Friday, May 31, 2013: Avenue de la Bourdonnais (8:30pm)
The Paris night clips the buildings and deposits its cool air on my American spirit. The French people walking by wear decisiveness on their heels. Heads down, they trudge on with their lives, having already digested the magical elements of Paris, spit them out and named them normalcy. Parisian’s don’t stop to look at the historical monuments, or to take moonlit walks by the River Seine, or to watch me cross the street as I keep an eye on the Eiffel Tower, which peeks over all the buildings, constantly ornamenting this town in authenticity, grandeur, and monolithic appeal. This town is Paris to them, nothing more.
I wander around the streets on my first night here, and find a small Italian restaurant near the Eiffel Tower where I painstakingly talk my way into acquiring a table with my elementary French vocabulary. I order a Regina pizza and a cheap bottle of red wine. My seat near the window has a fantastic view of Avenue de la Bourdonnais, lit by lamplight, snuggly warmed by the smiles of men and women holding hands, the swirling night air outfitting them in love.
The red wine begins to play with my imagination. With every gulp I find another chapter to the life I could live if Paris loved me enough to let me live here cheaply. In Paris, I could be anyone: an American with a charming accent; a man with a cup of coffee writing in a French café using all the wonderful women around him as inspiration; a chemist experimenting with the proper dosages for a life well lived; a grungy idealist with rampaging thoughts; a man who has never lost love, but has always found it in the hips of Paris, in the sway of the Seine, in the afterglow of the setting sun.
I stop nightdreaming when a dark-haired woman walks into the restaurant, mascara promoting the boldness of her eyes, lips saturated in red romance, her movement- her grace- effervescent. She sits at a table near me and struggles to order food with her American accent. She handles it well, and blushes at the right times, so I ask for her name and invite her to sit with me at my table. She says yes, it’s hard to imagine, I’m not suave or particularly handsome but maybe she finds comfort in the way I say I’m from California. She’s older than me, and there is something in her shoulders that sparks my curiosity, the way her dress strap falls slightly off the curvature of her bone structure like it was always melted butter to go with her honeyed kiss. She talks about life in America: of California and Los Angeles and the shoddy existence she found in the fractured lifestyle of unrelenting New York. I tell her of missed opportunities and calculated wrong doings and how I just can’t understand why people in earthquaken Los Angeles decide to build mansions on hills. She laughs at my jokes. I don’t think it’s out of pleasantry. I think I really make her laugh, what a great feeling, a women cracking up in beautiful earnestness because you entice the silliness in her to join your unscripted parade. And somehow time forgets us: the clock betrays its prudent click; the restaurant stays open for us and us only; the night almost holds back its stars, waiting to stir our sparkling conversation in to its moonlit pie. We become the perfect ending to the Friday night story I have waited to write.
We part ways under the moon. Her kiss leaves a mark on my cheek. Then I take a short walk to the Eiffel Tower, which radiates in red, blue and green lights for all the tourists, like me. I talk with a man from London, struggle to understand a girl from Italy and take a few photos for a Chinese family. I stare into the steel, masterful work of the Eiffel Tower for over an hour, and allow the wine to take its proper course through all of me until I am sufficiently drunk, energetically spontaneous, the way I wander through Paris like a ship stripped of its compass, checking on the Seine to make sure it’s still there, giggling into the moon, chucking some change at the homeless man in the park, crossing the streets without looking both ways, scribbling myself on Paris in footprints, and buying mental stock in my iconic contemplation that, like good wine, has gotten better with age.
June 1, 2013: Hotel La Serre (11:00am)
After uninterrupted sleep, I shower and take the Metro from La Tour-Maubourg to Denfert-Rochereau to find that there is a two-hour wait to enter the Catacombs of Paris. Unwilling to burden myself with the line that wraps around the entrance like a touristy yo-yo curdled in knots, I find a nice café and order a burger and two glasses of wine and watch all the people walking by, this people-watching fancy of mine becoming a prerequisite to writing. Everyone around me smokes cigarettes while eating. In California, cigarette smoke and food is a forbidden duo; but here in Europe, smoking has social appeal, done anywhere and everywhere to the point where restaurants and cafes should have an asterisk on all of their menus saying that carcinogens are added to every meal when dining outside.
