In July this year I went on a holiday with my family to Europe. Until I had been to, and left, Paris I didn’t realise you could be homesick for places that were never your home. From my first latte, my first meal (camembert on a baguette), my first wander down the Seine with my camera in my hand, I fell in love with Paris, as so many foreigners do.
It is impossible to describe the whole of Paris at once. Particularly as I only saw such a small part of it. Our hotel was on the Rue de l’Universite, just a couple of blocks back from the left bank of the Seine across from the Louvre. I could have wandered that area for days. Following small streets, looking in the windows of art galleries and antique dealers. I could have stared up at the ornate buildings, each one alike in its rococo style, but the intricacy in each building rendering almost unique. I could have gazed at the roof tops, seemingly to cross over each other as if forming their own embroidery. Everything was ornately decorated, down to the man hole covers.
On our first day we wandered across the Seine to the Louvre and walked through the gardens, then up along the Rue de la Paix to the Place Vendôme. Each moment felt entirely surreal to me, but I loved it all the same, even sitting in the gardens of the Louvre with my feet up to try and quell the swelling caused by our flight over. Jet lag may have contributed to the ethereal feeling. Sitting in a restaurant called Les Deux Magots for dinner I faced a church that had been founded in the 6th century called Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the other side of the road. My head whirled as I stared up at its bell-tower, which had been rebuilt in the 17th century. It was fascinating to walk around, catching glimpses of its crumbling stone work through more modern buildings built around it. It’s one of the things I didn’t take a photo of, but I couldn’t carry a camera every where I went, sometimes you just need to experience something without the interruption of a camera lens or screen.
I ate like I would never eat again. I had a croissant for breakfast everyday and two on the last day. Each meal was fantastic, from the rustic coque chèvre at Le Comptoir Des Saint Peres to the gourmet cardamom panna cotta at Fish la Boissonnerie. Although ordering made me nervous, it does everywhere because I’m not good at human interaction, but the language barrier adds to my anxiety.
I saw so much that I had longed to see. I stood before Camille Claudel’s L’age Mur and gazed at each impressionistic imprint on the statue, taking it all in with my eyes as photography of the art work was not allowed. I have now seen Renoir’s Girls at the Piano, seeing in person what a textbook or a print cannot reproduce. I have seen things that I was not expecting but adored. Art nouveau interiors replicated in the side rooms of the Musée d’Orsay. I did not know that Degas sculpted as well as he painted but I loved looking at his sculptures. I had not heard of Gustave Caillebotte, but I came home with a print of Vue de Toits (Effet de neige) because I loved the subtle colours of the snow covered rooftops so much.
In Paris I experienced what it would be like to be a morning person for the first (and probably only) time. I woke up at 4:30, wide awake, and to the irritation of my sister who had to share a room with me, I worked out that I had enough time to get ready to have a sunrise wander around Paris and take some good shots in the morning light. I walked down to the Place de la Concorde and stood in the square alone, except for the occasional car and motorbike, watched only by all the statues surrounding me. As I walked back over the Seine, Paris was beginning to wake up and there was another photographer taking shots of the Assemblée Nationale. I walked up passed the Musée d’Orsay a man walking to work said something to me in French, (I think he said the dawn was beautiful). Seeing that I didn’t quite understand and clearly I was a tourist he asked me if I spoke English. He then told me about an ‘exquisite’ red door on the Rue de l’Universite, which I promised to find. He asked where I was from, the standard response to being a tourist from Australia in Europe is “So far!” and this man was no exception. He asked how long I was staying in Paris. “Four days,” I responded. “Only four days? That’s so short.”
