Today I’m going to buy sunflower oil.
I’m imagining a small glass vial filled with viscous, tinted liquid. The color of Versaille’s gates on a bright morning, a glass of Bordeaux white suffused with light from the setting sun, Loire Valley hills blanketed in fields of the plant from which the oil is derived. Tournesols, they’re called in French. The flowers turn their ebullient, golden faces to bathe in the sun.
Yes, I hope to buy a vial of France. When I rub the golden emollient into my skin, I hope to mollify this sense that I’ll lose, have already lost, the feelings and images of the place. If I close my eyes, listen to Gounod, perhaps, feel that my skin is softened with harvested sunlight, and picture a crop of flowers or distinctly French rooftops, I feel that I can live in the memory, rather than simply remember it.
In New York, sunflowers are cut and huddled in white buckets—not yet sold but already dead. Old churches aren’t, their architecture a copy. I don’t believe in claims of oldness, here. 1842, the year Marie Taglioni debuted in La Sylphide and gave birth to ballet as I’ve known it. Yes, yes, dancers rose to pointe in the 19th century and such lightness was a revelation. Yet compared to a 12th century cathedral’s soaring spires, we should have been flying by then.
I wished for a trip to Paris for my birthday every year as a child—a cruel thing, how could my parents’ gifts of Kindles and necklaces ever suffice? And how could the place live up to such expectations?
Thus, on my first visit to France, I had two opposing fears:
1) I’d be let down.
2) I’d love it so much that I would never want to leave.
At first, the former proved true. The lines for tourist attractions in Paris would shame Mickey Mouse. A two-hour long wait for the Catacombs meant missing the Louvre. I had hoped to wander the halls of the Palais Garnier, where my sylphlike idols and perhaps a wayward phantom once floated, but there was no time. I visited Versailles’s gardens, but my party wouldn’t wait in the serpentine stretch of camera-wielding Asians to see the palace interior. Standing at the gates, gripping the bars that kept me out, I imagined Marie Antoinette standing just on the other side centuries ago, gripping for the opposite reason.
I was trapped and frustrated by time constraints and tourists. It’d be different, my companion assured me, if we were there in February, when you can sail into Versailles without waiting, quite like you own the place. I would have to come back in a time for living rather than visiting.
But after missing the iconic places I thought would legitimize my trip to France, the truth of number two slowly became apparent. “Everything is better in France,” we claimed as we scraped out the periwinkle meat of massive artichokes with our teeth, dipped bread into potently orange gooey yolks, looked out onto red-drenched brick in Albi. It’s this depth of color, more than the top ten must-sees, that imprint on my memory’s retina most strongly. For rose-colored glasses, I learned, simply hold your aperitif up to the light.
See jade green rivers, pearly clouds, soot-blackened stone, cornflower shutters, golden gates. For France is all the colors it is naturally, and even the ones it claims to be in shallow coats of paint.
Paint: illuminating Loie Fuller’s swirling skirts in a Henri Toulouse-Lautrec poster; blushing the cheeks of Degas’ dancers; blooming around the face of Matisse’s wife and her hat; stroking the petals of Van Gogh’s tournesols to life. Artists knew: capture France’s best, its fleeting, in vibrant hues.
I missed out on much of what I wanted to see. Instead, I saw what the artists saw—what they rendered in strokes: France’s life and color and sun. That which I didn’t want to leave.