Part of me remembers Paris in a strictly romantic sense. Memories of walking along the Seine at 4 a.m., seeing the hulking mass of the Eiffel Tower unlit and wrapped in the cold of February's arms. Watching the sunlight slowly engulf the spires of Notre Dame as couples held hands and took in the beauty. Still, part of me remembers Paris the way it really was. Gypsies crowded around the Eiffel Tower and rats freely roaming the plaza in front of Notre Dame, looking to feast on leftovers from Asian tourists. Fights in the Metro and endless transit strikes making the morning commute nothing short of a disaster.
Somehow, both of these are correct.
I talk about Paris a lot these days. It shows up in random conversations and then slowly takes over my thoughts for the rest of the day. I can't escape my time in the City of Love.
I first came to Paris in the winter of 2009. Novelist and playwright Irwin Shaw once said "Paris in the winter is for connoisseurs of melancholy", and I'd tend to agree. The city was gray and full of unease as I rode my first metro into the heart of Montparnasse to meet the people I would be staying with. I had never endured a winter overseas before. My trips to England had been summer excursions when tourists are in full force and the rain merely washed off the streets from the constant parades and celebrations in the city. But this was different. There was sorrow and hesitance hanging in the air. It was as if someone I didn't know died each and every morning. The tourists, those who couldn't afford Paris in the spring or summer, huddled in lines, a clever ploy to keep warm and ward off the gypsies as they waited for elevators up to the Tower's observation deck.
This melancholy that Irwin talks about gripped me too. I had just left behind someone that I cared about, only to find myself enveloped in a cold and blustery facade of what I had expected. Sure, I was excited to be there and to experience a new culture, but a part of me knew I had done the wrong thing. Did the cold last forever?
As the months went on, my situation began to mirror the weather. An inordinate amount of snow blanketed the city on more than one occasion only to be followed by a day of sunshine. The city was a yo-yo in the hands of a 5-year old. I lost weight due to stress and walking around 5-7 miles a day. My hair grew out to its longest point in my life. I was a person that I didn't even recognize. The letters that I had received once a week since my arrival had stopped sometime in March. My connection to home was slim and mostly through a girl that would break my heart exactly 2 years later. I was living in the greatest city in the world and slowly fading into an apparition.
Paris, My Lament
My time in Paris ruined me physically, mentally and spiritually. The thing is, I wouldn't trade that time for anything. Every morning the city tore me to shreds, punching holes into my tiny frame and inserting its philosophy, humor and heartache in small doses. Each day was a struggle to keep my head above water and paint a smile on my face. But then, drained of everything but existence, I would turn a corner and see the sun reflecting off the face of a girl reading a book in a cafe in Montmartre, or birds skimming the Seine as lovers embraced on Pont Neuf. The city forced its brilliance on me like a mother giving medicine to her child. It was worth it for these moments.
I remember Paris for a lot of things; romance, heartache, contradictions, sentiment. But most of all, I remember Paris because I have to. I am Paris, in all it's gritty glory. Beautiful, reckless and misunderstood.
*A version of this post was previously published in 2014.