The Paris Report

Earlier this month, while traveling through France, I managed to get myself arrested at a casino in Normandy.

This is certainly not the best way to begin a day-trip to the French coast, but — as I’d told my travel-writing students the previous week — it is a good way to begin a travel story. Not getting arrested, necessarily, but setting the hook. Implying drama. Creating interest. Giving the reader something to come back to. And, most importantly, promising action.

In writing about a place like France — and Paris in particular — it can be easy to forget the element of action. The setting there is so lovely (and the culture so deep) that travel writers are tempted to lose themselves in describing and romanticizing a city that has already been over-described and over-romanticized. As T.S. Eliot once noted, “the chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulus,” and any writer is tempted to passively gush about its wonders without really working to understand them.

This is always the chief weakness among my students’ essays at the Paris American Academy (where I teach a travel writing seminar each summer). Last summer, for example, a student presented me with an essay about Chartres Cathedral that was little more than a bland ode to the glories of architecture. After a bit of questioning, I discovered that — in addition to being guided around the cathedral by an eccentric British dullard — this student had in fact been attacked by pigeons at Chartres. Dullards and pigeons, I told him, were what he should write about — and he ended up with a truer evocation of his Chartres experience than any architecture manifesto could have accomplished. Similarly, one of my students this summer turned a French train-trip essay into a strained homage to Proust — when, in fact, the highlight of her train trip had been sharing lunch with an Israeli eel biologist. “Skip the dead guy,” I told her. “Write about the living one.” Indeed, no matter how many adjectives and historical tidbits you pull out of your literary hat, action and dialogue can enliven a travel story in a way that description never can.

The problem for me, however, is that — even having spent an accumulated month in the city over the past couple years — my real-life Paris adventures have been utterly lacking in action and dialogue. Elsewhere in the world, I’ve managed to raft down the Mekong, hitchhike across Poland, and chat up the teashop eccentrics of India — but Paris has this way of turning me into a mute, drooling aesthete. I wander around the city eating amazing food, drinking fantastic wine, and staring at beautiful women — but no significant action ever comes of it (no, not even pigeon attacks or encounters with eel biologists). Hence, describing my time in Paris threatens to lapse into the kind of dreamy, italicized clich

Posted by | Comments (1)  | August 23, 2003
Category: Rolf's News and Updates

One Response to “The Paris Report”

  1. Bill Jenkins Says:

    The English language tours of Chartres Cathedral are generally given by Malcolm Miller, a rather eccentric Englishman (as only Englishmen can be)but certainly no dullard. Not only have I learned an entire approach to Gothic church architecture from Dr. Miller but I have cheerfully stolen activities and concepts which I use every semester. The student who characterized him as a dullard somehow missed the point entirely.