When we think of Paris, we think of a place where our lives come together like a romance. Paris is a place of fresh baguettes, rain on cobblestone streets, Brigitte Bardot. Of good coffee and better wine. Some go to Paris for bragging rights; others venture there to find an excuse to fall in love, to discover themselves. Paris is presented to us as an emotional necessity–as a place where we can flourish.
I’ve both loved and hated the idea that where we’re from shapes who we are. It’s an attractive concept—the possibility of choosing a new city to be molded by. Different cities contain different sorts of people and emulate various sets of values; whatever city I chose would, of course, change me for the better. All I had to do was pick the right one.
After leaving my small-town childhood home of Slidell, Louisiana, and returning to my birthplace of Denver, I fantasized in idle moments that I would go back and live in New Orleans, a city I had visited only a handful of times but thought about unremittingly: having an apartment in the Garden District, traveling to work by trolley, eating at the Café du Monde on Sunday mornings, soaking in the heat and the stifling humidity. One of my high school classmates earned a scholarship to Tulane, and I seethed jealously at her fake Southern accent: “I’m goin’ to N’awleans.” The place became more of a pipe dream than ever. I sincerely believed, like many others, that moving to a revered and beautiful city like New Orleans would make me more interesting.
People often move to a new place simply to assume a fresh perspective; it’s an easy decision for these types of people to make, because their concern is in the leaving, not the destination. In The Razor’s Edge (1984), Larry Darrell (Bill Murray) postpones his wedding to Isabel Bradley (Catherine Hicks) after returning home disillusioned from the First World War, opting instead to go to Paris to re-evaluate his life. He chooses Paris for practical reasons: it’s both far away from and more interesting than the Midwest. Isabel’s wealthy uncle Elliott Templeton (Denholm Elliott) assures her that he’ll look after Larry and show him a fine time, but Larry has other plans: “I need to think,” he tells Isabel with a smile, “and I’m not exactly an expert in that field.”
When we return to a place we love and miss, we often expect it to remain unchanged. My father and I took a trip back to Louisiana the summer I was sixteen, about three years after Hurricane Katrina. We walked through the French Quarter and stopped at Pat O’Brien’s, where he offered me my first drink. Afterward, we walked several blocks to his old office. We passed graffiti-tagged buildings with boarded-up windows and headed toward Slidell, disheartened by how empty the city felt.
Each time we turned a corner in our old neighborhood, my breath caught. It began to rain while the sun was out—a gentle, steady trickle. Our red brick single-level house, nestled in a cul-de-sac, was barely recognizable: two white pickup trucks were parked on the front lawn, a fence had gone up around the backyard, and the vinyl blinds were bent and broken. We drove silently to my old elementary school: clusters of houses with white vinyl siding and varicolored shutters had replaced the surrounding forest of towering slash pines. Three peach-colored trailers sat outside the school, functioning as extra classrooms.
II. (Not) Anything Other Than Myself
When what you once thought of as your ideal place–whether in memory or in daydreams–changes, it’s like waking up from a perfect dream and wishing you were still asleep. Isabel is horrified when she travels to Paris to see Larry: he has taken a manual labor job and lives in a slummy apartment. Although he’s satisfied, she can’t fathom why he’s turned down a job as a stockbroker back in the States, even after he explains to her that he doesn’t want to be surrounded by friends “who want a big house and a new car every year.” Her idea of Paris simply isn’t his. When Larry offers to marry Isabel and take care of her, Isabel rejects the idea of living this decidedly un-Parisian, un-glamorous life. Elliott tells her that she belongs in a place like his Paris mansion, though he needn’t have.
Isabel promptly returns home and marries Gray Maturin (James Keach), a longtime friend of the group, securing for herself the lifestyle she’s entitled to. When she tosses her wedding bouquet to her friend Sophie (Theresa Russell), who got pregnant out of wedlock, she’s both reassuring herself that she made the right choice in marrying Gray and reminding Sophie that her life could use some serious improvement. Although Isabel is a despicable character who thrives when other people are suffering, she has agency. From the start, she knows what she wants–initially, it’s a privileged life with Larry, and when that’s no longer an option, she finds what she wants somewhere else. She goes back to the Midwest out of necessity, and she and Gray go back to Paris later out of necessity after they lose their assets in the stock market crash; they take action, even if it means leaving their home.
When I got into a long-distance relationship, I welcomed the possibility of moving across the country. It was a good excuse to move back down south: to the humidity, to the food, to a smaller city than Denver–one that had scanty public transportation and was surrounded by one of the oldest mountain chains in the world. My boyfriend Kendon lived in a small town just outside of Asheville, and I adored it more each time I flew out to see him. When we were out together, Kendon would occasionally ask me which direction we were going while he was driving, or which turn he was supposed to take and when. “I’m testing you,” he’d say. “For when you live here.” This started early on in my visits, and I was secretly thrilled.
I was almost done with college when we decided that I would be the one to relocate. He found a house for us, a red brick single-level, and we moved in in the middle of winter. We spent the following months making the house ours: we replaced the futon in the living room with a couch, bought an area rug, dishes, and flatware. We had the brick painted an espresso brown.
