In 2003 I was lucky enough to spend a day in Paris. I was big into Ernest Hemingway at the time. I’m sure you’ll see that reflected in this story. Hope you enjoy it. Happy Easter, He is risen!
It wasn’t the same Paris that Ernest Hemingway wrote about. I could tell that as the train pulled its way through the outlying areas of the city. Time and technology had run its course, invading the veins of this once vibrant city and shutting down its glory. Was there any splendor or glitz left to see? Have I come to late? I had fears that my heart was going to be broken. Usually when my dreams become reality pain is involved.
The sun was rising over the treetops and the skyline as we flittered past concrete bridges covered in graffiti. What would he say if he could see his city now? Would he claim it as his own or would it be collapsed into ruin by the power of his words? Over the high chain-link fence I could see modest homes with small cars lining the streets, I also saw dirty, high-rise apartment buildings with garbage and drying clothes hanging from the balconies. The sky was pale blue with a pink hue still glowing low on the horizon. The edges of rolling gray clouds shone gold as the rays of the new sun tried to find their way into my eyes. With a shudder of the boxcar and a switch of the tracks my view was cut off as we entered the covered rail station. It was very similar to the one I had left behind just hours ago in London, but it was different.
The call came for all passengers to disembark so I stood, stretched my legs and arms, and moved into the flow of people headed for the exit. At the door I paused and took my first breath of French air and with a slightly hesitant lurch I stepped off onto the platform and in a symbolic way onto the French soil.
Paris, the city of love, the city of romance, the city of magic. For years it had attracted the biggest names in every walk of life and now here I was: a young man in an old city and I knew at most, twenty words in the native tongue.
From the moment they caught onto my scent, everyone knew I was a foreigner. I stood amidst people of many different races and color and tried to see the exit, but I was swept away before I had time to locate it. Without even knowing it, I was standing in front of a moneychanger holding a small amount of Euros considering how many British pounds I had given him. He smiled and turned to the next sucker and I was left to fend for myself. I caught a glimpse of daylight through a high window and made a dash for the doorway that was near to it. Then, I was outside.
To the left there was a long line of buildings. To the right was much of the same. I looked to the sky hoping to see some symbol of Paris that I could home in on and walk towards like a flashing beacon in the night, but I couldn’t see anything. Not a tower, not an arc, not a cathedral. Only stone buildings that brought to me a lost sense of monotony.
I headed back inside and decided to go underground, down below, and see if the subway system made any sense at all. Surely if I could navigate the London Underground and the New York City subway I could find my way around this one.
The trouble started right away at the ticket counter. I didn’t know where to go and the map was foreign to me. The red line and blue line both went somewhere, but where? So I paid a generous portion of my Euros and crossing my fingers for luck, stepped upon the green line. I picked a number randomly and after six stops I got off the train to see what I could find. It took a few minutes to work my way through the maze of steps and tunnels but eventually I made it to the surface. Already outside, the once promising day was starting to get alterior motives on its own and the clouds overhead were getting thicker.
I walked down the street and on my left was a high plywood wall blocking out the unsightly view of a construction site downtown.
All at once, the day and my life took a great leap, a bounding turn, an ecstatic cheer for the better. There was a break in the wall from which a sidewalk spewed forth. I turned and there it was, in its full glory: thousands of hours of manual labor, innumerable tons of steel. An icon that pierced the sky and my heart. Seen in movies, on postcards, shirts, tissues, written about, dreamed about, sang about, climbed on, walked under, gazed at, set ablaze, and one of the reasons I came here – the Eiffel Tower.
I walked towards it in a trance, my eyes fixated upon it. I couldn’t hear the cries of street vendors and the blaring car horns as I crossed the busy intersection. I was here and it was bigger than I had ever imagined. From underneath it seemed even larger. The four pillars which touched the ground had such a wide berth that there were hundreds of people milling about in the shadow. Running, sitting, waiting in line to buy trinkets or to go to the top. I couldn’t afford the time to wait in line and go to the top to get an aerial view of the city; I had too many other things to see. So with much regret, I continued on to the other side and sat in the grass gazing at its majesty. What a sight! Did Hemingway ever sit here and look at it this way? I’m almost sure he did.
Well, it was time to move on and I needed a good French lunch but due to my lack of sufficient funds I was going to be walking to my next stop.
