I’ve wondered why the Beatles’ “Michelle” lingers in the mind. For one thing, the lyrics are ludicrous. The only French words the singer, Paul McCartney, claims to know are “ma belle” and “Sont les mots qui vont très bien ensemble,” which he goes on to translate as, “These are words that go together well.” A stranger to French is much more likely to know “je t’aime,” which is never said in that song even though “I love you” is howled over and over. But the imperfections don’t matter. The lyrics succeed in bringing out longing.
That longing needn’t be for a woman, Michelle or otherwise. It could be for a country, a city, an object, an ideal. Desire is there, but we can’t touch or interact with it. We don’t have the connection and lack the language.
As a boy, I rarely listened to songs for their words. I might be guided a little by the lyrics, but what I heard was the music, and the music often took me far away from where the lyrics wanted. “Michelle” took me to France, an unattainable country for me in my English childhood. It was a place where dreamy people stared off across the sea or up toward picturesque clouds—images from television shows.
I finally made it to France when I was twenty-five. As I write, the scene that comes to mind is a stretch of Rue Caulaincourt, a hilly street overlooking Sacre Coeur. A friend and I stayed in an affordable hotel on that street, so we got to know it well. We later traveled south, all the way to Provence, where I was pleased with myself for holding an entire conversation in French with a young waitress who couldn’t wait to leave for Paris. I thought she was already in paradise, a curiously similar sounding name, but I had the wherewithal not to say aloud something so obviously not true for her. One man’s paradise is another woman’s tedium. It might well also be that man’s illusion.
For the trip with my then girlfriend five years later, we purchased unlimited rail fares on the TGV, France’s strikingly fast and reliable trains, and traveled to Lyon and ultimately the Mediterranean, whimsically stopping off here and there in-between. That October, Paris was so damp and cold that we’d had to spend the hours we weren’t exploring under the covers in a hotel that stuck rigidly to government rules on when to supply heat. Down in Provence, the weather was the most perfect I’ve ever known, a dry warmth that comforted the soul.
In 1990, I flew to Paris to spend a first week with a Scottish cousin who had married a Frenchman, followed by a second week on my own. Their three daughters spoke French and English with equal ease, but to me they were essentially French. They had that quiet charm. At their suburban train station, I learned to be terrified of those TGV trains hurtling through. If you didn’t stand back from a line drawn along the platform, you’d be swept up and killed. Efficiency with an edge. That was somehow French, too. While I was in France, everything was French, no matter if it might be the same everywhere else in the world.
The second week of that trip, I stayed alone in the Fertele Etoile, a Right Bank hotel near the Argentine Metro stop. I’d read in my room in the morning, then go out to a certain corner café for lunch and a half carafe of their red wine. Thus fortified, I’d head out for a modest adventure. One of those afternoons, I took the Metro, probably to the Cité stop, for a walk on the Left Bank. It was a gray day, neither cold nor hot. I went many blocks along a boulevard and then back again. It was a moment when I felt conscious of lacking vision, which I’d lost at the age of thirteen. I could have been walking along a street in any city for all I saw, or rather didn’t see, except French was spoken all around me. Other things were different, too, but what they were, I couldn’t have said then and can’t now. More elusiveness. However, I felt some small pride as I negotiated the French capital by myself.
Any sadness I felt after such strolls dissipated in the evenings when I dined with one or another friend living in Paris. One night I had dinner on my own. It proved to be a challenging but ultimately successful exercise in getting the waiter to help me through the menu, asking for the check and leaving through the door with relative grace. As a blind customer with meager French, I imagine I was as elusive to the waiter as he was to me.
I did finally meet someone new on that trip—a Frenchwoman, no less. On my last day, I walked over to a language institute to see about arranging French lessons the next time I visited Paris. Why I hadn’t looked into it at the beginning of that week escapes me now. Inquiry made, I was on my way out when a woman joined me and asked me in French how I’d feel about setting up time to engage in English conversation. I had to tell her I was flying back home the next day. Why couldn’t I have said, “Let’s have a coffee, though”? But I didn’t, remembering I had a commitment with an old friend that evening. I wonder who she was. Was she as likable as she sounded? What did she look like?
On yet another trip, I bought Laura, whom I’d later marry, a Tibetan amethyst necklace from a woman named Cara, the name she also gave to her jewelry store on Ile St. Louis. Cara was, for me, one of those Frenchwomen who are about style and secrets. We think of her whenever Laura wears the necklace.
On another trip, we spent a few days in tiny Vaison-la-Romaine, a town consisting of clusters of architecture from different epochs on an isolated hill. We stayed in the higher-level medieval quarter, but went down from time to time to the archeological dig of a Roman town. At night, a restaurant near the hill’s crest put tables and chairs onto the sidewalk and in the lightly-traveled street. I have no memory of what we ate; just the atmosphere of abiding peace. Practicality, business sense and sociability came together in that willingness to take over a public thoroughfare. How French, I thought.
Such are just a few of my memories about and around France, others of which I’ve incorporated into my fiction. As I trudged down its streets and bungled its language, it lost some of the remoteness that had once been its appeal for me. But it also lived up to my dreams. French really is a beautiful language, the people who speak it seem to be made more gracious by it, and the towns and countryside are so often pretty.
The France of my longing is separate from its politics and the uglier aspects of its history. I don’t deny any of that. I sometimes talk about it. But that France doesn’t reside in my mind and heart.
“Michelle” has been going around my head because I recently came across the version by David and Jonathan. On first hearing, it’s hardly different from the Beatles’ original, but on more listens, the two singers’ harmonies come into focus and accentuate the song’s haunting quality.
A question I ask myself: when a song or a country strikes me as beautiful, what exactly is it bringing out in me? I still don’t associate “Michelle” with love of a woman, never mind any specific woman. As for France, my having been there extinguished some of that sense of childhood longing, but it has created other sources of that emotion. For one, I wish I could truly speak the language. Then there is my desire that I could live there at the same time that I live here in Brooklyn, as well as several towns and cities in England, the western Massachusetts of my college days, the Boston of my years in law school, the San Francisco of another childhood fantasy merged into my stays there, and yet other places. But longing is about the unattainable. We can’t live in more than one place at a time. Nor can we move back in time, just as we can’t bring back from the dead the people we loved and have lost.
At each stage of my life, the feelings of longing that “Michelle” has brought out are for something superficially different, though just as unattainable. Yet underneath it all, the longing is still about the land across what for me, in my childhood, was that impassable Channel. It’s the lonely shepherd I arbitrarily imagine each time I hear Ravel’s Pavan. It’s the shimmering strangeness of Debussy’s piano chords. It’s the France that may or may not exist in those Provencal fields of lavender and the animated arguments in Parisian cafes. It’s people I never met or hardly knew.
The longing itself can be enough. Besides, it’s inescapable, inevitable. Many dismiss it as an ache to get over, as purely sentimental, a word that denigrates feeling.
But if we allow longing into our lives, especially as we get on in years, it becomes a measure of what we’ve experienced even as it recalls what we couldn’t. When we embrace it, we acknowledge that not all our dreams could be fulfilled. But they were inside us all the time. Rather than regret what might not have been, we’d do ourselves more justice by embracing what we dreamed, exactly because those dreams could never come true. Not outside us, anyway.