Discovering Paris

We are stepping in on a realm of legend. My reader undoubtedly knows the thrill of finding himself in places bearing a special aura. Something memorable has occurred there. Not necessarily a glorious, heroic deed, a moment of history, but an act of spirit (pardon my grandiloquence!) It might have been an emotion, an inspiration carved in stones, in words, or even in a song, so that they're still touchable after centuries in their place of origin.Here we are on Champs-Elysées, young people with untouched resources of enthusiasm, filled with knowledge of all kinds – but still not fulfilled – our heads stuffed with borrowed memories. So these are the trees beneath which Proust has taken many a walk, while a child, in pony-drawn chariots. So this is what they look like, the "grand boulevards," where, as the song goes, there are "tant de choses, tant des choses à voir." We had first seen them at night.We had just arrived. It was in the evening. We spent the night at a hotel which professor Dupront had been cautious enough to recommend. It was about mid-way between the East Station and the Opera House – that is if you drew an imaginary line on the way between the two points. Without even unpacking we ate what was left of our food and rushed out driven by curiosity. "Let's go out," said my husband (I still wasn't accustomed to call him that, not even to myself), also known as "the philosopher" (at the time, it was more of a nickname than a name of prestige)."Now, at night?" I objected."Why not?!"So we went on, following the doorman's directions: you go straight ahead, down the corner until you reach the boulevard."How do we know it's the right street?""Oh, that's easy, you can tell by the lights. At that point you turn right and you'll soon reach the Opera House."It was probably very late, there were scarcely any people on the streets, or maybe it just wasn't the time for the crowds to flow out at the end of the show. As we reached the Opera we saw a street resembling a river of lights opening on our left side, but we didn't go that way. We went on, the asphalt under our feet wet with drizzle, the boulevard's trees leafless, our lungs filled with the Parisian winter's humid air, cool but gentle. Overwhelmed by the very thought of being there, we didn't even stop to gaze at the glamorous shop windows, at the magnificent lights of the street. We just caught glimpses of them in the corner of our eyes, while we went down the street, from time to time stopping to look at each other and burst into laughter like kids do after a crazy blunder. Running and hopping we arrived at the big crossroad, and on our right side there was a monumental building with an antique templefaçade and Mihai shouted in surprise: "It's La Madeleine!" He had recognized it from pictures, probably in a French text book. We continued our trip turning to Rue Royale where we saw this name written in shiny letters hanging on top of a building entry: Maxim's. So this is where it is! This is the place where the outrageous "femmes qui fument" used to unfold their seduction, as the old aria goes. We went all the way until the end of the street, where Place de la Concorde lies. The whitish haze wrapping the posts of the street lamps made it seem as if dozens of milky globes were glittering above the vast surface giving the square a phantasmagoric, fairy-like aspect.The next day we renewed our trip. We saw the great boulevards again, this time in full day-light. Time and time again we went to see them going further away beyond the old Saint Martin gate, where luxury shops give way to small bistros and modest shops on the both sides of the street, until you finally reach that ugly square with a lonely column in the middle: Here used to be the Bastille! And the quays, the islands! We wandered enthusiastically about the streets of Paris. Back there one could roam at ease, because the streets weren't flooded with billions of tourists among whom you would squeeze today. Well, it wasn't quite the tourism season yet.Apparently not suitable for a visit it was actually the best time of the year for a first contact with Paris, as long as it wasn't too short a visit. It gave us the chance to take a grasp of the city in its genuine beauty: sometimes gently lightened by the fugitive lights of a moody sky, sometimes peevish, its walls gray in the blurry fog, or almost disappearing under the rain's heavy cloak, radiant all over again, its gray stones spreading golden glitters under the pale sun, the delicate grindstones of Ile de France giving away the full splendor of its gentle pinks and yellows. Time and time again I was to lean against the parapet of some "small" bridge between the quays and the islands, a spectator like all the others, gazing at the city in its continuous transformation, fascinated by its infinite variety. We were driven to these places by the first trip we had to make to the Latin Quarter. We were supposed to inquire about the classes and the registration procedures and to look for a place to stay that would fit our possibilities (the hotel where we had spent our first night was too expensive for a prolonged stay, and too far away from the University). We took the subway. I have to confess that in the first minutes, when I realized the Seine was flowing right above us, I was a little frightened: what if the tunnel, that had existed there for so long, would crush while we were in it? A somewhat common experience, probably anyone has it when they are flying for the first time. People get gradually used to it and after many flights they get on the plane fearlessly as if it were a tram or a bus. It wasn't long before we grew accustomed to underground locomotion and its gentle passengers, hardly as diverse and many as today. Soon, we knew by heart the main lines and stops, but still, when we were passing under the Seine, I used to send out a message towards the tons of soil and water above me, beseeching them in silence. Nowadays still, whenever I travel on teh Parisian subway, I can recall those moments of tension, while the few trips I took under the "bay" between Berkeley and San Francisco didn't give me a thrill. Years ago, there was this funny mysterious inscription painted in giant letters on the walls of the tunnel: Dubo-dubon-dubonnet. I was to discover that it was about an appetizer brand. Finally here we are in front of the Sorbonne. Imposing due to its massiveness (the characteristic opulence and lack of elegance of the last century) and sheer size: standing in a corner of the building, I was trying to see the end of the side-wall, but it seemed to fade away together with the end of the street which went up the hill; so this building the name of