Go to Google, and ask it to list the most romantic cities in the World. Betcha Paris makes the top five every time. Heck I’d be surprised if it didn’t make the top three – and if it didn’t it’s probably due to an editorial bias. So if I were to make a top five most romantic cities in the world, where do you think Paris would fall? Top three? Or would it duke it out for number one?
I would like to state, for the record, that everyone should experience a first class train ride from Amsterdam to Paris – and Paris to Geneva as well but that’s a story for another time. One of the most remarkable sights to see takes place right near Brussels. An almost mile long stretch of granite walls with the most wonderful graffiti I’ve ever seen lines the tracks of the train. It’s very difficult for me to describe this mural of sorts, though I guess the first place to start would be with the word graffiti. When I think about that wall I know it’s graffiti, but that word seems so vulgar and demeaning. It’s art, street art yes, but art nonetheless – and it captivated me.
How many countless hours went into that mural? How much paint, and how many people worked on it? Was it improvised and painted on the spot – a free flowing thought that travelled down to the fingers and out the nozzle of a spray can – or was it meticulously planned? Was it done in the darkness of night as to not get caught, or did these mavericks risk reprimands during the day to defy public norms and give birth to their dreams? Sadly, my bewilderment and awe of the sudden appearance of such beautiful and elaborate art kept me transfixed and unable to pick up my camera. I guess I’ll just have to go back and see it again sometime.
As the train pulled into Paris De Nord that there was a small (big) part of me that wanted to take a taxi straight to the Eiffel tower, and while I know I was about 4 miles away from it, the moment I made it to the surface I craned my head around desperate to spot it. I took two trains to the northeastern side of Paris, about three blocks from Notre Dome. My first experience with AirBNB awaited, and I had no clue what to expect. I wonder if I would have felt any fear at all if I wasn’t so exhausted, sweat drenched, and sore, from lugging around a heavy backpack in 90+ degree heat. Parisian nights certainly weren’t any colder, mind you. Maybe it had more to do with how much I trusted complete strangers not to harvest my organs, or it could just be flat out naivety and inexperience.
One door code and five flights of stairs later, a vault like door swung open and revealed a man, dark haired, wide smiled and no older than me – at least in appearance. I stepped across the threshold and into the walkway of style and design magazine. Carefully considered pieces of photography were hanging from the wall in a variety of sizes and frames. To the right, a kitchen accented in red. A framed cover of an old Batman comic and Superman comic hung adjacent to each other across the kitchen. A large vase held, what I could only guess would be, a hundred wine corks. And of course, an espresso machine.
Out of the master bed room, that was connected to the kitchen by a door, walked the other resident. Clean shaven, and a little shorter than Mike, Jonny quickly introduced himself. After setting my bag down, I turned to shake the hand of Mike as he closed the door before introducing myself to both of them. Though as I started to recant my day, a third member of the household greeted me with soft licks to my calves. A beautiful honey brown and cream colored cocker spaniel was below me. Jonny introduced her to me before pulling her away; Penelope. Jonny poured me some Pellegrino and I took a much needed seat at the corner table; I finally arrived at Chamber au Coeur du Marais.
Though it was approaching midnight and both had to work the next morning, we spent the better part of an hour talking about my trip and where I’ve been and what I’ve seen. I showed them some of my footnotes and musings, as well as flicked the display of my camera over so they could see some of the pictures I’ve taken thus far. Mike wanted to know if I had plans for my time in Paris, and I told him I did.
“The most important thing for me to see is the Louvre. I have a couple other small places I want to see, and of course there’s the Eiffel.” I refilled my glass, this time trying to sip it slowly instead of a large gulp that drained the first cup. Paris was already as warm as when I left Amsterdam, and it was the dead of night.
Mike went in the other room and came back with a few maps. A smaller city map that covered the part of Paris we were in, and a larger one that allowed you to see the overall city. Mike circled where we were and then circled The Louvre and the tower. We were about 5 kilometers to the tower. Which would make a great morning run if I could get up early enough to beat the heat. The Louvre was about halfway in-between. I pulled out my metro map and laid it side by side with the overview map so I could see the stations that ran through Paris. There was a metro practically everywhere I wanted to go, but I figured I’d walk as much as I can so I could see Paris instead of venture under it.
Realizing I hadn’t unpacked and even had a chance to settle, Mike and Jonny showed me to my room. Passing through a glass-paned door, we entered the living room. A large flat screen television was mounted to the exposed brick wall in front of us, and to the right more photo frames arranged in a perfect mix of sizes and images of Paris. Slightly burnt bulbs hung from the ceiling and in front of a black leather sofa with several skulls sitting on shelves to the right of it. In the far left side of the room was the door that lead to the guest bedroom.
