An Essay on Paris
November 1, 2010
It's my usual practice to write about a new city within a few weeks of the time I first visit. Paris is no exception. She's it's a city that crouches in the back of my mind like one of its famous gargoyles; whispering in undertones beneath the sound of the traffic. You don't need to speak the language to feel the weight of centuries upon her like a cloak. You don't need to go within iron doors that line the Seine, or wander corridors in the underground labyrinth, to know that Paris has secrets. She's a graven spider on an asphalt web. Yes, the city is beautiful; marbled white, nearly every available inch of masonry carved and ornamented, but Paris doesn't want you to see what's behind her smooth mask. You can wonder what made her smile, but you will never truly know. Paris shows her true nature like an experienced lover — only to those who know the right places, the right streets to wander. She's had too much of the fumbling hands of youthful vigor. She's waiting for the touch of someone who knows her, loves her, and remembers her ancient ways.
While there, one of the Parisians asked me what I thought of their city. I joked that half of the people in Paris are made of stone. There are statues clustered on every street-corner, two and three at a time — obelisks rising forlornly above busy, car-festooned streets; carved angels staring down in judgment or idle curiosity; gargoyles looming above dark alleys. Everywhere you look, Paris has eyes.
The centuries have left their mark on the Grande Dame's features. With tangible fingerprints they have frozen her spirit. The bustle you see is holds echo, like the movement of whispering leaves on an autumn bough. That's not to say the city is dead; she's very much alive, but she's weary. Paris disdains your short span of time in this world, and gives you only the gutters of her attention. She's already known your type, seen your kind, judged a brave and withering litany of souls. She's had to bury them all.
You could spend weeks walking for hours and miss that single turn between two ornamented buildings to an overgrown herb garden where a gray, moss-covered angel alights on a water-smoothed rock. That angel, that garden, is older than any of the buildings in the Americas, but Paris barely cares. The feeling of age is palpitable, etched on her beauty and in her wounds.
An old adage calls Paris the city of lovers. Certainly, it's a city that begs with beauty and grace to be loved, and to love in return; but she's a choosy one. The best of Paris is not her art, nor her grandeur. It is her strength; herability to stand amid the ashes of her past, and still be greater than cities who are pristine.
Being alone in Paris is like sleeping in a large bed when you are used to a lover's presence. There is a constant, nagging feeling that someone should be beside you, matching you step for step. She has a deep loneliness that a single person can't fill. The monuments are too big, the history too great for one set of eyes. You've missed something. You feel it, and the city turns up her nose at the grubby, childlike reach of your soul.
Beauty comes to her as gracefully as the Siene's slow waters. It shifts past forced, stone-edged banks that are the eternal edges of the city. Paris evolved over centuries; natural vibrancy becoming granite stasis, like fertile earth freezing over a grave. The majority of Paris feels structured, cold, like the angels that crow-like hover on her rooftops, gazing down with never-ending patience.
Itmust be said clearly: I liked Paris. It was a thoughtful city, one that didn't teach lessons or give education, but with every twist and turn, she forces you to look inside for answers that she asks. The body of her teeming swell is glorious, voluptuous with art and seasoned age. The city's disinterest, however palpable, was nevertheless filled with wisdom. The city inspired creativity; songs and stories bubbling up to the rhythm of my thudding feet on her well-worn paths.
What I brought back can't be summed up by talking about the city's vast age, so different from my American home. It can't be solely quantified by my intense loneliness while there; it can't be codified by talking about the magnificent art that decorates her inside and out. Her wisdom can only be expressed by saying 'Here, in this city, love once made its home.' Even at that, the words feel like leaves falling from chestnut trees, swallowed by the river of her cold and ancient veins - you, like all the generations before, are meaningless in the massive scope of her years. You are small. You are fleeting. You are but one person, and not even a very important one. Paris is myriad.
I will go back to Paris one day. She won't remember me; I wouldn't expect it.
But for my part, yes. I will remember her.