What We Learn by Living Somewhere Else
A Chicago artist and actor spent a season away from home and found another place to belong.
I left Paris over a year ago, and not a day goes by that I do not long to go back. I walked by Notre Dame four or five times a week while I was there as an actor filming the second season of Amazon’s series Patriot. Day or night, it was never less than breathtaking. Being next to it always stunned me. We filmed until just before Christmas, and to walk by Notre Dame in the evening during vespers, seeing the majestic illuminated stained glass and hearing the music, was early-winter magic. It was a landmark and it was life-changing. Living away from home made me grow in unexpected ways. My drawings show some of the things I noticed. What follows may explain a little more.
Construction of the Cathedral of Notre Dame began in 1163 and was largely completed around 1250. Since then, there have been almost constant refurbishing and revitalizations. It is one of the most astonishing achievements of humanity. Although I am a lapsed Catholic, I am in awe of the majesty of the soaring architecture and history of Our Lady of Paris.
When later I opened my Facebook page and saw that Notre Dame was burning, I felt my soul ache. When you give your heart to the City of Light, its pain becomes viscerally your own.
In addition to the quick-thinking staff and firefighters, the structure itself was saved by those who designed and built it. They made this jewel of the human imagination very hard to burn down.
Both Paris and Chicago have flocks of nonindigenous birds. A huge population of green monk parakeets lives in and around the University of Chicago. They’ve been there since the late 1970s.
Paris has a slew of canaries, probably escaped cage birds that have somehow adapted to the climate. Caged songbirds are still a big business in Paris and are especially prized for their lovely songs. Place Louis Lépine is where you’ll find the Marché aux Oiseaux, or Bird Market, on Sundays. Near Notre Dame, it does a brisk trade in canaries, parakeets, lovebirds, and many other songbirds. There is also a flower market, which somewhat sweetens the sadness and ugliness of the bird trade. I thought I saw a scarlet tanager while we were shooting in the Luxembourg Gardens. But when I got closer, I had no idea what it was. Then, when I walked through the Bird Market — bummed at the sight of all these gorgeous birds in small cages — I realized what I had seen was a red factor canary, which was bred for the cage bird trade. I like to think of those birds, escaped from their admiring captors, free in the huge parks of Paris, like beautiful fugitives.
Many people fall in love with Paris. I fell hard and fast. But I had the luxury of living there for four months, absorbing the city and soaking up its rich cultural broth with its incomparable baguettes. Familiarity with the place takes time and curiosity. The rewards are both heart-stopping — like first seeing the Eiffel Tower up close — and on a smaller scale, like the small treasures one finds while combing the streets. In some arrondissements, there are shops with ceramics, old costume jewelry, posters, scarves, ancient theater programs, wooden and clay figurines — things from a hundred years ago and things from a hundred days ago bump up against each other. Paris is a city that is loath to dispose of beautiful things just because they are old. Many rooms and hotel lobbies have the clean lines and glass walls of modernity but coupled with a timeless quality. It is that kind of place. A place one longs to belong to.
Paris is a city of neighborhoods, and mine was République. It surrounds the La Place of the same name, which is anchored by a 75-foot monument topped by a statue of Marianne, who personifies the French republic. She overlooks an 8-acre public square where I witnessed protests, musical performances, and kids doing amazing things on skateboards.
The morning after the terror attacks in November 2015 at the Bataclan theater and several restaurants, a young man wheeled his keyboard out to the République Square. The city, still in shock from the horror of the previous night, was quiet and numb. The man started playing John Lennon’s “Imagine,” and a crowd gathered, some weeping, some quietly singing along.
It was a near-perfect balm for what had happened. Parisians would not give in to savagery and fear. They would go on making music, making art, and living their lives. I became obsessed with the statue of Marianne while I was staying there. Most mornings, I walked around the Place twice, a little over a mile. I began collecting photos of this statue. She is a powerful symbol to the French and a fierce reminder that liberty, equality, and fraternity are what their country is built on. She is a wonder. And she is a reminder of what we owe to our own republic and to one another.
Paris has traffic of every kind — four-wheel, two-wheel, motorized, and human powered; it is everywhere around you, and you have to step into the street gingerly or you’ll get pasted. I saw scooters banging into cars, bicyclists getting “doored,” and much traffic-related calamity. But the recklessness of it is deliriously musical in a way. And don’t try to cross the 12 lanes of traffic that swirl around the Arc de Triomphe. There’s a tunnel that will get you there.
The city has a bike rental program. The bikes are lovely objects by themselves — elegant and beautifully designed. Their functionality is almost an afterthought for me. I found myself taking pictures of them, parked alone or when I saw a whole station of them. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because of how the French are mindful of how much beauty there is in their surroundings and infuse it in the objects they make.
My wife and I rode with a cabdriver named Monique who festooned her taxi with all manner of Mickey and Minnie Mouse plush figures as well as lavender candies that she insisted we sample. She smiled a coquettish smile and told us she loved us and explained that she was driving her cab because she was on the prowl for love.
“I am only 76 and not ready for the shelf quite yet,” she told us. She sang an Edith Piaf song to us when we got out of her taxi.
It’s odd to stroll around Paris and imagine Charles Baudelaire, Pablo Picasso, André Breton, and Camille Pissarro having walked those very same cobblestones. While there, I read Roger Shattuck’s The Banquet Years, a history of the avant-garde around the turn of the last century. It traces the path of four flawed men who possessed creative genius in spades: writer Alfred Jarry, painter Henri Rousseau, composer Erik Satie, and poet/art theorist Guillaume Apollinaire. They ran around Montmartre and were fond of throwing banquets and getting pie-eyed on absinthe. Montmartre still hosts the ghosts of that generation, and we’re rewarded for losing our way in its twisty streets.
It’s not lost on me that laying my head to rest every night in the cradle of surrealism has had its way with me. It’s also not lost on me how much I love this city, and how I would like to live here part time at least, because it has a way of unlocking ideas about what is and is not possible with great poetry and great hope.
Nearing the end of my four months in Paris, I realized that it would be hard to leave — and that when I did, part of myself would be missing. I felt so alive and connected to the ghosts here, I wanted, in some way, to belong to this magical place. Close to my final day of filming, I went to the Père Lachaise Cemetery to honor the ones who lit the way for me.
I’m astonished by the list of luminaries who occupy the afterlife there. Many Americans make a beeline for Jim Morrison’s grave. I sought out Max Ernst, Honoré de Balzac, Honoré Daumier, and Colette. I listened for nocturnes from Frédéric Chopin’s grave and arias from Maria Callas’. I hope that Edith Piaf found love among the gray stones and that Oscar Wilde found peace. I like to believe Marcel Proust is still busy with his remembering in this quiet ether.
It’s impossible not to want to be part of this city’s landscape and among its luminous ghosts, the ones who shaped its poems, music, dance, paintings, and all the other forms of magic.
No tragedy, hardship, or darkness can extinguish her joy. No matter what, she dances, she sings. She is a poem, and she awakens a singing hope in me.
• Tony Fitzpatrick plays Jack Birdbath on Amazon’s Patriot. His artwork is included in the Play It Loud exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
• This story originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of The Rotarian magazine.