I was in a Tunisian restaurant in Paris, when I blurted it out. It was a first trip to Paris. Outside Autumn was just starting to show up in force. Multi-colored leaves fell everywhere, and there was a cold chill in the air after days of sunny weather, but inside the tiny restaurant it was warm and friendly.
We were all relaxing into that warmth and there was the comfortable silence that happens between friends, as we all sorted through a week of Paris memories. I was filled with mixed feelings. I was leaving the next day, days before I was ready to being leaving at all.
We talked amongst ourselves over steaming tagines and piles of warm couscous, while the trill of French bubbled up all around us. We ate and spoke of Paris and beauty and pleasure. We had all of us noticed it.
In Paris, beauty is a given.
You walk out the door and it’s right outside your hotel. You walk through Paris and there’s beautiful monuments scattered around neighborhoods and they’re there for everyone.
So many, in fact, that half the time I gave up trying to identify them at all. There are beautiful and well maintained parks everywhere, in every little neighborhood, and they’re there for everyone, too.
Stores, no matter how luxurious or humble, are willing to give you the same level of care (or disdain), even when you’re making a small purchase, as they give to the obviously well-off person next to you buying hundreds of euros of things. They don’t treat the well-off patron better.
Even my beauty is a given here. I get to flirt and be flirted with in Paris. Men smile into your eyes, they offer up arms to steady you, and open doors. They make a little show out of impressing you. Regardless of how young or old, blond or beautiful you are.
And every woman has some kind of beauty here. You can feel it in the way they walk and hold themselves. In the way they dress and flirt back. Women of all types seem confident in their seductive powers and femininity.
Even if, in hindsight, Paris was swept in the golden hues foreign cities are often captured in from a tourist’s perspective, as recent events have clearly shown. Paris, after all, isn’t immune to terrible tragedies, and it isn’t always beautiful for everyone.
Still, Paris does life differently than the U.S. That’s undeniable. Beauty, here, in the U.S. seems reserved for the elite and deserving. We seem believe that beauty and all the good stuff of life, like pleasure and time, are not needs, they are mere add-ons that must be bought.
They are not for everyone. They are for those who can afford it, — those who deserve it. A worth that can only be proven via money, which we still equate, like the Puritans who came before us, with good, honest, hard work (though wall street alone has certainly proven that the words good, honest and money don’t always belong in the same sentence together).
This tends to create a whole culture of hoarding, not just of things, but of the good things of life, beauty, pleasure, time, love and life. It’s not that we believe there isn’t enough, we can see the abundance of things all around us, it’s that we believe there may not be enough for us. We may get shafted.
So we hoard, but worse, we end up not even fully enjoying what we’ve taken. We hoard, not from joy, not from a place of love, or of loving all the good stuff of life far too much. We hoard from a place of fear and a prevailing sense of uneasy, paranoia.
And so we spend our time with our things, within a pleasurable moment, or our free time worrying about the next moment — worrying about getting more. What if there isn’t enough? What if this is all there is? What if there’s never more forthcoming?
We believe that everyone deserves safety and security here in the U.S (we might be shit at delivering it in some neighborhoods, but we do believe in it). We believe everyone deserves a rudimentary education. We’re beginning it believe we all deserve health. But beauty? Pleasure? Not so much.
It’s unfortunate that we don’t value beauty and pleasure more, because if we did, it’s ramifications for our society might go deep, and help unstick some of our country’s stickiest problems.
After all, beauty, pleasure and free time, — they instill hope in us, they give us courage to face the next hard moment and they stoke our creative fires. Happiness is never a given, life has it’s terrifying moments, — loss, sorrow, anger, bitterness are all a part of the mix. But pleasure? Beauty? It’s always right there, available to us in the moment.
A beautiful sunset, the perfect croissant, a strangers smile, a mans warm hand grazing yours accidentally as you both reach for the door, a beautiful garden in the afternoon, a stroll along the river at twilight — it may not completely ease the heartache of life, but it certainly helps combat a bit of it.
And if we valued things like beauty, pleasure, and time might we take better care of our environment, both in our cities and towns, but also outside of them, in nature herself? Perhaps we’d care more about pollution, and destruction of all kinds of forests and natural landscapes, if we cared about commerce and beauty/pleasure/life equally (not to mention longevity). Maybe we’d be more eager to find a balance between them all, and find more creative solutions if we did.
If we cared more about beauty, pleasure, life, love and time maybe we’d look at our food and eating differently. The Slow Food movement might gain traction as we look at how to raise animals and grow food in ways that are beautiful, life-giving and give us far more pleasure. Maybe we’d make dinner and eating with loved ones a priority. Maybe we’d take more care with what we ate.
Perhaps with these values in mind we’d spend some time planning our cities for our mutual pleasure, not just with parks and pretty monuments but with walkable neighborhoods and roadways that make sense. Neighborhoods with corner grocery stores, and cafés/coffee shops to people watch, spaces for seasonal markets. Parks with views and vistas, and places to wander. Less sprawl and cars, more people and community and beauty.
And if we took it for granted that beauty and pleasure were a given for everyone, maybe we’d ease up on each other. Maybe we’d flirt more and enjoy engagement with the opposite sex, or whomever your “other” is, more. If we looked for the beauty in everyone, if we saw flirtation as a light and pleasurable way to pass the time, maybe we’d have more fun with each other, and less tension, less of a war between the sexes.
It was a Parisian that first quoted Dostoyevsky’s “Beauty will save the world,” to me. At first, I scoffed cynically. What’s the use of beauty anyway, I wondered silently, as I scrutinized the Parisian in front of me with disbelieving eyes. And, perhaps it will take more than beauty to save the world… maybe it will take beauty and some honesty plus action. Or beauty plus courage…
But If beauty can’t save the world, I do know this, beauty can certainly save your world, particularly when it’s in tatters. It’s certainly saved mine a few times.