The last time I saw Paris was three years ago this Spring. It was the first time, too. I had been to France before, to Nice and Cannes, but Paris required a special trip, and undivided attention–like a demanding lover.
We rented a clean, compact apartment in the Marais District, with large casement windows that opened up to a sunny courtyard. I loved opening the windows to hear the day awaken: the sounds of grown ups clop-clopping their serious business shoes on the courtyard’s cobblestone as they went off to work; the shrieks and laughter of French children racing each other to school.
We shared the apartment with lifelong friends who understood my need to just be by myself, walk around the City and hang out in coffee shops whenever I wanted, watch people and simply inhale life. Paris was made for such things.
I could care less about seeing the Eiffel Tower, or Montmartre. The Bastille was now a flea market where cheap dresses were sold, and long lines of tourists slithered past the gargoyles of Notre Dame. I fell in love with the D’Orsay, watching an entire class of second grade students sitting still in front of a statue and sketching it, under the unerring eye of their talented teacher. I lost my patience at the Louvre, where I found myself forced back to Brooklyn, screaming at a selfish clod taking a selfie while he sat in the lap of a 600 year-old reclining nude.
“Ne touche’ pas,” I shouted, before realizing that the art vandal understood neither English nor French. He did, however, understand Brooklynese, especially when punctuated by aggressive hand gestures. My passionate protection of the art of generations should have been my warning: I was falling in love with Paris and I when I loved someone, my fierce loyalty kicked in if they were ever threatened.
We explored Shakespeare & Company bookshop, standing behind Sylvia Beach’s desk, looking out the window where she wrote as she looked out at Paris and imagined all sorts of lives being lived, loves being whispered, on the streets below. We stepped outside in front of the bookstore and watched a free puppet show, where the tug of each string seemed to be attached to the smiles of the humans stopping for some creative fun in the middle of their day.
The Seine beckoned, and we strolled across a bridge laced with padlocks, and down a stone stairwell, smoothed by time, weather and thousands upon thousands of shoes. We boarded a boat and rode the River until sunset, back and forth, traveling back in time to a moment which did not move, until the sun finally disappeared and the sky dipped into a darker and deeper purple. We walked all the way back to the Marais, intoxicated on the night air so thick with life.
Next morning, on my own, I bounded into a French bakery, bought a hot, crusty baguette, and devoured the entire loaf before camping out in a coffee shop which became my comfortable nest for the day. On the way back to the flat, I heard music coming from an old church around the corner. The doors were open. I walked in and stopped. In front of the altar, stood a few dozen boys and girls, no older than 12 or 13, each holding a sheet of music and sounding like angels with soprano voices, to piano accompaniment. Above them, climbing up to the tall stained glass windows, were hundreds of paper cranes of all sizes and colors. Peace cranes, I thought; Sadako’s paper cranes of peace, multiplying by the millions around the world after the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This was Paris: a place of music and light, life and remembrance and hope, eternal hope. Somehow, eyes filled with tears, I found my way back to the apartment.
I was seduced by Paris’ open arms, a free and easy pace, which encouraged you to do everything, or nothing at all. It was a gentle kiss, a warm caress; a children’s song overflowing with life, and I can’t get it out of my mind.