After my lunch, I jump on the metro and go from Denfert-Rochereau to Charles de Gaulle- Étoile to see the Arc de Triomphe on the West end of Champ-Élysées. The Arc is a tribute to those who fought and died in the Napoleanic and French Revolutionary wars. It stands tall in the middle of the roundabout, separating itself from day-to-day traffic with monumental hardness. I ascend to the top of the Arc using the 284-step staircase until I break through to the roof, short of breath, winded, calf muscles in desperate need of a reprieve. From this high up, I watch Paris stretch on to the horizon. Layers and layers of trees and streets and Parisian architecture blend in with the sun soaked sky. The clouds whip into the afternoon, leaving behind vaporous tails in the ever blue as they skirt along their lazy way. I snap some photographs and daydream myself into more scenarios, most of which involve the presence of an unknown girl who might hold my hand as she peeks over the edge of the Arc; a girl with an unpracticed smile, sun-drenched hair and sundress unfurling around her- wind-borne, limitless.
I leave my imaginary girl and the Arc behind, slamming myself through the Charles de Gaulle- Étoile metro station until I arrive at the Abscesses station in Montmartre. The rose-red sky glistens on Montmartre, the neighborhood that clings to the massive hillside in northern Paris, lined with intricate cobblestone streets, perfumed with romance, bridled with cafes and candlelight burning in restaurants for the men who prefer the natural light from candles to fall on their woman’s face in angular beauty fluorescent bulbs will never replicate. I walk through Montmartre until I find what I am searching for: the gripping staircase that steeples to the sky, 222 grinding steps that lead to the highest point of the city- the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur. The Roman Catholic church rests at the peak of Montmartre- a proper landmark, a sanctified heap of concrete, stained glass and cultural precision that warps itself to the framing lenses of tourist’s cameras.
The view from this Parisian hillside draws out my humility. Paris exists below me like the miniature plaything of a global god who has caressed this part of the world and tipped the buildings with gold as a sign of approval. Rivers and roads squirm through Paris haphazardly, defiantly. Clouds hover over everything like fluffy mounds in affable, ruminative silence. The sun falling, and the moon rising, and the thumping pulse of my Paris life invigorates me, the palpitating heartbeat in my chest feels like it’s plugged into an outlet of vacationing, thunderstruck electricity. The hillside throbs under the movement of people climbing their way closer to holiness, with water bottles in their hands or beer slipping into their mouths. A man juggles a soccer ball on the edge of the world, a jar filling beside him with coins from stunned onlookers willing to pay for his athleticism, his daring. Street vendors overcharge eager tourists. Women fan themselves cool. And photography dangerously attempts the impossible: capturing this moment profoundly, unbiased, unabashed.
The beauty of the neighborhood stimulates all of me. The cascading symphony of streets fill my mug. I drink them all in: the backstreets and alleyways where artists paint under the red-black canopy of the evening sky, the buildings with coats of ivy instead of paint, the girl who laughs when I say Je ne parle français, the man with the accordion playing for people eating dinner at the café, his song straddling time, forcing us all to slow down; the accordion’s melody seeps through the cracks of the cobblestone, flowers our feet with purposeful treads, the frictions of our lives paralyzed, petrified, we move about freely, flotsam and tidewrack, the waves of the accordion crashing over all of our mental dead-ends, polishing them into slides we can glide right off of. And in this moment I think of the girl– the one who knows I am speaking of her when she reads my writing- then move on with my life, descending Montmartre with a nice buzz, head on a swivel, dripping in everything the warm, festive night has to offer.
June 2, 2013: Cafe Roussillon (10:00am)
The cup of coffee in front of me has lost its steam. I’m homeless, caught in the vagrant exchange from hotel to hostel with a few hours to kill, encumbered with luggage, wanting to move more freely.