which stands for a grand tradition is covering the place where, centuries ago, great "Sorbonnards" let themselves carried away in futile endless discussions in their international forum. On the other side of the street – Rue St. Jacques, said the plate – lies the college founded by Budé, the great humanist and his statue discretely placed into a niche of the wall. Across the street, in front of the Sorbonne's main entrance, there was old Montaigne on a small pedestal, at the street level, with his ironic look, surveying the young passers-by, others every year. You can see by his smile he is not believing their crossing would ever bring something new. He stands there distant and cool as the marble that he is made of, but calm and gentle. From the very first time I saw him (and I was to see him each day on my trip to the "streets of schools") I saluted him as an old friend, recognizing in the marble face the true spirit of his words, wise but not solemn. I then realized that he was a kind of spiritus loci, indulgent due to his well-spirited rather indifferent nature, always ready for a bit of mockery, willing to embrace the pleasures of life with his typical Gallic sensuality, tolerant even with the intolerance letting the world believe that his witted joyous spirit means facility. Legs crossed, face and upper body slightly bent, an expression of superiority without arrogance, the marble Montaigne was denied by his well inspired sculptor a certain statuary solemnity. The result truly embodied Montaigne's spirit and his statue was a familiar presence and also the usual victim of the students' unrestrained appetite for pranks. An appetite which the smiling philosopher seemed to approve even when it resulted in a huge black moustache on his marble lips and cheeks.The municipality was doing its best to keep the statue clean by washing it from time to time but the moustache was there again the next day. I do think that the moustache and other innocent pranks the statue suffered were not only a sign of disrespect but also of empathy and interest. A few years ago the students' mockery took a less joyous form: I saw two horrible bloody strings flowing out of poor Montaigne's eyes. The formerly benign amusement turned nowadays into a cruel and violent impulse, a sign of our decadent patricidal and perverted times. I don't even want to say what has happened to the stone man recently.From the Latin Quarter (we would soon call it simply "le quartier," without any specification like all its inhabitants do), we let ourselves go down a gentle slope until we reached the quays. "Les bouquinistes" were there, with their piles of books spread over the parapets, punctual at the rendezvous, as if they were a living proof of the reality we have learned about from our French classes and from the pictures we had seen. I spent many hours on the bridge, letting my eyes wander across the flowing waters, contemplating the autumn leaves floating on the waves as well as the streams coming together after having embraced the supporting pillars, but most of all the majestic flow of the river, the chain of the bridges melting into each other on the left shore and the profile of the Louvre on the right one. Those long hours that I spent avidly storing images of Paris, always different under the changing light, gave me the thrill of discovering the vast picture that man and nature created through a harmonious cooperation over the centuries. There is the row of buildings Marquet painted, there is the pale fugitively illuminated sky of the impressionists, all nuances and mobile shades of color. There is the Seine flowing beneath me, this is probably not Apollinaire's bridge, but the verses still come to my mind: "Sous le pont Mirabeau coule la Seine / Et nos amours… Faut-il qu'il m'en souvienne? / La joie venait toujours après la peine…" Beauty is both lively and melancholic. It's hard to say which is my favorite image of Paris, this city with a thousand faces, some intimate, others grandiose. It could be one of the impressive urbane assemblies or a well-defined square with its own distinct personality, one of those which painters seem to favor, Place du Tertre on Montmartre hill or the small Contrescarpe on Sainte Genevieve hill, or maybe the beautiful Place des Vosges, enclosed between its four-century old facades like a ballroom surrounded by walls. If the criterion were: "what do you see first when you close your eyes and think about Paris?", then I would have a sure winner: the vast landscape of waters, bridges and buildings down the shores, but not as one can see it on its width, from a tower, but rather in its whole perspective from one of the bridges binding the Rive Gauche to the "island of the city," Pont Neuf or Saint-Michel, where love at first sight struck me on my very first day in Paris. We finally tore ourselves from the bridge to go to the cathedral, which we had seen from afar as we walked down the river; when we reached the esplanade from where you can see the great cathedral in its entireness, we stopped in amazement: "Here it is! Can you believe it? So this is Notre Dame." We felt like Napoleon in front of the pyramids. The centuries were looking down on us from the towers. So many times we wandered throughout the islands, sometimes along the grim Conciergerie, sometimes on the south shore, the one bearing the name of the guild that once had occupied it, Quai des Orfèvres, which owed its later fame to Simenon's famous character, police inspector Maigret. From there on we walked to the massive "new" bridge, now maybe the oldest of them all. We saluted, as we walked across the Pont Neuf, the great Henri, "le Vert Galant," who kept on riding his horse, ready to conquer Paris all over again, the city for which he had given away his pride and his Protestant intransigence by assisting a Catholic mess. After passing by the glorious rider we used to go down towards the end of the island, which seemed to cut the water like a prow. It was called "the lovers' corner", but where aren't there in Paris corners which seem especially made for lovers? Maybe this one of all, with its naturally romantic touch, a small garden in the depth of the city surrounded by the river, combining the various smells into an exotic perfume. Everything was fabulous, the legend was coming to life, the stones were starting to speak to us. Our main concern was to wander about the entire Paris as if we were supposed to pass an exam in "Parisian aspects." We were studying them avidly, incessantly, from dusk until dawn, in all their diversity, palaces and proletarian suburbs as well.Excerpted from: Fragments of Life, The Romanian Cultural Foundation Publishing House, 2001

by Mariana Şora