“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
This weekend was Paris, seule. I boarded a train so motherf***ing nice that I felt compelled to swear in describing it on Friday afternoon and tore across the countryside at 200 km an hour, reading and brooding over the meaning of Paris.
So many great writers, great personalities, and great events passed through and in and under and above this ancient and sprawling metropolis. I had few plans, not being very motivated to push a whirlwind tour of all the biggest sites possible, wanting instead to wander and hopefully get lost. Wandering may reveal sweet secrets and even grand sights, but rushing incessantly from museum to tour to eglise and back again is certain to preclude some of the smaller discoveries.
To be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced that I would even like Paris. I have a general aversion to the crushing crowds juxtaposed with crushing isolation in big cities. Their stinky and claustrophobic metros. Their tendency to bring out the very worst and best in everyone, often simultaneously.
But I had a beautiful time in the city of light. I wandered alone across the whole city Saturday morning, and achieved my sole goal of the weekend: seeing as much of the Louvre as possible. My meandering walk made me get there at about noon, and it was already a crazy hive of activity inside. It was far more overwhelming than even the Uffizi in Firenze, both in sheer size and richness of art. I couldn’t help but think that Napoleon stole a great deal of the works and set them up in his personal collection after ravaging much of Europe, and I admit that I felt a little indignant looking at some of the great Italian works in France. Especially the ones I knew were stolen from Ferrara, my adoptive Italian home.
I skipped lunch in favor of art, skipped breakfast in favor of sleep. I did not skip apèritif, nor the cognac digestif at the end of my one meal.
I’ve never gotten so lost, so quickly as in Paris. Not even in Venezia. I swear that the path changed and shifted seamlessly, becoming untraceable within seconds. The metro stations have the dizzying effect of an MC Esher painting, weaving their staircases in so many directions that I regularly questioned whether I was now walking on what had before been the ceiling.
For this and other reasons, I was glad I went alone.
When I’m alone and lost, I can feel stressed but often a zen-like sense of calm washes over me. I know that I have no one else to rely on and that anything but calm, assertive action will probably only work against me. I feel no frustration or anger brought on by reliance on others to get out of a strange situation. If only I could have the same mentality when I’m traveling with others, or indeed in my “real” life.
Someday I may really miss solitary travel. It’s a whole other can of worms with one baby crying in the stroller and the other strapped to your chest.
The weekend passed quickly, and almost in complete observational silence on my part. That made it a little lonely, and it was wrapped in the tangle of thoughts circling and repeating, alternately annoying and enlightening me. I woke up Sunday morning and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror of the hostel bathroom, struck by how different I look. Also by how cute. I’ll need a photo of myself at the beginning and one at the end of the year to display the change wrought on my face and body by the year that changed even my handwriting.
It turned out that I loved Paris. It was chaotic and multicultural in a true sense of the word, with many converging beliefs and races and even children who are growing up with interracial gay parents. Even with the issues brought on in a post-colonial republic, and even with the slight aftertaste of forced assimilation (“franciation,” and yes, that is the real French term), it’s a beautiful place.
But it will never be the Paris that exists only in the imaginary. The Paris of a remarkably uniform fashion sense amongst tourists who obviously believe that Paris is fashionable and therefore break out all manner of ungodly floral patterns that they would otherwise never be caught dead in (one hopes). The Paris of novels, of the Moulin Rouge, of the Belle Epoche, of Hemingway’s Moveable Feast. The city itself is lovely enough that one doesn’t need the imaginaire…but people want it.
I’ll confess that, given my current Moveable Feast-esque period in my life (by which I mean, I bought books today in lieu of buying lunch) I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite books and dress in my best clothes, go to a cafe, and order a drink that I could barely pay for…just to coax Paris as it once was for Hemingway to come alive a little. Just to catch a glimpse, however fleeting, of the Paris that once was.
And when I did, I swear that the lights burned a little bit brighter in the city named after them.