Outside my window a street market buzzes with the conversations of vendors, fruit-buyers and breakfast-eaters that are enticed into the market by the fragrances of food: apples, bananas and melons, fish, chicken and freshly cut beef, beers and wines, breads and baked goods. Bags fill up with food, the men and women carrying them deftly navigate the market street, shrinking themselves to sift through the growing crowds. Small, unattended children make their bubble-blowing rounds in and out of the stalls, unperturbed, innocently charismatic. Dogs sit in obedience. Cigarette smoke disturbs the morning air. Newspapers open and close. Scaffolding on buildings. Flowers and vines on windowsills. Sunlight catching corners. The smell of fish permeates the air. Taxis drop people off and carry them away. Wooden crates threaten to break under the weight of produce. Flags from various nations curl in the morning wind. Babies in strollers attempt erratic escapes from their parental prisons. The sky shines a brighter blue, in copiously high spirits. Birds rest on lampposts. Non-local street crossers narrowly miss introducing themselves to the grills of cars. Women walk unevenly down the road, the cobblestone eating up their heels, buckling but never going down. The moon transparently hangs in the West, playing with California and the United States. The elderly use canes, pegging themselves from spot to spot while shunning the young man’s furious pace. Tourists hold giant maps, attracting pickpockets and thieves. Hand-rolled cigarettes and Gucci sunglasses. Hooped earrings reflecting the sun. The frayed follicles of men going bald. The waitress slides open the glass door, the corner of Rue de Grenelle now an extension of the restaurant. Bra straps everywhere and men trying not to look, chancing stares here and there, blatantly gaping, beauty-struck. Geography irrelevant on days like today, every street an unchartered alternative. Street signs rise from the concrete, obstructing the path of sidewalk patrons. Using up all my creativity with the last sip of cold coffee. Pay for the bill. To the metro, then…
June 2, 2013: Auberge Notre Dame (4:45pm)
The bells of Notre Dame ring everywhere: in the wine glass on my table, in the whistling trees overlooking the restaurant, in The Seine and off the nooks and crannies of the compact alleyways behind me that confuse tourists like they’re architectural rubik’s cubes.
And how to describe the bells? Majestic too grand a word. Pastoral too common. The ringing somewhere in the middle, like the cherry to an ice cream sunday, like shoelaces on traveling boots, like the much needed screw to an apparatus that generates happiness.
I chose this restaurant for its view of Notre Dame, and because the waitress speaks English. It’s gratifying to hear her speak my language. Daily interaction in a foreign country becomes daily frustration. It’s all rather unmanageable: ordering food, buying a metro ticket, asking for directions, trying to refrain from unintentional rudeness. I feel like a child, using my fingers as my voice, pointing to all the things I want.
A man comes to my table and ashes his cigarette in my ash tray. He doesn’t say a word – he senses the American in me. His poorly put-out cigarette continues to burn, the smoke finding my nostrils, making a home there. He walks away to the afternoon of his normal life. I continue eating, cutting the meats on my plate, deciphering the ways to walk through Paris with a journal-trained eye.
Artists and booksellers and thrift-keepers compete with the gusty wind across the street near the river. The sun dips in and out of the Parisian clouds. A man with wobbly knees dances to music near the water. Cars sputter by, professionally zig-zagging the streets with ease. Boats crinkle along The Seine, tourists on board, photography flaring. The waitress impatiently waits for me to finish my wine before bringing me the bill. She watches me write, no doubt wondering why I am writing in the pages of a book I bought in London, or if I am accurately portraying the way her hair flips over her ears or the way she parts her lips so delicately when she speaks. I blow a bug from my plate to my wine glass to the floor; in its aero tumble, it’s probably just as lost and confused as I am when rummaging around this city.
I head into Notre-Dame where the air is thick with incense. Smoke rises in the light that filters through the stain-glassed windows of the cathedral- glorified beads and bars of gold billowing in grey. The men near the alter chant a celestial tune that bounces off the French-Gothic architecture and flying buttresses of the cathedral. It sounds like something I’ve heard in a dream, this chanting, it runs up my spine, it shivers my skin, goosebumps everywhere, alive. I sit in one of the pews even though I am not overly religious and think of my sisters, who have grown up Catholic and who would love to see this place, to pray their solemn prayers here. I can see them smiling next to me, wondering why I don’t know the words to all the prayers they know by heart. I find holy water near the entrance and douse myself, an action that feels strange, maybe a bit inauthentic, and look up at the ceiling, as if I can see the heavens, and thank whoever is up there for the otherworldly experience I have been given while silently walking through the vaulted arches of Notre-Dame.
