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When I threw my copy of Gargantua and Pantagruel across room 53 of the Hôtel Jeanne d’Arc (twin beds, bath, 95 euros a night), it was because Pantagruel and his friends were about to be attacked by a huge army of . . . chitterlings. I’d endured Rabelais’ over-the-top rowdiness as long as I could: Gargantua combing the cannonballs out of his hair after a battle, the pilgrims clinging to his teeth so they aren’t washed down in a flood of wine after Gargantua eats them in his salad, the six months that Alcofribas gets paid to sleep all day in the little village he happens upon inside Pantagruel’s head. But when the chitterlings lined up to attack, 42,000 strong and flanked by “a large force of game-puddings, stout dumplings, and mounted sausages,” I said to myself, Enough’s enough, and let fly.
Then retrieved my book and kept reading, because finally I was understanding France. I had lived in Paris a number of times before: twelve months across 1977 and ’78, six months in 1998, the summer of 2001, perhaps as many as a dozen shorter visits. Yet I had never asked myself why, which probably means I was enjoying myself; usually we don’t examine our pleasures unless they’re destructive ones, and even then only if we want to avoid them. Obviously, I wanted to keep coming back. Why, though? Why not someplace warmer and less expensive, a place where I could converse fluently? (Considerable effort notwithstanding, my French seems to be stuck permanently in second gear.)
This time, though, I intended to find out. I meant to discover what it was about France, and Paris in particular, that kept yanking me back. And I only had eight days to do so; Barbara and I had come to Paris over spring break, and we had to be back in the classroom the following Tuesday. But time, because it was brief, was on my side: in the past, I’d luxuriated thoughtlessly in French volupté, and now I meant to use my handful of days to force myself to come up with some answers.