I believe that Jean Valére, the old man at the café across from Saint-Sulpice, is the genius loci of Paris.
It was a surprisingly warm morning for the last week of October in Paris, and I had plans to meet friends at the café across the street from Saint-Sulpice at 11h. I walked from my school, lazily, crossing the street for no other reason than just to stay in the sunshine. The café has an oddly disjointed east-facing front seating, the likes of which has no covering from the glaring sun before noon. In fact, it is nearly impossible to sit there before noon without squinting profusely and pointedly staring every direction other than forward. But they make a really nice, long espresso for €2,40. Obviously—this being Paris—my friends are late.
I sit, sip my espresso, look every direction other than forward, and catch the eye of the very old man seated a few seats down from me. He is reading the newspaper from 2 days ago, drinking an espresso, a glass of red wine, and a citron pressée (orange juice); breakfast. He smiles at me and I smile back, turning away to save from that awkward over-lingering gaze. A moment later, as I am very much looking left (he is very much to my right), I hear (in French) “eh-hem, excuse me?” I turn and smile at him, “Yes?”
“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” I laugh and agree with him. Upon further observation, I notice his very thick eye-glasses, and his deeply set laugh wrinkles. He is a small man with delicate hands, whose smile looks like he is laughing, even when he is silent. He begins to speak in rapid French to me and I politely ask him to slow down. “Are you foreign?” I tell him that I am an American and he rejoices in telling me that his mother used to live in Boston, which he assures me is nothing like San Diego (where I am from), and I ardently agree. Speaking in much slower French, he begins to tell me the history of this square. He tells me about the church in front of us, Saint-Sulpice, and about the way that the sun in Paris feels different in autumn than it does in spring, and about the way that he believes he could live in Saint-Germain des Prés without ever leaving.
We must speak for some half an hour before he tells me that he is a director, Jean Valére, and that he is somewhat famous but that I will not know him. I assure him that I do not, and he is very happy about that. “I would be very upset if someone as young as you knew me,” he laughs. I laugh too. He asks me to be in his next film. I agree to it, jokingly. His hands tremble slightly as he sips any of his given three glasses.
Soon enough, he has told me the history of most of Paris, he has cast me in a film, he has promised to email me, and he has taken my hand in a paternal embrace five or six times. It doesn’t seem to make much sense, but with this single interaction I felt as if I had been inducted. I felt as if his acceptance of me, the “charming American from Sauhn Deeyahhgo,” was the acceptance on behalf of all of Paris. When he told me that I looked lovely in the autumn light, but I would look exceptionally becoming in the spring light, I felt as if Paris had given me the right to live there.
If the genius loci of legend is the protector of the city, is the spirit of the place, I believe I found that in Jean Valére, who — on behalf of the city that I am so devilishly in love with — gave me the right to Paris, like a key to the city. In his morning glass of wine, his morning orange juice in his morning espresso, sitting with his three day old newspaper, I found the essence of Paris.