June 3, 2013: St. Christopher’s Hostel (2:15am)
Our arms overflow with beer bottles. We drunkenly ascend the staircase of the hostel, the girls behind me laughing, fumbling up the steps. We find the third floor dark. The knob to the men’s bathroom turns smoothly but the floor betrays us, slick with shower water; one girl slips, a beer bottle falls and breaks, we laugh, security never comes. We’ve been forced to flee the hostel bar two floors below. Closing time disrupted our fun, but we’ve creatively found this bathroom on the third floor where the hostel staff rarely goes.
I’m with six Canadian girls who love that I’m from California. My hostel roommates, Rob and Beat (pronounced Beer, he’s Swedish), are also here. We take shots of Swedish alcohol that Beat calls “nut juice,” which gets a laugh from all of us. We have to explain to Beat why we think it funny. Rob finds a window near the back of the bathroom; it opens up into a hidden balcony looking over the lights, canals and treetops of Paris. We all jump through the window and drink in the moonlight. I talk with a funny girl out there. She’s quite pretty, with brunette hair and lovely lipstick. She runs her fingers through my hair then lights up a cigarette. I have a few puffs, blowing smoke rings. She pokes her fingers through the rings. I blow more. She sits on my lap and says my name and reminds me not to forget her. She writes her name on the top of my hand. In the morning, her name looks blurred, I cannot discern it, maybe washed my hands a few times too often in the night. I look for her in the lobby but she’s gone, caught the first train out of here, and Rob, Beat and I break with hangovers, the midday sky reminding us of the pain of having fun.
I find Alan while nursing my hangover in the lobby of the hostel. He stumbled into the 3rd floor men’s bathroom last night, surprised to see it filled with women. I offered him some beer. He drank it down without question. In the lobby he introduces me to his D.C. friends- Melanie, Olivia, and Marc. The five of us spend the next few Parisian days together. We drink wine on the streets, take tequila shots around 2am in a bar where a film crew outside shoots a scene with actors we don’t recognize, eat food at a restaurant where Alan orders ass.côtelette d’agneau- which makes Marc laugh hysterically- and try to get into a Paris nightclub called Social where the bouncer hates that we are Americans and turns us down based solely on that fact. We all drink ourselves under the table and on top of it over the course of 48 hours. We get cab drivers who drive us in the completely wrong direction, overpay for virtually everything, roll cigarettes under the Paris moon, and walk drunkenly through alleyways where we meet a slew of random people- three old men with questionable intentions, vagabonds, gays and straights, combative locals and fellow travelers.
The D.C. crew becomes an insatiable highlight to my Europe trip, and I’ll spend the next few weeks with them, crisscrossing countries, falling drunkenly apart in Spanish bars, binge drinking ourselves into comedic situations and waking with them in the mornings with intensely arrogant hangovers and blistered feet, spouting phrases like “do you remember last night?” and “I was so fucked up” and “what happened to Melanie?”
June 4, 2013: Jardin des Tuileries (3:30pm)
In Jardin des Tuileries, a park near the Louvre, I lounge on a reclining chair near a massive fountain, where the wind picks up flakes of the water and splashes it on my legs, arms, and bare chest. From my lazy vantage point, I can see the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and the Louvre. I think about lighting a cigarette but the wind blows towards the family next to me, and I’d hate for the smoke to get on their children.
A man walks around the fountain, using a claw to pick up trash. He goes about his day nonchalantly, almost transparently. The man works diligently; unwavering when he sees a tourist drop a cigarette on the ground, or when people let the wrappings of their sandwiches fly into a bush. He cleans the park and goes to bed and wakes to reincarnated waste. This is his cost of living.
Dust devils pick up around the fountain. The leaves on the ground rise and fall according to the whim of the breeze. Low hanging trees line the pathways through the park, and leafy archways provide glimpses into the quiet sections of the grounds, secret gardens that have given up their secrets to millions of tourists who look to smoke peaceful cigarettes away form the crowds, or drink glasses of wine with the grandeur of Paris all around them. Teenagers run around and take photos of things they are too young to appreciate, snapshots to validate themselves on Facebook, caring more for the number of likes they get than for the stoic architecture of this park and its affectionate view of Paris.
I think about my time in this town.