For months preceding the moving date—fittingly, the day after New Year’s—I had reservations about moving in with him, largely brought on by my family and friends.
“He should be moving here,” said my mother. “He shouldn’t be taking you away from your family.” What I didn’t admit to her was that I’d decided, years ago really, to move to North Carolina when the time came. I was looking for a different sort of independence than the one I thought I’d have in moving to New Orleans: I was going to discover a new city on my own, one without glitz and glamor and with plenty to love. I was going to make a home where almost no one knew me, and where no one expected me to be anything other than myself.
Sophie took a similar approach when she moved to Paris, though in a far worse way: she had already become a self-deprecating alcoholic before leaving the States. She wanted to escape other people’s judgments–not least Isabel’s–so she would surround herself with people who’d accept her as she was. She went to Paris searching for a particular feeling and only succeeded in falling into a deep hole she couldn’t climb out of; she let herself be eaten away by the city.
(My own worst fear was–and is–losing control of myself to a place, to a person, to anything.)
III. Cold Worlds, Dark Worlds
While discussing books of philosophy with a fellow coal miner in Paris, Larry decides to visit India. After reading so much about various forms of enlightenment, why not experience one for himself in a foreign place? And that’s the point of his journey: Why not?
What separates Larry’s journey to Paris from his trip to India is that instead of escaping a geographical place, he’s discovering more about the emotional and intellectual place he’s in. Although it’s unclear what exactly he learned while reading books and burning them for warmth atop a snow-covered mountain, the journey’s purpose in the first place was to learn something new about himself. He tested his endurance and found that he was capable of a lot more than he’d ever thought.
When Larry sees Sophie again after a period of years—during which her husband and child were killed in a drunk driving accident, and Isabel and Gray have essentially cut off all ties with her—he sees immediately that she is in dire need of saving. He buys her time from her pimp, who skulks behind her like a shadow into the smoky, dingy basement club he’s taken Isabel and Gray to. Sophie moved to Paris with a burden, unlike Larry. “I was trying to convince myself that I was a bad person. That I did deserve it,” she tells him. Paris is a place where she wants to lose control.
New Orleans was never a place where I wanted to lose myself. It was in that city, ironically, that I imagined I would become independent. I would finally be able to discover the place I’d dreamed about so much once I made it back. But after seeing how much the city had changed, I knew I couldn’t return. What I’d wanted was not to go back to the city itself; I wanted to go back in time.
When Sophie’s with Larry, she briefly escapes her dark world. She loses herself in him: she sobers up and happily waits for him to come home everyday. They change the walls of his apartment from a dingy beige to a bright white; they buy a canoe, paint it red, and row together down the Seine, laughing and smoking cigarettes; she brings him lunch at work; he takes her to the restaurant he took Isabel to when she first came to visit him, and Sophie adores it. They fall in love and create their own space in Paris. Sophie’s Paris, in particular, ceases to be her own version of hell, a place where she escapes her broken self-perception. It becomes a city of light and love for her, experienced with a clear conscience, free of guilt and self-loathing.
Isabel’s Paris, unlike Sophie’s, has always been a place in which she maintains control: she is married to Gray and living well-off while still harboring feelings for Larry, a man who has stayed, up to now, blessedly single. After Isabel convinces Sophie that she’ll only drag Larry down when she inevitably goes back to her old ways, she purposefully leaves her alone in the parlor with a bottle of ambrosia. It is an act of fear, cowardice, and control. If Sophie is out of the picture, Isabel believes, not only will she have done Larry a favor, but she can also continue to live contentedly.
After Sophie is found dead in the Seine with her throat cut open by a razor, Larry knows immediately that Isabel “got her to take the first drink.”
IV. A Pleasant Surprise
Even though Sophie lost herself in someone good like Larry, she never regained control of her life. She only succeeded in being lured back into her old ways. “I thought Sophie was my reward for trying to live a good life,” Larry tells Isabel. “Uh-uh. There is no payoff. Not now.”
Paris was a place Sophie thought could carry her through the darkest parts of herself. She thought she could rely on Larry, too, for awhile. What she and Larry didn’t realize is that neither places nor people can rescue us; we can only rescue ourselves, though most of us need help. The Paris Sophie inhabited reflected her state of mind: it was dark, dirty, and lonely.
“This is my home,” she tells Larry petulantly, drunk, while lying in her pimp’s lap. “I like it here.” Larry loses Sophie not only to herself, but also to her own private Paris.
Is Larry guilty of thinking he’s capable enough to save anyone other than himself? Maybe. But we can’t blame Larry for trying to help people who wanted it. We also can’t blame him for deciding to return home to America after Sophie’s death. Larry was able to conquer Paris in a way that Sophie could not: he made it his own and left without thinking twice about it. It was no longer home.
There are few sensations as gratifying as a pleasant surprise. Our life in this town is slow-paced, like driving the speed limit when everyone else is in a rush to get where they’re going. I was afraid that my mother would be right in her worries about me: that I would be bored here, that I belonged in a place that was big and glittering with opportunities. But what I’ve found here is better than that: it’s a place that I’ve discovered I’m suited to, a place that compels me everyday to adapt in some new way, to become better, without the fear of losing myself along the way.