Culture Shock: Paris to Arkansas, Reflections on Three Months Abroad, Part V

Part V: On Books and Traveling, or, “He Went to Paris”

I fell in love with Paris, or at least the idea of Paris, so long ago that it’s hard to pinpoint, but the attraction began forming in the late 70s and early 80s. At least one major influence was Jimmy Buffett, the singer/songwriter, who didn’t make me fall in love with the ocean or sailing, but he did foster the idea of “sailing away” to another place different than the world I lived in. What appealed to me about Buffett, and this was back before the “Parrott head” days, before he became an industry and sole ruler of Margaritaville, back when it was still Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band, was the idea of going away to another place.

young buffett


Buffett got me through some of the last hard days of being a teenager, through a couple of unrequited love affairs, you had to be therethrough the shedding of my old high school identity and into the formation of my new college identity. Formative in this process was the hours spent listening to the double live album, “You Had to Be There,” listening to songs like “Sail Away,” where Buffett sang “. . . that’s the way I survive, sail away, that’s just no shuck and jive, it just makes this whole gig come alive.”  A verse or two later, Buffett captured the sense of late adolescent/early adult angst I felt, singing, “. . . it’s not close quarters that would make me snap, it’s just dealing with the daily unadulterated crap.” When my friends and I were having a bad day and someone asked about it, all we had to say was “just dealing with the daily unadulterated crap” in a measured, tired voice that conveyed our martyrdom.

But the Buffett song that offered a measure of hope and introduced the concept of Paris as a world beyond the daily grind of reality, was “He Went to Paris.” It tells the story of Eddie Balchowsky, a veteran of the Spanish Civil war that Buffett had met in Chicago. Balchowsky had lived a life of idealism, as was true of all the Spanish Civil War factions,
regardless of the side they fought on, had lost an arm, and later in World War II, in England, had lost a wife and child. Battered by life, Balchowsky had retreated to the islands to spend a life fishing and pondering, but before that, when he was young, he had gone to Paris. spanish civil war pictureAs Buffett told it,

“He went to Paris

looking for answers

to questions that bothered him so.


He was impressive,

Young and aggressive,

And saving he world on his own,

But the warm summer breezes,

The French wines and cheeses,

Put his ambition at bay.

His summers and winters

Scattered like splinters

And four or five years slipped away.”

Though my life wasn’t nearly so tragic, nor my ambitions so idealistic, at least during my college years; however, I old man in parisleft college and took a soul-sucking job in Georgia that drowned me in misery for two years. It wasn’t just a bad job; it was a supervisory job that literally demanded the regular practice of unethical and racist behavior in order to be successful. That’s another whole story and written about elsewhere, but it is enough for now to say that the idea of Paris as a place where a person could be left alone to just “Be,” was an attractive seed watered by the writing of Ernest Hemingway, who I began to explore earnestly during those years in Georgia.


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