I have seen the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. I have tried to speak French and have indulged in Parisian cuisine and culture while constantly reminding myself of the luck that has brought me to Europe. I’ve grown with each vacationing day, have almost forgotten the hurt that shackled me in Los Angeles, and have found a quality writing voice while drinking under the Paris sky, with the foreign world around me singing itself into my keyboard and typing fingers. I have seen the major city sights- the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Sacre-Coeur, Notre Dame, The Seine- and have wilted under them all, finding inspiration in everyday places, like cafes and alleyways and under trees and while staring into ponds or into wine bottles and beers. I have figured out what it means to travel, and will leave Paris with the traveling itch, the need to see more of the world, so I can say I’ve done it so positively, so ravishing.
June 5, 2013: Last Day in Paris: (8:15am)
My apocalyptic hangover intensifies my migraine. The dehydrated, fetal state I lie in allows the morning light to tattoo itself into my eyeballs. I hurt all over. The tequila still ransacks my stomach, emerging in acidic burps here and there. My leaden limbs sink in last night’s alcohol. My dry throat eats at itself, tormenting my croaking windpipe. All in all, I’m suffering, beautifully, from another night in Paris.
I need to be out the door in fifteen minutes but cannot motivate myself to shower and dress, so settle for washing my face in the sink and running wet fingers through my hair. The toothbrush and toothpaste bring minor happiness, but this headache, this brain pain, lingers- crippling, unapologetic.
An hour later I’m waiting to meet Andy and Becky at the Catacombs of Paris. The Catacombs don’t open for another forty-five minutes, so I spend my time nursing my hangover by chugging water, writing more stories in my head, and imagining myself hitting on the unapproachable girl near the front of the line who wears overalls like they were stitched solely for the shape of her loveliness.
Andy and Becky finally make it to me after losing themselves en route to the Catacombs. Andy’s armed with a map of Paris, but that’s not enough to hinder his ability to lose himself almost everywhere he goes.
We immerse ourselves in the Catacombs and walk past thousands of human bones that eerily line the tunnels. The air is damp and heavy down here, like breathing in the dust of things long forgotten. The serpentine tunnels curve dramatically, with the weight of Paris above us, all the trains and walking people and oiled cars cease to exist in this corroded underbelly of Paris, where everything is silent. I touch a skull- it’s so cold, so gloomy- and immediately regret my decision, hoping I have not contracted a curse. After thirty or so minutes we take the massive climb out of the Catacombs, up a spiraling staircase that plays with my hangover-makes me dizzy, in need of a good vomit- and emerge in the sun, panting, partially out of breath.
We find a nice restaurant near the Catacombs and drink wine and eat bread and burgers and salads, then take a thirty minute walk to The Pantheon, which, sadly, is under construction; the modern scaffolding dilutes the aged brilliance of the building. A short walk down the street has us in a wine café where a rude French waitress gives us terrible service. She scowls at us every time she passes by and slams our wine glasses on the table like she hopes the glass will break and impale us in our English-speaking throats.
Over the next few hours we visit a medieval museum, surround ourselves with the monumental echoes of Notre Dame, and enjoy the cool airs and stress-free sounds of the River Seine while sitting near its bank. Then we indulge in ice cream at a famous shop near Notre Dame, and settle down for dinner in a quaint, energetic alleyway where a group of men dance to the beat of drums, where café tables sprawl out everywhere, the road underneath ceasing to exist because the tables and all the people walking by take up every inch of the alleyway. Andy and I ask the waiter to bring us large mugs of beer to go with our dinner. He comes back with gigantic glasses that would make any German or Irishman proud. We smoke cigarettes while downing the beer, enjoying humorous conversation and banter, talking about how great it is that our friendship has broken the American barrier and found itself here in Paris, where Becky takes photos of us drinking, where we talk about the day Lucy beat me up, where the three of us soak up the rest of the evening sun until the Paris night- unmuffled, roaring, splendidly candid- blankets our table in unforgettable colors and smells and sounds.
We say our goodbyes, and part ways on a large street where I find a metro station to take me back to the hostel. Our Paris day together deeply etches itself in my memory, and the thankfulness of spending a day in the company of great friends becomes the closing song to my last Parisian night. I wake in the morning fresh, unencumbered by alcoholic remorse, and catch a plane to my next destination: Barcelona, a sunbathing town, a Spanish town brimming with appetite and fervor, decorated in a nourishing array of tapas restaurants, bars, and beaches that stretch into the sun like the sands of an hourglass that has rid itself of time.