On my first night, Joseph told me that he had to wake up at 7 am to meet some friends, and he had determined that sleep for that night was unnecessary. I agreed. What followed was an absolutely magical, perhaps slightly delirious towards the end, discovery of a late-night Paris that had been emptied exclusively for us. Having arrived only hours earlier, I ascended into Montmartre, a hill in the North of Paris where the narrow, cobbled streets wind and climb past stone homes and cafés up to the Sacré Coeur, stunningly illuminated in gold light at night with a glorious view of Paris out front. It was a mystical experience that has left an indelible mark on me, this impromptu discovery of a Parisian gem.
Joseph’s knowledge of Paris’ history and buildings would rival that of any tour guide, and he took us from the Sacré Coeur through all the sacred hearts of Paris, many of which could be seen from 10 blocks away down avenues leading straight to them- up to the Madeleine, through the Concorde where I marveled at huge Poseidon-statue fountains, over to and through the Louvre, and finally onto the Pont Neuf (the “new bridge” which is actually one of the oldest) where I looked down at the Seine. Here I became unexpectedly emotional. Partly because it was 5 am after a long day and miles (kilometers) of walking, but also because as I looked down at the waters of a river I had heard so much about throughout my relatively travel-less childhood, all of Paris was substantiated in a personal reality beyond postcards and Facebook photos. This stuff really does exist! This was a feeling I felt quite strongly during my trip to Southeast Asia last year, but this moment was the strongest of them all.
Occasionally when talking with Joseph, I got the impression that Parisians have grown weary of the notoriety of these ancestral inheritances. To me, this is something I can sympathize with, albeit on a much smaller scale (“damn tourists here for the foliage season” in Vermont). But this is the exact opposite of how we should feel- these things are known for a reason, and to allow oneself to harbor disdain for one’s local attractions is a natural but hugely unfortunate side effect of our globalized world. This is certainly no epidemic, but I have sometimes found that the beauty and marvel of where I am from becomes tenfold stronger when I have a friend visiting who is seeing these things for the first time. I imagine this is part of the appeal of having a child- you rediscover fantastic things around you that you had learned to filter out.
“In spite of its fame and notoriety, its actually quite impressive!”
Despite the fact most of these destinations (an ambiguous term but I think you know what I mean) are so widely known and travelled, they truthfully are marvelous, in every sense of the word, and not just because of the history and power and wealth they imply- what makes me so dumbfounded as I stand before them is the sheer amount of skill and time that has been invested in them. The quantities are ludicrous.
Let’s take the Louvre and forget the works of art on the inside. The level of detail of the building itself is beyond my comprehension. As someone who sometimes realizes my time on this earth is already a quarter over and that I cannot claim to have accomplished or made as much substance as even the cock on a statue on one corner of one wing of the south side of the Louvre, I am particularly mind-blown. L’Arc de Triomphe is no less impressive- a massive structure in itself, the behemoth statues emerging from it’s marble walls looked down at me and I couldn’t help but feel like some poor, unwashed peasant that is even in my filth proud to be a Frenchman. I cannot fathom, though I want to try, the scene of Napoleon triumphantly at the helm of his great host through the arches. In both, and many others, we get a true sense of the hierarchy of man- from the miners to the tradesmen to the craftsmen (all the best in their field) and on and on, all the way up to the king or emperor himself. Tout pour la France. As much as Angkor or Machu Picchu, these places are on the pinnacle of humanity’s creations.
My one regret about my own actions is that I didn’t buy nearly enough sausage or cheese. In fact, not once did I buy any sausage. This infuriates me. The only cheese I bought was a delicious and cheap round of goat cheese on Rue de Montorgueil, a pedestrian street charmingly overflowing with crowded chairs and tables pour from the many cafés. In this city, people don’t care how close they sit to strangers while they eat. Few things speak more to this city’s character than this. Another wonderful aspect of the city’s character- the women are staggeringly beautiful. I’ve been lucky enough to have a firsthand knowledge of this European phenomenon, but it seemed especially pronounced in Paris. Maybe it’s the fact they’re speaking French. Maybe it’s just that they’re factually beautiful. For neither of these phenomena did I feel comfortable taking a picture, so this indoor alleyway/labyrinth of cafés and stores will have to do (I promise I saw more than solely the “main attractions”).
My only disappointment in Paris was a very pronounced dearth of street music- I had expected, unfairly perhaps, to see old chubby men wearing berets with big noses and sagging cheeks playing sad accordion songs on every street corner.
On my final evening, I returned to Sacré Coeur to watch the sunset.
Surrounded by laughing picnickers, a troupe of musicians, and a very bizarre mime show, I watched the whole expanse of city under me turning from gold to orange and to red, and I knew with certainty I would feel an ache when I left. Never have I felt such an immediate attachment to the pervading charm of an urban environment- someday after this journey has ended I will return there, and I hope in a much more permanent fashion.