Beginnings are easier to see than endings. The planned ending was represented by arbitrary dates on return airline tickets. But the end not foreseen defined itself, in its own way, in its own time, in defiance of the date assigned by the airline. We spent a short time trying to put down its insistence, pointing to the date on the tickets as our evidence. We considered options for the few days remaining until the flight; a day-trip by train out of the city; a day at another museum. But to no avail. It was already over. The end spoke to us both through tired muscles, unaccustomed to twelve hour days mostly spent on foot, muscles more accustomed to being parked in desk chairs for five days at a stretch. The end spoke to us in fatigue, the waning of the adrenalin which had propelled us for several non-stop days, fueling our constant wonder and amazement at finding ourselves in the City of Light.
And this end of this particular experience also spoke to us in the familiar homing instinct.
At that point, Paris might as well have been Ottumwa, Iowa. The music of spoken French still surrounded us. The famously iconic landmarks we’d only ever seen in photographs or movies were still there to behold. The charm of the small hotel we had called home remained. The boulangerie across the road still filled the morning air with the earthy aroma of fresh bread. The Arch de Triomphe still stood down the road from our hotel, a short walk by the standards of the week. But the message was clear. Home. Rest. The comfort of the familiar.
* * *
That first evening, having navigated Charles de Gaulle airport exactly as Rick Steves had instructed in his guidebook, we left our still-packed luggage in our room at the Hotel Mercedes at the intersection of Ave de Wagram et Rue Ampre’ and ventured into the night, eager to see Paris as something other than the airport and the bus which brought us to the hotel. We stepped out into a November evening, into the 17th arrondissement, not as mere tourists in search of an adresse de rue but as temporary residents.
Descending the stairs from the hotel door to the street, our adopted neighborhood lay before us; people shopping, returning home, cars passing by the hotel. It was already evening, the autumn air clear and crisp. Neon sparkled over the still-open shop doors and windows, headlights streamed through the hub of the traffic circle created by the intersection of three streets. Our guidebook left behind, we turned and walked, aimlessly and without purpose or objective, into our adopted neighborhood.
Avenue de Wagram is one of twelve that radiate outward from Place Charles de Gaulle – Etoile and the Arch de Triomphe, part of the 19th century Haussmann Plan which gives Paris not only its radiating avenues and encircling boulevards but also its distinctive architecture. The design elements imposed by the plan gave rise to a city with a prescribed building typology that is uniquely Parisian. Height limitations, adornment, setback of the upper floors and rooflines all contribute to consistency and a recognizable elegance.
The scale changes throughout the city. In front of our hotel, the road is not even as wide as the sidewalks along the Champs-Élysées. This makes for a street scene that is smaller and feels more intimate, even though we are only one kilometer away from la plus belle avenue du monde.
As we stroll, without destination or even so much as knowledge of where we are, each step brings new sights. The lime-green neon cross is the mark of a pharmacy, we reason. The cars parked bumper-to-bumper at the curb are all smaller than anything sold in the U.S. I find my first Mercedes A-class, a version I’d never even heard of before. So what do you do when you want a Mercedes but live in the heart of Paris? You buy a very small Mercedes. We encounter large, mostly unadorned double wooden doors at least once in every block. Not entries for the residents of the apartments, we learn; these are portals for automobiles, which pass through the large, thick doors, through the building to open courtyards within. Peering past curtains as we continue to walk by the windows of ground floor apartments, the interiors range from preciously traditional to eclectic and spare. All of them are appealing. We decide we could live quite comfortably in a Paris apartment.
As we wander, we see people carrying shopping bags, heading home after stopping at the legume epicier, the boucherie, the boulangerie. One guy even has a baguette sticking out of his shopping bag, a Paris cliché, but we love it. It’s just as it should be. But it’s getting late. The fruits and vegetables are being moved off the sidewalk to the shop inside. We bid the vendors bonsoir as we pass by. Further down the street, the lights are still on and the door is open at the fleuriste. Cut flowers bring a riot of color to the autumn evening. Under the neon sign, potted greenery of all kinds line the sidewalk, a multitude of shrubs, all heights, shades and textures. A patron is inside the shop, paying for a large bouquet, which he is holding while fumbling for his wallet. As we walk, we notice; everything is clean. The sidewalks, the streets, the gutters, the shop facades, the windows, the parked cars which line the curb on every street, all clean, all bright, looking almost like a stage set.
We haven’t been on the ground for more than a few hours but already we’re beginning to get the flavor of what life in Paris must be like. Feels good.
We turn east, walking along Ave de Villiers. Where streets meet, there are broad intersections. We approach yet another. At each of the broad expanses of tarmac, some with traffic circles, many without, a neighborhood surrounds the space. Where multiple streets converge, cafés tend to locate on the points where streets come together. On the opposite side of this one there are chairs and tables under a red awning, lights on within. The bistrot is still open. We cross the street in the well marked crosswalk and peer though the window. On the chalkboard menu, there is but one entry; “Beef Bourguignon”. That’s all we need to know. We’re hungry.