I went back through the underside of the great tower, across the busy street where all the cars seemed to be going the wrong way on the opposite side of the road. Past the African street vendors who somehow had made their way to France, along the wall of construction and then, there I was, back where I had caught my first glimpse of the tower. I looked one last time, shut my eyes and trapped the memory. Then, I headed up a side street that ran diagonally and cut up towards the next icon I was trying to find.
I saw a quaint, little bookshop and I can’t resist a bookshop – new or old. I have to go in, who knows what I might find? It didn’t matter to me that all the books were in French but it seemed to matter to the shop clerk that I spoke English.
“Do you have any Hemingway?”
I received a blank stare.
She pointed to the far corner of the small shop. I went over to see what I could find and sure enough, there they were. Hemingway’s books but in a language totally unreadable to me. I picked up a copy of “The Sun Also Rises” in French because I knew part of it was set in Paris. It took a few minutes to figure out how much the book actually cost but I got out with a book and a wallet that was quickly getting very, very light.
Back outside the sun was putting up a good fight, pushing away a big portion of the clouds, at least for the moment. I carried on in the direction I was headed. There were many shops and small cafes. Pastries and breads filled the windows and scented the air. Book binders, odd makers for the horse races, banks, before I knew it I felt like I was back in the twenties. This was the Paris that Hemingway loved. The small shops where the clerks knew all of their customer’s names. A place where one could stop at a random café for a drink and a bite to eat and just happen to run into one of the greatest twentieth century writers or poets. I was rudely brought back to the present by reality itself. I had begun to enjoy the roaring twenties.
I passed the corner building and entered a plaza with a large roundabout for vehicles in the inner ring and a pedestrian roundabout on the outer. And there in the center was my second stop of the day – le Arc de Triomphe.
It was big. The sun was peeking out from behind some clouds. The shadows made the carvings in its side look deep and three-dimensional. I noticed some people standing around and under the Arch touching it and getting a sense of its glory, but as I stepped out into the street I was nearly ran over by a crazy French driver in a fast car with its horn blaring and I decided I would view this architectural beauty from a distance.
There were many cafes nearby and the aromas dancing out of them convinced me to leave this view and have myself a bite to eat. I found a particularly pleasant looking shop with a wide assortment of foods in the window and went in to find something. I was shocked at the prices of things. Three Euros for a bottle of soda! How did a commoner like myself expect to live in a society where soda cost that much? Nevertheless, I was in France, so I gave away my money and received a soda and a ham and cheese on French bread in return.
I took my food outside and sat a small table in the shadow of the Arc de Triomphe.
I had given them my money grudgingly, but as I ate, my heart softened. This was a good meal, a great meal in fact, worthy of France.
There were many people walking by, representing many nationalities. A few tables away were some college students from the U.S.A., I could tell from their strong, Southern accent. Also, Japanese, German, and a few I didn’t recognize.
Just as I finished eating the clouds came rushing in. The sky turned a grayish, brownish, yellow color and by the time I had thrown my garbage away the rain had started falling. Big, thick drops, coming down in a torrential wall. People everywhere were shouting and running for cover while I stood smiling and dry under an eave, happy to be in Paris.
Then, as quickly as it came, the rain left, the sun came out, and life on the streets re-started as if nothing had ever happened.
The strength of the sun was a shock to me. It was hot now, middle of the summer hot. I wanted to be inside of an air-conditioned room instead of out here in the heat. I pressed on though.
I was standing beside the Champs de Elysees. When I looked to my right there stood the Arc de Triomphe, like it had stood for so many years. But to my left was a totally different view. The avenue passed through a long row of tall trees that were full of green leaves. I don’t know what kind of trees, but there they were. It was enchanting enough, so I decided to walk that way.
There was a wide, dirt path which passed between two rows of the unnamed trees. Off to the left was a beautiful park full of grass, ponds, and flowers. Lovers could be seen walking hand in hand in the afternoon sunshine. So it really was the city of love. Something clicked in me and I knew I had seen this place in some movie, but which one? I tried to remember but alas, I couldn’t. I checked out my map and saw that if I continued on a straight path I would bring myself to the Louvre. The art museum of all art museums. I figured I could afford to spend some more Euros so what the heck, I always wanted to see the Mona Lisa.
