It might be time to talk about Paris. I don’t want to talk about Paris. In Paris, I felt like a fraud.
Traveling is thumbing through a catalogue of cults we cannot join. We plagiarize the native choreography; we come in costume, slink into their ballrooms, follow all their customs as observed. Never take milk in coffee in the afternoon; learn to sip it bitter, black. Never leave chopsticks in the rice, like incense sticks in funerary pots. And so on. We are charmed, repulsed, in equal parts.
We tell ourselves we aren’t tourists. We go looking for the off-the-beaten path, but nonetheless it is a path. The so-called road less travelled, albeit worn “really about the same.” And when we get there, there we are. This is the filter through which we see the world: this flatfooted, omni-oppressive ‘I.’
And Paris is, well, Paris. We go there to be tourists, after all. To stand spine-center in a beloved novel, knee deep in that Woody Allen film. We stake no claims on authenticity as long as she will honor our idea of her.
I didn’t go to Paris. I went to my idea of Paris. I was a teenaged journal version of myself: slow dancing to Lucienne Boyer, sipping Sancerre by the river from a plastic cup, congratulating fishermen for snaring one enormous carp. My Paris was champagne bubbles in the afternoon, rain-scented oil slicks on the street, kisses at ordinary intersections, and low-pitched sirens wailing through l’heure bleue. My Paris was whimsy built up into bricks, and everything I’d hoped for. Ninety-nine percent romance and wandering.
We walked until my feet went bloody, back and forth across the Seine. We stumbled into Saint-Sulpice and Notre Dame, the Jardin du Luxembourg, Ile St.-Louis, and the Marais. No need for guidebooks, parapluies, or maps.
We treated ourselves to five euro café crèmes on charming streets (and not so charming ones). We rode the Montmartrebus round roller coaster turns and corners, chugging downhill, almost off our seats. We caught a glimpse of Sacré Coeur, then spent an hour dancing at a milonga at the bottom of the hill. We had dinner in a tiny blue couscous-erie: clay bowls full of steaming grain. There was still a line around the block an hour later when we finished eating, finished our bottle of rose, finished taking in the square and saying “acht.” Très romantique, non? And not just that—the stroll across the Pont des Arts, the locks! The old and battered books, the salt-and-nutella smell of crepes, the Seine, the stately islands and their sparkling facades. We did jazz caveaus and four course dinners, rose petal macarons, long walks along the river where the romancers and hoodlums kiss and pee (respectively). We watched bateaus go by. We breakfasted on buttered dough in varied forms, then walked for hours through cathedrals, cobbled streets. We lunched at sidewalk tables, sipping tiny glasses of rose. We made a point of getting lost.
We walked home in the rain, sought cover under tombs in Montparnasse, sought cover in cafes. Market women with their carts took refuge with us under awnings. Dogs stepped up their homeward pace, not bothering to sniff the market stalls, the fish counter, the racks of wholesale cotton clothes, and a magnificent display of pocket pastas, flour dusted, piled like cockles over ice. We sat and watched the vendors, standing elbows out of aprons, watch the heaving rain.
We did our own thing too: B. at his conference, I at my markets and museums. A blur of oil paint and marble body parts, herb-wrapped chèvres and strawberries, long-horn tomatoes, chickpea latkes with basil yogurt sauce. Bouquets of lavender thrust in my face. Beggar guitars. The unfamous fountains. The coffees and the endless glace. Salted butter caramel and fig sorbet. Sea foam colored silken lingerie.
That last reads like the status update of a silly girl, unemployed and city hopping, high on self esteem. But you’ll forgive me. This was Paris. And Paris should be a patterned china set, a light blue laundry list, something written in calligraphy. Some photos of linens hanging out to dry, or open windows, trellised balconies. A pair of leather shoes. The remnants of a lunch. Look up, look down; it’s always Paris. Victory is ours and true love matters more than currency.
Day five. I had this sense all day something was wrong. I’d spent seven hours in the Louvre, on line before the fountains were—before the hordes of tourists glutted all the escalators, belching themselves through every entrance, bee-lining to the Mona Lisa. I felt superior to them. I took my time. I forced myself to stand in front of shards of china, Ptolemaic steles, and lesser-loved Classical canvases. I would not elbow my way into a better glimpse of armless Aphrodite, my view of her obscured by cell phone cameras and disembodied hands. I stood and looked at things for seven hours. That’s what we do, when travelling; we stand and look at things.
