The rain-soaked streets were quiet that evening. I don’t remember whether it was a weekday or weekend or whether it even mattered to anybody. I remember being excited to get to the Notre-Dame Cathedral and walk along the banks of the Seine, across its bridges and back again.
Before I reached the river, I spotted the peak of the Eiffel Tower shimmering in electric light over the rooftops to my left. I was hearing music too. People singing and guitars playing. Flames over stove tops and candlelight in restaurant windows. People were laughing, lovers young and old holding one another, kissing in the still, cold night.
Man I couldn’t believe it, but somehow this city was already turning out to be everything I ever imagined and hoped it would be, which was saying a lot.
Ever since that first evening I’ve found it difficult to write about Paris. It could have something to do with expectations and some inflated idea of what an account of my time there ought to be and sound like. Many have written of it and will continue to do so, and I’m not sure whether I have anything particularly novel to add to the ongoing conversation but I can try.
What surprised me about Paris was that it met and more often surpassed every expectation I originally had of it from years of reading stories in countless books or seeing it in film and other media. Expectations were high enough to make it seem as though disappointment were inevitable, but like so many others I too fell in love with the city. Now during what are hopefully the final days of lockdown and travel restrictions, it sits among the top of my list of places I look forward to seeing again, not too long up the road. So maybe it’s no accident that I’m finally writing this now, years after that first night, since a city like Paris represents the opposite of everything most of us have experienced for the past year.
Where many of us understandably might be at a point where we’re re-evaluating our lives and no longer taking as much for granted, Paris is a place where nothing seems taken for granted and where every detail is savored and art, beauty, fine food and good company are given the priority they deserve.
Take the parks for example. Not only are there plenty of them, but they’re all beautiful and they stay busy with groups of friends gathered there on any given morning, afternoon or evening, sitting atop a picnic blanket enjoying wine, good food and ultimately the added company of everyone else sitting across the lawn of the Champ de Mars or along the hillside below Sacré-Coeur.
Or take the restaurants and how uncommon it is to see one that doesn’t have tables out front with seats positioned side-by-side, facing town instead of each other, so people can enjoy not just the company of the person with whom they’re dining but the feeling of being out in their neighborhood and appreciating where they are and where they live.
Then again, you’re equally apt to see someone sitting alone at one of these cafés having lunch or enjoying a coffee (no laptops) and out in their city in the company of strangers, in the company of neighbors, and in the broadest sense, in the company of fellow citizens and human beings, all participants in this grand experience of life and living.
If such a person can learn to recognize this and to cherish it, they may still be alone in that moment, but I can almost guarantee they’ll feel a lot less lonely.
We’ve heard the phrase work to live, not live to work. I wonder whether to someone in Paris, the phrase might sound silly not because it isn’t true but because it’s so obviously true. For here it’s an understanding that seems second-nature, as obvious as any other common realization made generations ago and now never given a second thought.
In the days ahead, after more than twelve months of lockdowns and social distancing across the world, I’ve got a feeling Paris is about to become a lot less exceptional, at least in this regard.
A man can hope and dream.