As I sit here at home in front of my computer, I feel as if I am writing to or about someone that I haven’t seen in years, whose memory has danced in my mind, painting a picture almost like a dream. Clearly, the romantic in me has surfaced. Indeed, there is truly no better subject to be sentimental about than love, be it of a person, place, ideal, or cause. It is a bit of all of those concepts for me. I have fallen in love with Paris. My Paris. The Paris that is the French’s and the world’s all at once, yet is distinctly mine, tailored not to the scope of my imagination, but to the intricate detail and warm tones of memory, joggled involuntarily by the sight of a baguette crossing my cash register, the scent of red wine after if has had proper time to breathe in the glass, or the delicious, harmonic cadence of the French language as it caresses my ear as happenstance will have it. The city that I have fallen in love with will let me slip into her flowing arteries of traffic, shopping, and subways, and like the current of the Seine, carry me to an ocean of serenity.
Initially, it is the idea of the city that enchants: the uninhibited luxury of the Champs-Elysee, the soaring triumph of the Eiffel Tower, the stately resolution of the Notre Dame, the inconceivable treasure of history of and in the Louvre. It is only when those images of the city fall, when the shades of expectation are lowered, when la vie en rose becomes la vie en couleur, does Paris invite you to share in her splendor, and for the first time, you witness her stunning beauty. My introduction to Paris was traffic along the motorway and an inexplicably complicated circumnavigation around the Arc de Triomphe, in what only could be described as making Massachusetts drivers look like Catholic school children. The buildings were not Haussmannian, the population not the elegant beret-wearing bourgeoisie smoking hand-rolled tobacco from a cigarette held tightly in a long, thin metal holder. They were normal people. The first sounds were not violins and accordions perfuming the air with their romantic melodies, but people sneezing and yawning in an airport terminal, searching for their bags they promised themselves they would recognize. Then car horns and strings of unintelligible swearing. Beautiful to the ear, but utterly impossible to understand. Perhaps for the better.
It was however, when we began to uncover the streets tucked away behind the mundane-looking buildings and corridors that Paris – in her true form – became real. The cafes, the boulangeries, the arcades, they enticed, and unlike what is forbidden to do in the subway, I stared longingly at them. My love was not unrequited. No death glare, just quiet pride.
It was when I traversed the streets alone that I discovered the paradoxical axiom of the city – that in a place such as Paris, you are always alone, even in a crowd. There is a civilized quality to eating alone, walking alone, living alone, that, be it residue from the war or custom from generations previous, appeals to the romantic charm of life. Indeed, to follow this paradoxical course of life, there is one person you must be able to tolerate: yourself. In Paris, after many years of uncertainty, pain, tragedy and loss, I realized without question that I love myself. With that love, the streets of Paris seemed miles wide and, even in pouring rain, brimming with optimism and hope. Do the buildings ever marvel at the intricacy of humankind, in the same way we marvel at their sublime ornamentation? I’d like to think that their builders intended that to be so.
On our final night, as we floated down the Seine, the history of hundreds of years paralleled our course. Thousands of people lined the river to converse with each other, meet new people, pursue eventual carnal pleasure, and wave at visitors in neon green vests passing in tour boats. We passed them as we gazed at the buildings we had discovered the weeks before, the buildings that were now more than names, the buildings that exist outside of fantasy. We passed the singular brilliance of the Eiffel Tower, as it stretched up to the sky in copper yellow. The cameras flashed around the boat, the image immortalized in pixels and in resolution. I took none. I gazed in love and humility at this wonder. I felt every instant of that moment, lived it. Lived it there and then. I immortalized that picture in my memory, in my soul. At that moment, without question, I knew I would return. My long-distance relationship would remain steadfast through time and circumstance. The fantasy was gone. The reality was far more stunning. I was in love.
As I sit at my computer thousands of miles away from that place – with the possibility of getting a proper cafe gourmand almost nil – I sit in quiet contentment and reflect on my great fortune. How, even if I were to fall penniless, I would still guard this jewel with me for my whole life. The City of Lights, a city that fought for her freedom and witnessed the ebb and flow of history build and fall within her limits, shone her warm beam of illumination upon my face and captured my heart.
I see the Metro map in my mind. I hear the clinking of plates in the restaurants, I smell the soup and pastries and Metro stations. Those things make Paris, Paris. I see the faces of the restaurant owners who sat us down and helped us order our meals. The woman who told me – in French, of course – that her first duty is as a mother. I see the smiling face of my first friend in France, standing in the sweltering box along the Boulevard Jourdan making a crepe or croque-monsieur for me for the third or fourth time in just as many days. That is what makes Paris, Paris.
I see my new friends, as we sit in the airport, in the subway train, or walking along the cobblestone streets of Versailles or taking our places at a restaurant, never knowing exactly what we’re going to get. That was what made Paris, Paris. A singular moment in time that will reverberate though the years and grace our memories with a majestic point of light that extends to the heavens. A light that reminds us all, that, to return together, separately, or if only to live in the pictures that captured time at an instant, or even still in the warm glow of recollection, we’ll always have Paris.