I rode the city bus, then rode it in the wrong direction. I backtracked past unlovely courtyards, dry cleaners, and B list eateries, passing benches lined with women sitting with their ankles crossed in rubber shoes, and men with thermoses and plastic shopping bags. When the streets got lyrical again, I treated myself to a rhubarb sorbet.
Then, twilight: at the wine joint tucked back behind the Pantheon, its fourth wall windows pulled away, its tables spilling into sidewalk. We sat among the music executives and intellectuals and shared a plate of cheese, a basket of baguette, a plate of leeks with vinaigrette, the night, the Roussillon, the company (my B. in his favorite shirt).
This was our last full night in Paris, and there we were. On that darkened square: the shuttered bakery, a bubbling water source, some benches, and a lawn. Evening, gaslight, cold white wine. We began as two and ended up a crowd. Chairs were borrowed, rearranged, and someone ordered beer instead of wine, Pastis. Cell phones and cigarettes consumed the table. We were summarily forgotten by our waiters. I believe this was deserved.
And then the fire. A dozen pompiers and trucks arrived. We saw no smoke, so they seemed funny sprinting back and forth, spooling and unspooling hoses, spraying jets of water at the night…
I said I had this sense all day something was wrong. Something (or I) was out of rhythm, unbelonging. And then a woman in a linen dress, a cardigan, and harem pants, hysterical. Someone brings a wicker chair. The novelty of firemen and trucks is not so funny anymore. Smoke trickles acrid-smelling, to the street, and still no flames. A portly neighbor pats the woman’s back. They are both middle aged. The one screams; she’s crying “mother,” crying something unintelligible as the crowd gathers to gawk. Some, of course, clasp hands across their mouths in courtesy; others just accumulate. A voyeuristic view into the scene reveals a darkened courtyard full of grey, smelling of molten plastic, full of neighbors shaken from their homes.
I still hear her screaming. Like the time the 2 train hit the drunk man at eleven on a Wednesday morning and took his leg. I took the smell of screaming rubber, that pink spray of flesh across the subway door. It is the same with her.
I ask how we distinguish what we see. Is she drama prone? Is her hysteria an idiom, or does she wail in universal parlem? We leave Tragedy in privacy. We’ll never know what happened, or the damage done. We leave tomorrow anyway. Jack finds a POLICE ball cap fallen, forgotten, on the street and takes it, makes a souvenir of it. “We aren’t animals,” he says, reassuring as we walk away.
The night is over, or it must be, but we’re walking, one foot then the other, past the pillars of the iridescent Pantheon, glowing twenty watts. We end up in the back room of a rock bar, in the backroom concert space, where bald, pot-bellied men play Jazz Manouche to a full house. They wear fedoras, t-shirts, tailored pants. They slap their instruments like fishermen or gods. (I plagiarize myself.) The evening drama melts into the banquette where we’re crammed buttcheek to buttcheek among students sipping wine and amber beer. The plucky le pompe strumming rhythm gets underneath our nail beds until it beats another jolt of joie de vivre into our blood. We sway our heads in rhythm, glancing glassy-eyed up at the dusty bottle-covered bar, bedizened with ceramic cows. A mammoth bull’s head guards the wood piano. Everything gets better; Suffering is temporary.
We order drinks. The girls in front of us, adjacent to the stage, all snap their gum and fix their hair, or fiddle with their phones. They’re bored. They do not clap. We are outraged on behalf of Paris. Someone in a jaunty cap hisses out a “shhhhh” (if such dialects can be recorded), and they collapse against the booth in sullen silence.
To travel is to look at things. We judge them and we judge ourselves.
Virginia Woolf wrote: “as a woman I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
It’s different for me, I tell myself. I’ve moved around too much. When asked where I am from, I always answer “miscellaneous.” I travel thirstily and open-eyed, blank pages in my purse. I’m desperate for a country. Home is out there somewhere to be found.
That somewhere isn’t Paris. Not even Paris how I might have seen her—in the far arrondissements, where people live like everybody else—above Chinese food takeaways, where there are launderettes and rats, and people shop at Carrefour. Maybe that was Paris, real Paris, and I missed it.
I had this idea of Paris, see, of who I’d be in Paris. I tried to honor her.
That next morning, before the train to Charles de Gaulle, we stood and looked at things some more. Maybe we didn’t purchase any plastic Eiffel Towers, but we held hands and strolled. We bolted our trinket to the bridge and split two keys between us, tossed the third into the Seine. It was cloudy, but we didn’t mind. A gruff accordioniste was playing a tango, and so we danced—right there on the Pont des Arts.