I agree with him. Paris for four days is far to short. It’s a city that needs time, time to wander, not to race off between each of the ‘must see’ tourist attractions because then you miss so much. We took a bus tour, which is basically a good way to see not much of a lot of things, to sit in a lot of traffic and to get sunburnt, if you’re as pale as me. I would have gladly swapped it for some more time at Notre Dame, to have actually made it over to Monmarte, to have visited the Orangerie, to have seen the Rodin Museum, or even more time just wandering around the city aimlessly. I feel I missed so much of Paris because I didn’t have enough time. I knew four days would not be enough to see everything I wanted to, but better four days than no days at all.
I didn’t want to leave Paris, but one must live and I know nothing about actually living in Paris. Actually working, commuting, paying taxes and paying rent. What would the city be like to live in? Once your eyes were so used to such beauty? I fell in love with the city as place for holiday, for aimless wandering and extended time to oneself.
I sometimes wonder if I am romanticising my own memories of Paris. But I remember some bad things too. The first day my feet killed as I walked, I slipped down some stairs, saving my camera but not my tukas. Walking anywhere near the Seine involved intermittent wafts of the smell urine. I would never want to drive, the traffic always looked like chaos, left turns would be out of the question for me. I found some of the cafes and spaces quite claustrophobic; practically as an Australian I am used to sprawl, I’m not sure I could learn how to live in such a compact area. I could see why some people found it overrated. When nearly the whole world is in love with one city there are bound to be people who just don’t get it.
Paris has an inaudible murmur that speaks to peoples hearts. Whether you love the city or not depends entirely if your heart can hear it. Your heart may be more attuned to a different city. Some peoples hearts may only ever hear the murmur of home. My heart heard the murmur of Paris so loudly that the whole city seemed to be singing to me ‘ne me quite pas’. I thought that my heart might break the moment we left but it heard the murmur of nearly every city we visited on our trip.
Travel fills such a well inside of you. Travel teaches your heart a language that your mind might not understand. My heart longs to speak French, but my mind wonders if understanding it with my head would shut it off to my heart. There is a beauty in the languages you do not speak that you’re ears cannot pick up if they are to listen for the meaning of the words. When hearing a language you do not speak you are forced to listen to the intonations, to sense the feeling in the speaker. I found this with all the languages of the places we went: with Danish, German, Swedish, Russian and Lithuanian.
Every city has its murmur, even Sydney, my home city, it’s just that the noise of everyday life drowns it out. My heart listens to the sound of Sydney as I drive across the Harbour Bridge, as I wander in the Botanical Gardens, on the special trips I make into the city. I just don’t hear it out in the suburbs where I get on with my daily life. It was so much easier to hear in Paris, where even the melodic whir of the police sirens were exotic to me.
I wanted so much to do something lasting to make me feel more like a part of Paris. But I didn’t want to selfie in front of monuments as much as I just wanted to stare at them for as long as I could. I didn’t want to return with a lame t-shirt or cheap nick-nack souvenirs, I returned with a notebook from the Musée d’Orsay and some high topped Repetto sneakers.
But the urge to take something was superseded by the urge to leave something. In a city that has stood for centuries, stealing the hearts of so many foreigners, I wanted to carve my name into a stone or lock my name to a bridge. But the bridges were already so chocked with locks and is supposed to be a symbol of lovers that I find a bit corny, so I didn’t want to do that. And although the city isn’t immune to graffiti, to do any of that would feel like it was defacing Paris. I didn’t want to leave any alteration to a city that seemed so beautiful to me. I just want something that declares, I was here! In this great city that has stood for longer than my life and will stand after I have gone, I: an Australian of no consequence, stood in this place of great significance.
But I suppose I have left something, a piece of myself. I don’t need to change something to let others know I was here. I have seen, I have experienced and I have changed. I may never get to return to Paris, to see the Musee d’Orsay, the Rue de la Paix or the Seine again, although I sincerely hope to. But part of me will always be there. A memory, a everlasting shard stuck in my brain of the awe I felt. Paris is now a part of me. Like all the places I have travelled, I was there and that altered me.
What do you think of Paris if you have been? Is there a city that particularly speaks to your heart?
Images taken by Jessica Chapman