A Month in Paris

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July 2015

This summer was quiet hours in the Luxembourg Garden on Sunday mornings. I left the house early, a note on the kitchen counter. My roommates were still sleeping. Everyone was still sleeping.

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Paris on Sunday is the simple pleasure of fresh sunlight washing the empty streets as you find your way to Pierre Hermé or Ladurée on Rue Bonaparte. The occasional boulangerie is open. All the other shops are shuttered. There is space on the street for you to walk freely for once. I’d take my six macarons – flavours like olive oil and mandarin, pistachio, dark chocolate, peppermint, praline, and rose – and walk to the Luxembourg Garden. For me, the Tuileries were too open and formal, defined by straight lines and wide boulevards, and full of white sand that blinded me at full noon; the Luxembourg, more wooded and more personal, was mine. It was visited more by students on lunch break and young families instead of tourists fresh from the Louvre.

With a good book, I’d settle into one of the green metal chairs scattered everywhere in Parisian public gardens. A few fellow early-risers passed through as I turned the pages. Small groups silently practiced qigong between the trees. Business men in their relaxed summer suits read Le Monde and Figaro. Twin toddlers, a boy and a girl, ran across the islands of grass and flowers that the French hold sacred and inviolable.

This summer was sitting in Les Nymphéas rooms at the Musée de l’Orangerie for hours, staring at the oasis on the walls, the brush strokes that meant nothing, anything, and something. At the Musée de l’Art Modernée and Centres Pompidou, modern art stood out against white walls in clean frames. At the older Musée d’Orsay and Musée de l’Orangerie, gilt and gold-leafed frames popped against pistachio green and plum purple walls.

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This summer was hot chocolate at Angelina’s and chocolatine aux amandes at Dominique Saibron, and the best croissants at Thevenin. Standing in line in a June rain shower outside our boulangerie, I waited to buy baguettes while American tourists sat in a café, shaking their heads with laughter and incredulous delight.

This summer was Metro’ing across the city to the Canal St. Martin to drink great coffee at Holybelly and Ten Belles, and then sit by the canal with an escargot de pistache pastry from Du Pain et Des Idées. The canal water was green, and the trees lining the water rushed with summer heat, a wind, and the laughter of strangers.

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This summer was buying kilos of figs and cherries and pêches plates at the Marché Edgar Quintet, my arms full of fresh pink peonies. At the Marché Saxe-Breteuil, I bought bunches of basil with roots and dirt still attached. There was one farmer who dealt exclusively in tomatoes, dozens and dozens of varieties. We joined the long line of elderly French men and women at this tomato stall in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

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This summer was taking the Metro over the Seine to Trocadero, and catching a view of the Eiffel Tower over the water, sparkling at midnight.

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This summer was cheap rosé and spitting out cherry pits in the evening on the Seine, laughing and talking with good friends. I uncorked a shaken bottle of pink champagne while eating crêpes at the Square du Vert-Galant, and pouring half of the exploding bottle over my friend while the other picnic-goers laughed.

This summer was repeat visits to Gibert Joseph and Shakespeare & Co. In Gibert Joseph, I’d look at the thousands of livres poches and search for the books with easy enough French for me to read, while wishing I had so much more. In Shakespeare & Co., I’d pick up a copy of Joyce, Hemingway, or Fitzgerald and try to comprehend that they had frequented this same city, their shoes wearing down the same cobblestones. The store clerks stamped the books I bought with “Shakespeare & Co – Kilometre Zero”, and I wanted to be at the centre of something.

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This summer was sitting in old churches on humble wicker chairs, and staring up at the soaring stone arches, trying to feel something grander, more mysterious, more powerful. Removed from nature here, I felt like man had swallowed up everything. I wanted to feel small again, not anonymous.

This summer was 8am at Café Deux Magots, journaling and people-watching as I dipped pieces of pain au chocolat in my hot chocolate. Coffee stained the morning’s issues of Le Canard. What had Hollande done this time? People emerged from the Metro by L’Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Years ago, at this café, Existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir had discussed life beyond God across from the oldest church in Paris.

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This summer was wandering the empty streets of Paris in the purple dusk and the blue dawn, running around in circles in my head. You’re supposed to be ecstatically happy, I’d tell myself. You’re nineteen years old in Paris, in the summer. You’ll never be this young again. Instead, I drifted through streets and passageways and gardens, and haunted churches and museums, and tried to feel something.

This summer was realizing that I’m a little bit lost, very determined, and kind of confused. Paris has a weight to it. It exists in the shadow of our memories and expectations. The city is heavy with the responsibility to be profound, life-changing, heart-stopping, heart-warming, and all sorts of other adjectives. I felt burdened with the weight of needing this city to mean something to me. I landed in Paris expecting to love the city as much as my fourteen-year-old self had. I wanted to fall back in love with this place like some starry-eyed and shy girl. But I was different, the city had changed, and I simply saw a beautiful city, not an entire world I wanted. So what do you do when the city of your dreams isn’t that city anymore?

If there’s one thing I learned from this trip, it’s that travel is not a magic pill. You don’t just board a plane and fly straight into some land called happiness. Yes, sometimes the atmosphere of a new place overwhelms you and you’re drawn into the irresistible other of a life entirely different than your own. But no matter where you go, you’re still right there, stuck with yourself. And that’s the real, unglamorous magic of travel.

Will cobblestones and pretty coffee and old churches make me happy? No, not really. Waking up early in the morning on a camping trip does. Salt water and lingering sunsets. Wandering farmers’ markets in the fresh sunshine and cooking for friends and family. Writing for hours and feeling like I’ve done something worthwhile. Meaningful time with friends and meeting new people.  Realizing the small things, I walked through the old city in the bruised-purple evenings and the lavender dusks, and tried to shake this wordless feeling of discontent, this not-happiness-not-unhappiness.

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Sophia Vartanian