Pristine in the way you’d expect a high end hotel room to be; a glass and a bottle of water sat on the desk besides a pad of paper and pen. A little golden Eiffel Tower keychain was carefully placed next to an individually wrapped piece of nougat both upon a bright red hand and bath towel. Books about Paris, French to English Translation Dictionary, and Modern art books sat atop the bookshelf next to the bed. Without any hesitation or care I dropped my bag onto the floor and sat the camera down on the desk.
After finishing giving me the lay of the land, Mike and Jonny were off to sleep as they had work the next day. Noticing I had yet to stop sweating I figured a shower was long overdue, as was catching up on some writing. First things first; I opened the windows and peered out into the Parisian sky. Clear with a slight dusting of bright twinkling stars, the night’s sky had the slightest tint of orange from the light pollution of this magnificent city. How many people were looking up at this same sky, at this exact same moment?
What came first? Noticing the heat of the day or the obstruction of light in my eyes? Vision blurred and mind still groggily, I crookedly put my glasses on my face and stood up next to my bed. I was right in front of the first of two windows, wearing only my black boxers, when a cat call like whistle echoed from outside. Looking to my right, in horror, was a girl not too much younger than me. Leaning out her window and taking a long drag on her cigarette, she was clearly trying to start her morning with a quick smoke. Little did she know she’d also be getting a bit of a show from the floor below her. I dropped to the floor as if bullets were ricocheting through the window and crawl to the space between the two windows so I could sit with my back against the wall.
She giggled and called out to me in French. Not a hope or translator in sight, I let out a voice-cracking, “Good Morning” to my not so distant admirer. I had hoped to meet a Parisian girl while I was here, I just didn’t expect her to catch me with my pants down – literally.
Her words curled back in a thick French accent, “Are our American?”
“Yes, I’m visiting from California.” I politely voiced back, tilting my head just slightly as to make sure I project out the window.
“Oooh welcome to Paris, American.” She giggled again. The sound of windows closing followed shortly behind her giggles. Sighing deeply in relief, I crawled past the remaining window frame before I decided to inch my way up the wall near the door.
I knew I heard the distinct sound of the window closing, but I didn’t want to take any chances. Inching my head as close as I could to the window, and counting to three, I quickly reached across to pull the window shut. “One down,” I thought. Not a moment later I had the other one closed.
Thanks to my wonderful hosts I had a fan pointed at my bed the entire time I slept, full blast and wonderful. However, I was now behind the fan, and behind a closed window that had the sun berating right on it. It wasn’t a quarter past nine in the morning and I could feel the sweat trickle down my temple. I knew it was going to be one of those days. And I really dislike those days.
When I finished showering and changing I scooped up my house key, tested to make sure I knew how to open the vault door, and headed off into Paris. The street outside was busy with people coming and going. Many seemed to be tourists, but others were clearly Parisians; talking in quick French. I remember Jonny instructing me to eat breakfast to the left of the apartment as I came out on the street. So I headed that direction, doing my best to walk in the shade.
Now my mind was clearly set on eating nothing but pastries, croissants actually, the entire time I was in Paris, but after walking fifteen minutes I struggled to find anything but a kebob shop, and a little cafe. Maybe I wasn’t looking correctly, or maybe I was just too hungry. Either way I ended up with sitting at a table outside the cafe. After a polite ‘bonjour’ from my server, I ordered some roasted duck and a tiramisu; but I asked he brought the tiramisu first. Sure it isn’t French, but it is one of my all time favorite desserts in the world – and since I no longer drink coffee, I savored the flavors of it even more so.
This corner cafe gave me ample time and opportunities to watch people of all sorts pass me by. One man, in particular, I can recall as clear as the day light currently shining through my window. Bright pink shorts that went above his knees, with a blue stripped tank-top and the most meticulously trimmed beard. His hair was silver and white, buzzed on both sides almost to the middle where it was then combed up into a very stylized undercut. Sitting on top of his Carmel-toned face were round, heavy-rimmed, glasses. He strode down the street with purpose, and best of all, no one seemed to mind or notice.
It was getting hotter. How? I really don’t know. When I left I decided to head back to the apartment and get my camera, change my shirt (already), and get going. I had a lot to see today – hopefully. Just south of the apartment was my first stop, Notre Dame. Now I can’t tell you the whole history of the church, but as Disney lead me to believe, at one time or another a hunchback lived here, as well as some gypsies. The square outside the church was filled with tourists, and street peddlers trying to sell selifie sticks. Worst of all was a line to get in the church; one-hundred yards out the door, stretched across the square.
