“The pause that refreshes.” Remember that slogan? It was a successful ad campaign for Coke that debuted nearly 100 years ago. I’ve been thinking about the meaning of “pause” during these last languid days of summer because of a book review that came across my desk. As with many things, the review prompted me to think about Paris.
The book is Semicolon by Cecelia Watson. If you believe the blurbs, it is nowhere near as dry as the title would suggest. I took the bait and bought the book. But it was the intriguing review that got me contemplating Paris, even before the critic mentioned the delicious detail that in 1837 two law professors from the University of Paris settled a dispute over a semicolon with a duel.
Thinking seriously about semicolons requires a willing suspension of disbelief. If, as you’re raising a cup of coffee or a glass of wine to your lips, you suddenly realize that you’re reading about a mysterious punctuation mark, you might have the urge to run as far and as fast as you can. Don’t. The marvelous semicolon, invented by a printer in Venice two years after Columbus sailed off to find the West Indies, is an entreaty to pause. Stronger than a comma, less decisive than a period, the semicolon introduces nuance, inviting the reader to notice subtlety and cadence; and linger longer than you might otherwise.
So how did I make the leap from a book review on semicolons to Paris? Well, the semicolon is all about style. And, it can be a metaphor for many things. Take travel. It was in this capacity that I thought of a book I read earlier this summer. In Travels With Alice, humorist and essayist Calvin Trillin writes that he “realized something essential about American travel: Americans drive across the country as if someone’s chasing them. They tend to move across Europe at the same pace. Traveling in Europe, some of them may give up counting miles and start counting cathedrals, or even countries.” And then the coup de grâce: “For anyone who has ever made good time on Interstate 70, there aren’t enough miles in Europe to make any difference.”
I think the French are semicolons. Americans, on the other hand, are periods. In an argument between two punctuation marks, American periods would be shouting at French semicolons, “Get to the end of the sentence, already!” while the French semicolon would reply, “All in good time.” I think this because of what I observe daily in Paris. Paris is a semicolon. It has a mindset punctuated by pauses, sometimes long ones. Consider eating out. Americans equate leisurely service with poor service, when often it’s a matter of cultural differences.
To be in Paris—to really be in Paris—is to yield willingly to a semicolon sensibility: to consider subtle connections, to see beauty in the quotidian, to be curious about complexity, to surrender to rhythm; to pause.
I am a semicolon. And you?