Dispatches from Europe - Paris, Be Mine
The Eiffel Tower made me cry. While it’s true that wine also contributed to my tears, the exultation with which I ran across the bridge towards it, sparkling in the night and just a bit further away than it seemed, was more than just a tipsy mind. It was late at night and we were making our mark on the city of so much, strolling the streets in search of a bar that didn’t charge ten euros for a cocktail. Quite an unrealistic mission. We turned a corner and all at once it was there, lit up and towering over the Seine. I couldn’t look away.
“It’s so beautiful,” I whimpered loudly, taking blurry pictures on my phone as I went.
“Shhhhh,” was the response.
I jogged to catch up with my friends.
The tower had been our first destination, and it had immediately taken my heart. The effect of the dark night and the soft edges of my state of mind intensified my adoration. It may have been a clichéd spot to visit, but clichés exist for a reason. The tower was transformative, brown with wispy webbed wires in the sunlight, but sparkling and imposing at night. Both versions charmed me.
The next day, I awoke early to fit in as much Paris as possible before my imminent return. Our whirlwind romance was coming to an end. My temporary roommate and I agreed to meet at the Sainte-Chapelle at 11 – he wanted to sleep in – and I headed off at 8, taking the subway towards Montmartre. I read silently on the subway, fancying that the only thing distinguishing me as a tourist was my large duffel bag. In three short days and with the help of Google Maps, I’d figured out the fairly complicated Metro system, which included colors, letters, and numbers and was now using it with no trouble. I’d developed a comfortable familiarity with the worn seats and the tiled, tunneled stations.
Paris is a different city in the morning, before the tourists arrive and the vendors set up shop. At least in the Montmartre area, a soft silence sets over the streets like fog on a rainy day. Those who are out and about are locals – a mother and daughter heading back from the bakery, an elderly man reading his newspaper on a bench, and so many dog walkers.
It was Valentine’s Day, one of my favorite holidays, and I was feeling a tender attachment to the city I’d only just met a few days ago. I ambled along the cobblestoned streets towards the Sacre Coeur, the church serving as Montmartre’s pinnacle, past the gates and grates that marked the shop fronts closed.
My hike up the steps leading to the church was refreshingly solitary, disturbed only by an early tourist trapper who grabbed my wrist in an attempt to force my participation in some kind of trick involving string. I forced it out of his grasp.
“I’m in a rush,” I told him.
But I wasn’t.
I was in a contemplative mood, appreciating all the beauty surrounding me. The hill was perfectly symmetrical, with stairs on each side that ran parallel, leading to platforms at various levels and finally the top. Each platform was separated by vibrant expanses of grass, and the sides were lined with trees and shrubbery. A dotting of street vendors and early morning tourists like myself greeted me at every beautiful view garnering a photography stop. When I finally reached the top, I looked out at the streets of Montmartre and beyond, separated from the grey sky by a thin strip of fiery orange.
Deep breath in. Deep breath out. Repeat until your lungs are filled to the brim with Paris air. Let it soak into you.
I continued to the previously empty streets, now alive with vendors opening gates and setting up shop. Kitschy products abounded: berets with “Paris” written on them in cursive, Eiffel figurines covered in plastic gems, “vintage” prints of Parisian flapper girls (not going to lie, I did buy one.) But the morning’s magic didn’t fade as tourists began to stream in; it simply evolved. The energy was eager, appreciative, venerational. Still, I was glad to have captured the morning’s peace. I spent 2 euros on a pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) and brought it with me to a garden near the subway station from which I had arrived. Enclosed in a small courtyard, it was just overgrown enough to look natural, despite the perfectly symmetrical placement of trees and other leafy plants. I found a secluded, empty bench in the far corner where I proceeded to eat my pain au chocolat, read my book, and feel very French. Barely audible 50s music floated from an open window to reach my inviting ears.
Nearby, tourists took pictures in front of a large blue wall covered in writing. Once I’d had my fill of The Aeneid, I rose from the bench to investigate. Couples stood in front of cameras, posing intimately, reminding me of the day’s significance. Closer observation revealed letters from every alphabet, that most simple yet complicated phrase repeated in every language: I love you. I admired the affection around me with no wish for a couple photo of my own. I had a Valentine better than any other: Paris.