We take a table by the window, the better to watch the traffic and people of this neighborhood while we have our first meal in Paris. At a table further toward the back are two men and a woman, friends or perhaps co-workers spending time together over drinks after a workday. We’re the only other customers at this hour. A waiter approaches. Bonsoir. We point to the blackboard and hold up two fingers; s’il vous plait. With a smile that tells us that communication has happened, he goes back behind the bar. Distinctive French water glasses and a carafe of tap water come out, followed by heavy white china plates of egg noodles, beef, thick sauce au jus, fragrant with wine. I can’t remember the last time we ate; was it on the airplane? Or in Atlanta? How long ago was that? And were we really in the United States several hours ago? Suddenly, it all seems very distant. No matter; in our fantasy, we are residents of La Ville-Lumière.
Filled, warmed and back on the Ave de Villiers, we retrace our steps, back to the hotel and our room. We unpack only what we want for the night, fall into bed and sleep deeply.
* * *
The subway entrance nearest to Hotel Mercedes is around the corner and down the street. We descend the stairs to the signature white tile of the Paris Metro stations. Freshly laundered, the still-wet tiles gleam, a sight that will become part of our morning routine. We feed our passes into the turnstiles and walk out onto the platform. There isn’t long to wait.
Aboard the train, Jeni & I check the guidebook for the name of the stop where we will begin our walking tour. She says something amusing and I laugh, loudly. I am suddenly aware of the silence around me, aware that mine is the only voice I’ve heard. It occurs to me for the first time that Parisians make not a sound on their Metro. It is a custom which all respect, the banker with his briefcase, the lady with her sack of bread and greens, the hip adolescent, all black denim and silver studs; none utters a sound. Conversation with companions, if it occurs, is inaudible. The level of decorum on the Paris Metro exceeds some churches I have visited.
My laughter breaks the silence. Whatever the French words are for “rude tourist”, I have identified myself as one. I feel crass. But I’ve learned. It is an embarrassment I will not repeat.
Our walk today takes us across the Seine to Île de la Cité. There’s Notre Dame and the rose window, the flying buttresses, the ivy draping down the stone bulkheads that line the river bank, the barges slowly moving past as they have for centuries. On the other side, La Rive Gauche. The stunning glass of Sainte Chapelle. At length, Pont Neuf appears and, on the opposite side, Samaritaine. The view from the top is said to be superb, overlooking the ground we’ve covered this morning but, right now, on the sidewalk in front of the venerable old department store, the food carts have more appeal. One of the first we encounter offers croque–monsieur; we order two.
* * *
Arch de Triomphe is far more imposing than words or photos or even the imagination can convey. It dominates even from distance, grows larger and larger as we slowly approach. When finally we reach the Place Charles de Gaulle – Etoile, it is immense. We linger at the base, stunned by the sheer size, but also by the reliefs commemorating Napoleon’s, well, triumphs. We make our way to the top and linger again. The gathering grey of a late autumn evening dominates, the air grows cooler, the breeze increases to a light wind. Drops of rain fall as we turn for home.
By the time we descend to the street, the lights of the city are on everywhere. We’re tired and chill. Walking up Wagram, we begin to notice cafés. The familiar conversation begins; “What would you like to eat?” And within a few more steps, there it is. I notice it as I pass but it doesn’t hit me until we’re a few steps further on. Because I’ve been focusing on the Parisian sidewalk cafés, I didn’t consider it at first. But I stop short, look at Jeni and say “Come with me”.
Inside, we find just exactly what I’d hoped. There’s a bit of a language barrier; the proprietor speaks no English, only Vietnamese and some French. We have a few words of French and no Vietnamese. In the end, I point to the Vietnamese words I recognize on the menu posted behind the counter, and to the plate samples. In seconds, the huge familiar bowls of pho soup come to our table. The scalding hot broth is welcome and we savor every spoonful. It’s just what we need, but it’s not enough. I return to the counter and again gesture-point for chi giao, hum bao and several other small plates. Here we are, in the capital of haute cuisine, Paris France, but we couldn’t be happier with our hot, familiar Vietnamese food. For the French, like the Americans, the best thing that came out of those sad military encounters with that small Southeast Asian country was its people and their food. The restaurant and the face of the proprietor was never a more welcome sight.
* * *
Another morning, another breakfast at the Hotel, multiple cups of hot café au lait.
Today, we’re on the subway to Montmartre. Exiting the Metro at Anvers, we find an icon we know well. We’ve never been here but we know of the Montmartre Steps. In hindsight, I couldn’t say if the funicular was running or not, but it doesn’t matter; there’s no way I’m coming all the way to Paris and not climbing the Montmartre Steps. In a pure tourist moment, we take photos of the stairs and gas lamps from the same iconic locations we have seen in books and galleries.