For what it was worth, I did notice it was moving, just very slowly. So back of the line I went, as I knew my mom wouldn’t let me hear the end of it if I didn’t see another one of the thousands of churches in Europe. And there we stood, in the heat and the glory. About twenty minutes, and 20 ounces of sweat later, we finally made it into the church which was surprisingly cooler. The inside of the church was huge, and by huge I mean I am pretty sure one of the other churches I visited on my way to Paris could have fit in here. I’ll admit, it was impressive. Impressive knowing it took years to build without modern technology available, and also that it has survived so much.
Near the back of the church were small sections, or rooms, that allowed people to pray. Candles lit the rooms and lined the walls, with smaller but as magnificent painted glass panes depicting Christ or the Holy Mother in each room. I stood quietly by the entrance of one, and I heard silent weeping from within. An older woman, dressed in black and deep blues, sat kneeling in front of a room. I looked up into the compassionate face of the savior, his expression not changing, but even I could feel the heat radiating from the glass.
I thought about why she could be crying. Wondering if her spirit was moved to tears or that her heart was breaking. Wondering if her thoughts and prayers are heard any more than my own. Wondering if we’re all going to be okay or not in this life. I wanted to say something, or offer her something, but I knew I couldn’t. That’s the thing about faith, we can all believe in something, but in the end it comes down to what we find in our own hearts. I can give her words, prayers, and consideration, but it’s up to each of us to let the light in – or embrace the darkness. I closed my eyes and bowed my head, and instead of saying a little prayer for me – I said one for her. As everyone passed by this room without a care, cameras out to capture photos of things they’ll forget anyways, I stopped and saw a little bit of humanity outside of my own.
I looked at my watch, and saw it nearing noon. It was time to get going – but I wasn’t ready to stop at the Louvre just yet. South of Notre Dame, near the river, was a very old bookstore; The Shakespeare and Company Bookstore. I only just remembered that this important bookstore was in town, though I didn’t look up its history or importance, only that I knew as a devout lover of books and knowledge, I had to make a pilgrimage to it and buy a book. Passing by several streets, crossing a small bridge over the river, and weaving through a small grassy park that had several groups of young people sitting out on picnics with loafs of bread and sparkling water, I made it to the old bookshop.
Engraved on a wood nameplate hanging in front of the store was “Shakespeare and Co.” – people were coming in and out, but mostly out. The sign on the door indicated why: no air condition, no air circulation. As I pushed my way into the little shop, I felt as if I was walking into an oven. It was, however possible, hotter in here than outside. Yet there was very little room to walk around as there were so many people moving through the store and buying books.
The rooms were small, and books lined shelves all around. It had the distinct feeling of Olivander’s wand shop. “The wand chooses the wizard, Mr. Potter,” Olivander once said. “Maybe a book will choose me, but what book?” I thought. Right in front of me, On The Road by Jack Kerouac sat next to a few books by William Burroughs. A section later brought me to T.S. Eliot, and finally some works of Shakespeare. “Too obvious a choice,” I told myself. I knew it had to be something special, something small too as I didn’t have a pack.
In the back of the store was a staircase, and as I saw people going up it I knew it was fine to go up. A sign indicated that the books upstairs were for reading, and at one-time people used to stay here while on their travels occasionally. An engraving over an archway read “BE NOT INHOSPITABLE TO STRANGERS LEST THEY BE ANGELS IN DISGUISE.” A little hole in the wall held an old typewriter with bits of paper hanging from every inch of the hole; receipts, tear-offs, gum wrappers -all with names and hearts and dates written on them. I sat down. I wish I could leave something among the hundreds of unknowns, something to say I was here, but I didn’t need to leave anything physical behind. After all, who would see it? More so, who would care?
I placed my fingers on the keys of the typewriter, and just felt the ridges of the keys under my fingertips. I closed my eyes and just let my fingers move across the rows, typing a sentence without pressing the keys, writing words without ink to paper. “I will always know, and I will always remember.” As my finger found that last key I opened my eyes. A jagged and crumpled corner of a receipt hung on the wall in front of me, with a little heart on it it read “faith.”
The room just past the hole was a large opening, a sign detailed that this collection of books was for reading and not for sale, and on a sofa to the right a large white-furred cat laid sprawled out and sleeping. Either too asleep to notice, or too cat to care about all the people coming into her home, I smiled. Cats are funny like that. They seem to understand life, I guess. Understand that they should just be, because why should they be anything else? Or as my brother would put it, “cat’s gonna cat.”
