost interest in us a long time ago, and now a president-elect, spewing hate, telling me what I know happened to that woman and that woman and that woman never happened. Waddling in shoes too big, Trump juggled a gas-lighting of my home country on a grand and perverse scale.
From Paris, though, maybe you can still hear my voice and see me carved firmly in stone. There, as back in America, I am a rascal of an old girl, a mad woman, a crone. And, when I am home, I will conjure up Paris again, and I will paint all the women I love like sunflowers and water lilies. We will breathe together as long as we can and create one thing and another and another until our words whirl like prayer ribbons in a hurricane and choke all who attempt to squelch our heat or obscure the truth of a bigger picture.