At the top, Sacre Coeur is magnificent. Morning mass is in progress. After my embarrassment on the Metro, I’m reticent. I don’t wish to intrude, so we slide into a pew near the back of the sanctuary. The service concludes, the congregants file out and we have a chance to look around at this magnificent basilica.
A few streets away is Place de Tertre. The cafés, bistrots and dance halls of Lautrec look like Disney recreations for tourists today. But the line between history and kitsch is fine indeed. In the end, the line blurs and we enjoy it as we find it.
Despite the grey, cool weather, there are rows and rows of artists in the small square. We wander. Among the many oils and watercolors, we stop before one canvas which captures the mood of this autumn visit to Paris, perfectly. It could be any street in Paris but it puts us in mind of the street by our Hotel. In truth, it is emblematic of every Paris street we’ve walked this week. In the foreground, tall, slender, leafless trees stand in a small roundabout, the quintessential Paris apartment buildings in shades of grey and white carry the eye down the street; the sky is grey, impressions of passersby in dark coats are evident , strokes of a small pallet knife suggest rain. It’s our Paris, contained in a small canvas. It’s perfect.
Jeni says “Wait here” and returns to the artist, a handsome man of middle years, closely clipped graying beard, black cap, black leather coat. I watch from a distance. Jeni is charming, and an unrepentant flirt. With expressive eyes and her great smile, I watch her work her magic. From my distant post, I can’t tell if this is a conversation taking place in English, French or some combination thereof. He smiles and laughs with her. After some while, she breaks off the negotiation and returns to where I stand, beside a group of café tables. She tells me the price they’ve agreed to. We both return to the artist; introductions, shake hands, give credit card. The painting is carefully wrapped, the credit card slip signed, shake hands again. Jeni stands on tiptoe and kisses his cheek; he puts an arm on her shoulder, smiles broadly; I take the picture. He must have been through this a hundred times but, if he has, it doesn’t show. His appreciation of the moment seems genuine.
Even now, the oil of that autumn Paris street scene and the photo of Jeni with artist Luc Cossier dit Walles hang together in our living room.
* * *
On an uncharacteristically bright day, reminiscent more of early spring than late autumn, we stand in Trocadero square, looking across the Seine at the most famous destination in France, la Tour Eiffel. We’ve been looking at it at varying distances from every part of the city all week, but as we rounded the corner from the Metro station, and the tower came into view, this is as close as we’ve been. Pictures cannot do justice; it’s magnificent. We take time to admire the day and this unparalleled view of the tower from the pools and fountains of the Trocadero before walking across the Pont d’lena to the base of Gustave Eiffel’s famous monument.
There are more people here than any other place we’ve been in Paris. Lines for the elevators are long, but I won’t be denied.
Finally at the top, we look down on upon our city, pointing to each of the places we’ve been; we can see the Arch de Triomphe, Notre Dame, The Louvre, and far in the distance to the east, the basilica of Sacre Couer. We work through the crowd, slowly circling the platform. Directly below is the Seine, winding its way west beyond the city, past the buildings of the Haussmann Plan, into the countryside and on to the English Channel. On cue, the clouds part as we stand over this view of not only Paris but of France itself, while the last light of day illuminates the river. The images burns its way into memory; no photographic equipment required.
We slowly make our way around to the east side of the platform, nudge our way once again to the railing and find, now facing away from the last of the fading day, the lights of the city are already evident. We wait, guard our prime position by the rail, while the darkness gathers and the lights grow bright. This is Paris at nightfall, the City of Light, from the top of the Eiffel Tower. This moment is one in a million.
* * *
There are other moments, other vignettes, but the end of this journey announces itself one morning when we awaken as tired as when we fell asleep. We try to present an alternative plan in defiance, consult the guidebook, discuss options; the RER to Versailles, perhaps another museum. But our day at the Louvre had been exhausting. In the end, after hours of being surrounded by priceless art treasures, the significance was lost; a centuries old Egyptian sarcophagus became a stone box, the magnificence of the Grand Gallery crushed with the size and historical weight of all it holds, the Mona Lisa with crowds several rows deep, each trying to snap a picture of themselves in front of a painting the size of a small house window, a disappointment.
The end stubbornly and persistently continued to assert itself. The pull of home would not be denied. A few moments on the phone accomplished the change in ticketing. We packed, walked to the bus stop in front of the Paris Opera. The bus to Charles de Gaulle passed through parts of the city unknown to us and it became clear to me; we would never see all of this incredible city, even if we had a lifetime.
But the magic of Paris remains undimmed, the images sharp in our memory, the feel, the smells, the sounds are alive even now. The people, the places, and more than anything else, the unimaginable, almost inconceivable reality that we were really there refuses to fade, continues to burn bright, all these years later.