From the plaza where I now stood the top part of the Eiffel Tower stuck out above the treetops. I had a good view of the Arc de Triomphe back up the Champs Elysees and another arch that stood in front of the Louvre. There was also a tall obelisk that looked like a gold-plated version of the Washington Monument. On either side of the obelisk were beautiful ornamented fountains that glittered in the sunshine. I stood still, reveling in the fact that I could see so many famous landmarks from this one spot.
After a few minutes of this I decided I better get on my way. I continued on towards the Louvre and just before I arrived at the arch I heard a grumbling sound and felt water falling on my head. I looked up and was greeted by a face-full of rain. I ran to the arch and stood dripping wet as I watched the second downpour of the day water the French streets. Once again, after a few minutes the rain stopped, the sun came out, and I went on to the museum.
I couldn’t figure out how to get in then realized there was a long line that went into a giant glass pyramid and then disappeared out of sight underground. It looked like the only possible way in, so I stood in line, eventually ended up inside the pyramid, down some stairs, and in the midst of a mass of people rushing around looking at pieces of art.
I further continued to lighten my wallet and followed the signs towards the Mona Lisa. There were so many beautiful paintings and statues but it seemed like no one was that interested in them, including me. We were there to see one thing, the great, the beautiful, the…
I walked into the room that was totally white and there on one wall hung the Mona Lisa. It was in a protective glass case and everyone was using their camera flash to take pictures so I’m sure they didn’t even turn out. After ten seconds I was ready to leave but I figured I might as well make the moment last so I stood looking at this picture of fame for another two minutes. Then, I left the museum, not really interested in seeing anything else.
I had more exciting places to go.
The day kept creeping along and I had a few hours of daylight left. Now it was time to get a little crazy and get off the beaten path. I went back underground, caught a train, and came up in an area of the city that tourists don’t frequent. The first thing that struck me was all of the adult specialty shops. The streets were lined with them in every direction I looked. Now, the funny thing about Paris is that everything is in French, they want nothing to do with the English language, but all of the adult store names, signs, and slogans – were in English. But hey, maybe that’s what they think English speaking people are all about. Anyway, that’s not the reason for coming to this section of town. I was here to see the Moulin Rouge.
I headed down one street, laughing to myself at every “shop” I passed. I came to a plaza where a few streets met and intersected. And there she was across the street.
The red front, the windmill on the roof, just as I had always pictured it. How I wished to live in one of the apartments that overlooked this plaza and house of pleasure. The doors were tinted and locked so I looked at the different advertisements for dinner shows and late-night shows. They looked a bit racy and I knew they couldn’t be good for my soul, but I was still going to go until I saw the prices. One hundred and twenty Euros for one show! No thank you. If I would have saved all the money I had already spent today, I still wouldn’t be able to pay for this show.
So with a depressed heart I left the beautiful Moulin Rouge and attempted to find my last stop of the day.
I wasn’t exactly sure what cemetery Jim Morrison was supposedly buried in, but there was one not too far to walk to. I arrived and walked aimlessly around the gargoyles and highly decorated deathbeds hoping, by chance, to stumble upon his grave. About fifteen minutes into this I met some other tourists and found out this was the wrong graveyard, Jim was lying in the ground on the other side of Paris.
I found my way across the city to another cemetery, which I forget the name of, and to my surprise there was a map that pointed every tourist in the correct direction of whatever particular grave they wanted to see. I guess I could have visited any number of them, but I just wanted to find Jim. With the great multitude of headstones and dirt paths, it took me a few minutes to find it, even with directions. But, much to my chagrin, there was no bust of Jim’s head covered in graffiti, left there by the legions that loved him. There was a simple headstone the read: James Douglas Morrison. And… that was it. There were a few left-over hippies sitting on the ground nearby smoking and looking longingly at the grave as if expecting Jim to poke his head up through the soil and start singing “Light my fire” but thankfully, that didn’t happen while I was there.
And so I bought a pint of ice cream and boarded the train back to London. I sat watching the French countryside pass by as day slowly turned into night. We rolled past farms and small villages, vineyards and gentle fields. I slipped off to sleep just before we went into the Chunnel and when I awoke an hour later I was back on familiar soil in England.
Looking back I see that I was both disappointed and overjoyed about my trip. I had seen many things I had only known from pictures and walked streets and breathed air that was purely French. I had made my way around the city of love, the city of expatriates, the city of broken dreams. True, it wasn’t the same place Hemingway knew, time and technology had taken care of that, but it was still Paris, the city I love.