As I emerged from the Metro steps at Boulevard Saint Michel, I was not prepared to be cast so intimately into Paris: stone buildings are softened with curves, fountains call for your stray fingers, and people everywhere, eating. I was swallowed up by the smell of butter, smoke and dirt as we darted with luggage in hand to the Crêperie Des Arts. Our bodies brushed against other bodies, passing cafe tables, tourists, and trees just opening for spring. We hurried. We were hungry.
We devoured them all: cheese, egg, banana, chocolate. We ate every scrap of tender crepe, then licked our fingers. And thus began be the pattern of my brief stay in Paris: great hunger followed by ravenous eating, then back again to hunger, all immersed in curved iron, stained glass, and door after door leading to food. Every morning Paul returned to our hotel with small bag from the patisserie to supplement our spartan breakfasts of baguettes and hot chocolate. It was something new every day: pain au chocolate, Norman tart, almond croissants. We ate them all, fortifying ourselves against the miles of walking before us before returning late in the evening. In the days that followed, I embraced the communal nature of eating in Paris. On park benches we shared bites of crackly croissants, their crumbs dropping shamelessly into our laps. We looted the scraps from one another’s paper bags, hoping for a forgotten meringue. Even at breakfast, we tore at our buttered baguettes until they disappeared. It’s better to buy a little knife before shopping for canvas linens for Paul’s art in Montmartre so you can slice the bread, cheese, and peppers you bought at the market that morning on a bench at Abreuvior Street and Place Dalida. There we ate and watched the people walk down past the pink houses , from behind the Sacre-Coeur. “Do you want a picture?” I asked Linda. “No,” she said. “I just want to sit on this bench and look at this street and the people coming down.” I stole one anyway. Not of the pink houses, but of them, eating olives and the last of the baguette. Over the next few days, I took a few of Linda and Paul in Paris, and thought about how immersing oneself in Paris without constant photo-taking represents hope. Hope in one’s ability to remember, hope in returning, and hope in one’s own experience. When in the Louvre the next day, we saw a crowd at the Mona Lisa. We did not stay in that room for long.
Rather, we sat a long time at Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa, discussing the symbolism, the politics, and the intertwining bodies brushing the green sea.
Photo credit: www.louvre.fr
And then there was Bernardino Luini’s Salome receives the head of John the Baptist. We studied her youthful, smug face, the hand of the executioner, and Salome’s act of holding the plate. We sat a long time there, too.
Photo credit: www.louvre.fr
After the Louvre we took the long walk to the Jewish Quarter for falafels and cold sodas. At the little park around the corner we shared a bench, ate fruit tarts, and watched children run and the teenagers play ping pong and smoke cigarettes. With heavy eyes and stomach we stretched our legs, smelling the blossoms teased open by the afternoon sun. “Are we here to experience?” I asked Paul later, between mouthfuls of tart, “or to say that we’ve experienced?” “I think most are here to say they’ve experienced,” he replied. As for me, I will skip fancy dinners and photo ops. It’s better to share in Paris to feel the hunger for walking, then to eat in the sun, passing bites between you. It’s better to be frugal in Paris, to bypass the tours and the taxis and cut through graffitied alleyways and crowded markets. If you fear you will lose Paris without pictures, run your palms on the warm afternoon stone of St-Eustasche Cathedral, walk through the smoke and neon of the Latin Quarter and wear her smell on your clothes when you get home. Live like the city is yours and it becomes so. We will remember the smell of the wind-lifted lilacs and hanging over our bench as we drifted to sleep, the vibrant blue of the Van Goghs, and the ancient stone of the cathedrals. We will remember the long eclairs, the giant meringues, the tender macaroons. I can see the stretched shadows of streets in evening light, the tree-lined paths by the Seine, and people kissing on every street. And we will remember the urine stains on the walls of the cathedral, the shoe-worn, stone steps of the metro, and riding my bike near cars so fast, their passing lifts your shirt of your sweating back. In her beauty and her belly, Paris accepts you, elevates you to her own through the acting a part in her dirty, sweet opera.
I’m in a quiet corner of the airport, waiting to board my flight home. A young woman breezes past, finds a small table, drops her luggage, and pulls out a small paper bag with several French macaroons. Checking the lighting, she brushes off the table and arranges the contents of the bag—delicate pastel macarons—in a whimsical stack. As she maneuvers around the table, I hear the hear the distinct, slow clack of an expensive camera. My mind wills her to eat just one—to drop it thoughtlessly in her mouth. But quickly, she stuffs the macaroons back in their bag and hurries off. Then, I thought of the clafouti we ate on the stone steps of the Heritage building, with its dark, sweet cherries and sugary crust. And the old straw chairs we sat in at Saint Merry’s Church as we listened to the mournful baroque cello. Or the old man in the cafe in his suit and red scarf, flirting with the waitress. The ring on his finger, the hat at his side, the way the waitress touched his arm. I pulled out my notebook and began to write.
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.” —Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast