Because everything in my life was falling apart and I was feeling sorry for myself, I decided to flee to Paris. In Paris I could be alone, be in some accessible Eden. In Paris, I would be free from the shackles of tedium and drudgery and despondency which have since marked my daily life.
Or at least for a little while.
I chose Paris for the same reason that convicts on death row choose their final meal: a chance to experience something they love before everything is irrevocably taken from them. Excuse my flair for the dramatics, but it is to me the most apt analogy; I seemed to be reaching some Delphian end, and while it wasn’t necessarily my life that was ending, something clearly was.
That hardly anyone was going to be there with half the world in lockdown, and that train tickets were cheap were enough reason to impel me to go. And so I went.
For those of us who come from far off places whose image in the popular imagination consists of thin brown children in rice paddies, rivers of literal trash, and maniacal dictators for Presidents, I suspect that I am not alone in saying that Paris has left very early an indelible mark in my young mind, brought about by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about Paris. Paris to me has always been an infinitely romantic idea. More than that, to be able to go to Paris has always signified that I have made it, not so much in the sense that I have achieved some great success in the conventional way but instead in the sense that I have fulfilled a personal dream, after whose realization I would be able to die a happy man. I do not think that it is entirely possible for someone who grew up in the west—especially in Europe—for whom Paris is just one train ride away, somewhere they can always visit one summer or one weekend, to understand the idea of Paris for someone who grew up in a place like I did.
My first time in Paris I was twenty four. It was just after Christmas, and the city of light seemed infinitely brighter than the I had anticipated it to be. The glittering lights along Canal Saint-Martin. The beaming storefronts of the 6th arrondissement. On the corner of Rue de Rivoli and Rue Nicolas Flamel in the 4th arrondissement where the Tour Saint-Jacques stood glimmering. The entire Avenue des Champs-Élysées bedecked with lights of every color. Even the Eiffel Tower that first night shone and sparkled and shimmered brighter than any of the photos I had seen of it. And there were other things too, tiny things that made you question whether or not it was all real, for example, walking back to the hotel one night. It was after dinner, and crossing Pont Saint-Michael I could hear the warm bleating of a distant accordion. It is a scene that would not seem out of place in, say, À bout de souffle, or perhaps Amelie.
This time around the city that greeted was familiar, albeit in many ways different. Familiar: all the places I had once been remained the same, looked the same. The stunning architecture, the stylish men and women. Different: it was very quiet everywhere; there were always people about, but there was a certain ennui which pervaded the summer air and dissuaded anyone from exerting unnecessary effort. Even the trees themselves seemed lethargic, too stubborn to move with what little wind there was. At Champ de Mars, when I happened to walk past it on my first day, it was unusually empty; except for two university boys laying on the grass, a street sweeper, and a common raven flitting about, there was not much there. Now the perimeter of the Eiffel Tower has been fenced in by glass barricades so that you can no longer walk beneath it and look up through its iron guts. There were no queues at the Louvre, or any of the popular tourist spots. Although Paris was far from the ghost town I had hoped it would be, it was very easy to feel as though you had the city to yourself. Even with its usual volume of traffic on the streets, there was a certain serenity about the city that pleased me greatly.
I had not had a lot of money my first time in Paris; in fact, the entire trip had been paid for by relatives. I still did not have enough money when I went this time. In fact I had so little money that I skipped meals entirely, and instead of taking the Metro I would instead walk miles in the late summer heat. And when I did have to eat, I ate sparingly: I would buy a euro or two’s worth of bread at Lidl and ration it. Being surrounded with such glamor and grandeur everywhere you went while your stomach grumbled produced a disconnect that was not depressing so much as strange; it was not unlike being under the influence of a dissociative drug. The irony of the situation did not escape me, but I was never bothered by it.
I had not planned anything particular to do while I was in Paris, had not come up with a laundry list of things to tick off, and so most of my days were spent walking around aimlessly, imperceptibly from one place to the next as though in a fever dream. (The heat and hunger helped engender this naturally.) Unfamiliar streets dissolve into another, a row of renaissance apartments transmute into gothic buildings, I enter a dark narrow alley and emerge into a wide open square, suddenly blinded by light. I’d walk across Pont d’Iéna at ten and Pont Alexandre III at three. I’d stumble onto streets I had never before been but seemed to have seen a photo of somewhere. And when I needed a break, when the sun reached its zenith and bored down on me relentlessly, I would stop to sit on a bench somewhere (there seemed to be no lack of benches in Paris; there would always be one when I needed it) and simply look around. That was another thing about Paris; everything takes on a glamorous veneer, no matter how objectively ordinary. A boy on a moped, an old man with a shock of white hair, a lady smoking her Gauloises brunes, even the pigeons—all of them I beheld with what seems now undue fascination. All the while, the air is thick and humid in the late summer heat. Often I’d find myself walking farther than I had intended but I did not really mind. I enjoyed not knowing where exactly I was. I remember hearing a mass, in French, at Église Saint-Laurent one Sunday. I went more for the cathedral and less the service since my French is very bad and I no longer believe in the Christian dogma and doctrine, but I have always been fond of cathedrals and find whenever I am in them a strange solace descend over me. So I stayed until I felt better.
There was a certain pleasure in spending days like that, moment by moment, one literal step at a time, without rushing or wanting to be somewhere you are not. One day I spent the entire afternoon on the banks of the Seine before meeting a friend later that evening and simply marveled at the beauty of it all. The cerulean blue water. The cloudless sky. The dappling shadows on cobblestones. I sat with my legs dangling over the river, eating a stale croissant with blueberry marmalade and drinking from the bottle an unchilled Beaujolais Blanc I had bought for 7€ at Monoprix down the street. The glare of the sun off the water hurt my eyes so I would close them for long stretches, and when I opened them again everything I’d see seemed aglow, dreamy, as though I was seeing everything through a diffusion filter.
Being in Paris where on any given day I needed not to be anywhere in particular, it was easy to get lost—if not figuratively then at least literally, for it occurred to me even as I distracted myself with the city’s beauty that I would have to deal with the drama of my life sooner rather than later. Once my time in Paris ran out, I would have to go back and confront my proverbial demons.
Rebecca Solnit wrote in A Field Guide to Getting Lost: “to lose yourself: a voluptuous surrender, lost in your arms, lost to the world, utterly immersed in what is present so that its surroundings fade away…to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” I had read this passage some years ago, and it did not occur to me until I sat down to write this piece that perhaps this is not so far from the truth of why I had come to Paris.
You see, I wanted to recover something I seemed to have lost along the way, to bridge the gap between the person I was when I first saw Paris and the person I am now, because the person I used to be seemed happier, and he strikes me now as one full of hope and determination and grit. I came to Paris because I wanted to remind myself that there is still so much beauty in the world, available to me always if I just learned how to look for it. I wanted to believe that there is something more than this interminable carousel of misery I seemed to have gotten on, that despite feeling like a walking wound on my worst days and an utter failure on my best days, all this is only temporary. I wanted to remind myself that I have already achieved so much in my little life, that while I felt so defeated, I have also had great victories, that although my life has been drained of wonder, it is still worth living.
There is a saying which goes, “the universe is just you pushed out”; your external experience is just a reflection of what is going on inside you. With how the state of the world is going, there could not be a truer statement. The world as we knew it has ceased to exist. People are dying, either in the hands of this disease or those who swore to protect us. The recession is in full swing and jobs are lost. My relationships are suffering. My prospects bleak. The most important person in my life cannot understand me, and has stopped trying to. But standing on Pont des Arts one late afternoon, a cool soft breeze off the Seine beneath grazing my face, the Eiffel Tower at the distance silhouetted against an orange sky aswirl with blues and purples of the sun setting, it is difficult to imagine that the world was falling apart. On that bridge it was easy to be still, and just watch all this life around me. For example, the man painting the landscape splayed out before him, the Pont Neuf and Sainte-Chapelle and Cour de Cassation. A little blond girl riding on his farther’s shoulders. The occasional cyclist ratting the wooden planks on the bridge. All around me everyone seemed content, not a hint of worry etched onto their brows or faces, and in that moment, for as long as the sun lingered and infused everything with its golden light, everything seemed right in the world.