A young woman sat with an electronic tablet and stylus and was drawing a sketch of the desk by the windowpane; it was really good – or for what I could see of it. I didn’t want to creep her out or break her focus, so I decided to move on back toward the stairwell and out to the front of the store. Still no book to settle on, and running out of moisture to sweat, I scooped up a collection of poems by E.E. Cummings and got in line. Wouldn’t you know it, right before I got to the counter, something else finally called out to me. Small, with a blue cover and gold-edged pages, I traded out Cummings for it, made my purchase, and left.
The Louvre was a twenty-minute walk away, and while I did have a metro pass, I didn’t want to spend any time under Paris. There was too much to see and not enough time to see it all. Baring the heat, I walked alongside the river towards The Louvre. Parisians and tourists alike were out, and on several occasions I passed buildings that had to have some sort of historical or tourism appeal, as there were queues to get in them. I’m sure they offered something of value, though indiscernible to me. That’s the thing with doing anything last minute, you lose whatever opportunities proper planning would have provided.
Disclaimer: The Louvre is big – really, really big. I only knew of The Louvre, through television and Dan Brown books, I don’t think I was prepared for what I had found.
When I finally made it into the courtyard of The Louvre and was able to see the magnificent glass pyramid at the center, I was already drenched in sweat – though undeterred at now playing tourist and trying to get someone to take my picture with the pyramid. After spending some time circling the courtyard trying to find the entrance to the museum, I noticed that there was a line in front of the pyramid. I was looking for a door, what I should have been looking for were some stairs. The entrance to The Louvre is actually under the pyramid! This fact led to two subsequent thoughts; some part of The Louvre is entirely underground, and that it has to be at least a little cooler down there than it is up here since heat rises.
Fun fact, when you get under the pyramid you’re only going to find yourself more confused, as you now have four different directions to enter the actual museum. Best of all, you can pay for an electronic guide that runs on a Nintendo DS, which is a two-sided follow-up to the Gameboy. This device also acted as a digital map that would route me to whatever I wanted to see. I checked the clock and saw I had at plenty of time before the museum, and the better part of Paris, closed for the day. Spinning in a circle with hordes of other tourists around me, I picked a direction at random and started out. There was a familiarity not unlike going to Disneyland, or another amusement park, for the first time. You know you’re going to see a lot of things that you’ll find interesting no matter what direction you choose.
I came first to the Islamic collection, which welcomed me with a very cool breeze of air condition as I entered. Surprisingly the museum was relatively tourist-free as I could only guess was due to most people wanting to see Da Vinci and other classics over rocks and pottery from the middle-east. I had seen my fair share of museums already this trip, but I tried to keep an open mind. All of this was history of our humanity, and in that regard it still deserves respect. Technology has taken some of the grandeur out of wood carved doors, or eloquently and geometrically designed rugs. Not only did people make these things, probably by hand, but they were created hundreds of years before us and the fact that they are still intact to some degree has to accredit the creator to some degree.
Seeing all of it was also poignant. Much of the middle east is, and has been, in constant chaos from region to region over the years. Most recently with ISIS, who have taken it upon themselves to raid and destroy thousands of priceless artifacts on their conquest, jihad, whatever. I remember standing in front of a scimitar thinking about this, thinking about the fact that here in Paris are all these items that belong to all these other nations as part of their natural heritage, yet cannot be trusted to be protected in their originating states.
Then another thought came into my mind: at what point does the history of a nation become apart of the history of our collective humanity? At what point do we not take responsibility as a people for preserving our past instead of trying to lay claim to artifacts as if they are trophies to be collected. Sure, for many of these countries tourism is a measurable percentage of their GDP. How much does The Louvre alone bring each year in tourism? There is most definitely value in having the largest collection of historical items in the world, but what is more valuable? Their preservation in a stable sovereignty or the ticket price you can charge for the attraction?
From the museum of Islam, I moved on to an enclosed and covered courtyard filled with giant marble statues. I sat for a while to drink some water and take in what I was seeing, and also to overhear a conversation. Under one statue sat several children who were being talked to, in English, by what I had to believe was a museum curator. She talked to them in a soft and kind voice, asking them if about the statues and about King Henry. I had to admit the kids were cute in their responses, but so was the girl in her appearance. They filed out and on to the next part of their tour not too long after, she smiled at me while passing. And there I sat again, alone, in a very big, and very crowded place.