We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. —Langston Hughes
The last time I saw Paris was this past Wednesday night when PBS aired the documentary, Paris: The Luminous Years. This was a small miracle in itself, because my wife usually co-opts the TV remote and calls the shots. She’s not particularly enamored with French culture. But for once I had my way.
From 1905 to 1930 Paris became the gathering place for avant-garde artists from all over Europe, Russia and the United States. It was here that modern art, poetry, dance, music and architecture evolved, beginning with the initial Fauvist exhibitions and ending with the advent of jazz.
Many of these early artists formed ad hoc bohemian communities and fed off one another’s work and ideas. They found the open ambiance to be energizing, stimulating, liberating. Paris was the place where many of them found themselves.
In 1923 Langston Hughes arrived in Paris from America with seven dollars in his pocket. He knew no one in the city and had no letters of introduction. He soon found a job as a bus boy in a jazz club and proceeded to write the poetry for which he would become famous.
In those days Paris was color blind. Americans who had served in the European theatre in the First World War were eager to return to Paris. These expatriates rejected their parochial roots and set out to find themselves in the big city. Paris was where it was at.
Thoughts of that Parisian era swam through my head as I drove to work the following morning. What it would have been like to amble down the street or sit in a café and mingle with the likes of Duchamp, Breton, Picasso, Braque, Chagall, Apollinaire, Miró, Joyce—a heady feeling at the very least.
My morning reverie dissipated as I started in with my patients.
A pair of new patients appeared on my schedule. An adolescent boy and his younger sister needed physical examinations to matriculate in the local school system. I met their aunt, who was in the process of adopting these two children, both of whom had come from the big city. They had been placed in her care three weeks ago when their mother succumbed to a stroke at age 45 on Thanksgiving Day.
The boy was tall, athletic and polite. “I’m sorry to hear about your mother,” I told him.
He shrugged his shoulders. “She had high blood pressure, diabetes and asthma; but she didn’t take care of herself. She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day and drank coffee all the time. We figured she wasn’t going to last long.”
I asked a few questions to flesh out the past medical history and proceeded to the exam. “So what do you like to do for fun?” I asked him as I looked into his ears.
“I like to drum,” he said. “Down in the city I was part of a drum corps. We were hot. We took first place in the statewide competition last summer.”
“Wow, that’s pretty impressive! Will you be able to continue your drumming with the group now that you’ve moved away from the city?”
“Don’t know. But I’ll find something else to do. Maybe I’ll try out for the football team.”
“Did you play sports in the city?”
“No, I wanted to, but there was always a transportation problem. My mom didn’t drive and we didn’t have money for the bus.”
“Maybe you’ll have more opportunities now that you’re living with your aunt.”
“I hope so. I’m so glad to be out of the city.”
There you have it, I thought, the great transmigration, only this time it was from the big city to a small provincial town. Maybe this would be the ticket this boy needed to help find himself.
Paris is Paris, no matter where you encounter it.