Paris: I always told myself that I would not visit Paris until I could speak French fluently. Although I have now broken this internal promise, I am still content, because the city is worth smashing any promise for. The moment we arrived and were pushed out of the train station by throngs of people rushing for a taxi, I felt a gasp lodge itself in my throat. I was in Paris. The city I’ve only read about. The city I’ve only pretended to frequent at Epcot’s France pavilion. This wasn’t fake. And as I sat in the backseat of the cab on the way to the hotel, I felt my eyes well up with tears. It was just so surreal. I might have even cried…if the taxi driver hadn’t smelled so putrid. (Unfortunately, this was a common motif of the trip…as David and I took to saying in a voice similar to the green aliens in Toy Story when they said in awe, “The Claw”- “the smelllll.”) After struggling to hoist my 46-pound suitcase up six flights of narrow, winding stairs to get to our room (essentially one stair at a time…my wrists were not channeling the strength), we melted on our beds like the Swiss chocolate in our backpacks.
The next two days started off with un cafe and baguettes with Nutella thickly swirled onto its pores, and finished with crepes and a little vin in front of the Eiffel Tower (which is completely not overrated, by the way). They were spent in a flurry of sightseeing. We traipsed through Versailles, and I was amazed at the ornate and lavish living that these royals once partook in. We strolled on Lovers’ Lock Bridge and I sighed in complete wistfulness, cheesily hoping that one day, I can throw away the key in the Seine after sealing my own lock. I saw the Mona Lisa (dang, she’s tiny) and many other entertaining and beautiful pieces of art in the Louvre. We walked many, many blocks to see the Champs and the Arc de Triumph, and even though my feet were whimpering, I could easily ignore the pain because I was in Paris, and every single corner apartment building with flower boxes and little balconies made me want to buzz the resident and ask if I could just move in for a little while. Notre Dame was breathtaking. I felt a little like Esmerelda calling out for “Sanctuary!” as I walked through the church, light from the stained glass piercing my path. We climbed all the way to the top (still not as intense as the Vatican’s Cupola!) and saw Paris in all her splendor. And then…we met Anne Hathaway.
I had heard of Shakespeare & Company, the bookstore, in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, as well as seen its photo floating around on Pinterest travel boards. I made it my mission to visit it. And what a delight it was. I was already practically hyperventilating the moment I crossed the threshold and into bookish heaven. From wall to wall, there were books. And not just the type of books you could swing by and pick up at your Barnes & Noble. No, these were different editions, unique copies. Some were old, some were new. And all of them seemed to call out to me as I walked past. I didn’t know where to look. If you want to put an English major into a complete overload and befuddlement, just drop her off in Shakespeare & Company. I was peering at a copy of Faulkner’s The Unvanquished when David tapped me on the shoulder.
“Brittany,” he whispered urgently, “is that…is that Anne Hathaway right there?” I glanced up. There was a woman sitting on a stool in the tiny room adjacent to the one I was in, and she had a side-swept pixie haircut just like Anne, but her eyes were cast downwards, and I shrugged it off. But then she looked up. We gasped together. It was indeed Anne Hathaway, shopping in my new favorite haven, casually browsing as though she was not an Oscar-winning actress. While we did not approach her directly (partly out of nerves, partly out of wanting to give her the discreetness she clearly was looking for), she did push past us a couple of times, excusing herself and looking at us while she did so. She knew that we knew who she was (how could she not, by our wide eyes and frantic whispering) but never chose to say anything. For the rest of the day (and basically the trip!) we would spontaneously say, “Hey, remember when we met Anne Hathaway?”
Paris’s official motto is Fluctuat nec mergitur, which means, “She is tossed by the waves but does not sink.” This is so beautiful to me. I kept thinking about Paris’s turbulent history, and how despite everything, this city is still thriving in its clandestine charm. And I kept thinking about humanity, and how often we have been tossed around, beaten and bloody, each and every one of us wearing a hardship under our skin like a pattern of veins, a map to our hearts which are more than likely worn from something no one will ever quite understand, and yet we have not sunk yet. I thought of myself, and my own waves that have tried to bring me under.
I remember the first night we grabbed dessert and ate it in front of the Eiffel Tower. The sun was barely grazing the horizon, and light still flickered on the top of everyone’s heads as they sat in the grass. We chose our spot carefully– the backside of the Tower, where the tourists were practically extinct and the grass was waving in the wind so loudly that it almost drowned out the sound of the flute music from down the street. I could see couples dispersed throughout the grass and most of them were sprawled out on their backs, looking up at the Eiffel, their arms wrapped around each other, nothing but laughter being born between two mouths and half-eaten pastries by their feet. And a blond couple, dressed in striped shirts like waifish mimes, stood and propped up their bikes. And the girl wrapped her cardigan around her shoulders and looked at the man, who was fiddling with the spokes of the bicycle. And I could see the love from across the grass, and I wondered if their love was real. If it would last. And if it didn’t, would they always remember that night, where they huddled together underneath the monument’s gaze, thinking nothing would ever beam brighter than the hearts in their throbbing chests?
It was moments like these, candid sights like these, that made me fall in love with Paris. They made me fall in love with the city and its inhabitants, but also the person I became while singing along the River Seine, leaving lipstick prints on my coffee cup, gazing at beautiful art that made something swell up inside me. All those Lost Generation writers were onto something, I think. Paris does something to you. Especially to the artists and the writers and those who can feel the city’s heart pumping underneath their feet.
Just as Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman always had Paris, maybe so will I. As Hemingway says, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”