A Café in Rostand, Paris
“As I sit in Rostand, the café where so many memories have been made, I find myself contented; both on my leaving and on my having lived in Paris.”
—Entry from my Journal: 05/11/16, 4:20pm
To write something strong, relatable, even sentient about a city—a place each resident and visitor experiences subjectively, is tough business. But to write about Paris strikes me as pure madness. How do I somehow choose words and put together sentences that convey even an infinitesimal amount of the emotions I felt while in Paris? It is impossible. There is a definite fault in translation between the feeling I get in my chest when I am reminded of Paris—when I see men in suits drinking espressos and smoking cigarettes at 3pm on a Tuesday, when I hear the clinking dishes of a busy café, when I smell baked bread (from a real Boulangerie)—and my conscious ability to articulate or transcribe these feelings to another. Nonetheless, I will try to do justice firstly to the dark, mysterious, tantalizing city of Paris and secondly, to my soul and the process of enriching transcendence that consumed it while there.
There are levels to the depths at which one embraces or comes to know a city. There is the touristic level. The every-weekend level. The commuter level. The people at these different depths, try as they might, are psychologically incapable of empathizing with those outside their realm. Ask a tourist the best place in New York and they’ll tell you someplace banal, like Time Square or Central Park (the popularity of these places only proves their magic), ask a commuter and they’ll tell you someplace trendy downtown—maybe The Spotted Pig or The Bowery Ballroom, but ask the resident, native or otherwise, and they’ll tell you about some dingy, shitty looking hole in the wall where, on their first night in the city, she saw Woody Allen, drunk as a dog, playing flute with the band onstage.
What I mean by this example is that once you live in a city, once you wake up in it everyday, get lost in it, get mugged in it, find love in it, you come to know it. The city is no longer a mass of concrete and loud noises—it is a living, breathing being.
From January until May of this past year, I lived in Paris. Yes, technically, I “studied abroad” in Paris. But to use that term feels like an injustice. Because I didn’t just study abroad in Paris. I didn’t try to visit every country in Western Europe. I didn’t head to the Louvre for pictures or Angelina for hot chocolate. I didn’t even go to the champagne bar at the top of the Eiffel Tower. The city was not a novelty to me. I lived in Paris; I lived with Paris.
I woke up to old French woman chastising bus drivers for leaving them behind, “Brûle en enfer.” I walked past old men playing Pétanque in the Jardin du Luxembourg, while their grandkids played on the swings and asked their parents for snacks “Maman et Papa, Je veux une une petite bouchée.” I watched waiters ignore tourists and speak passionately with regulars “Un autre café monsieur?” Then, I turned on Rue Mouffetard, descending from the majesty of the Pantheon to the Boulevard St. Germain, the path walked by Descartes, Baudelaire, Flaubert and Hemmingway alike, and arrived at my classes. That was my daily commute. A perennial path that forced me to acknowledge the paradox of rich history and resonant presence that enliven Paris.
What is a city without its residents? It’s like a light bulb with no electricity. A clock with no hands. A truth with no one to think it. The city is a blank canvas waiting to be drawn, marked, burnt, fixed, admired. If New York is a Warhol, Paris is a Manet. Forever cemented in its impressionistic state. The wide boulevards, small dogs, sophisticated clothes and monotone umbrellas of the late nineteenth-century have found a permanent home with the Parisians.
But Paris was hurt when I arrived in January. The spirit of its people had been broken. Broken by a wave of hate and intolerance, one of bigotry and autonomy, one that has increasingly spread across the world and aims to threaten human coexistence.
I saw heavily armed military standing guard affront schoolyards, outside libraries, in museums…I felt fear when car engines popped or metro cars stopped… I looked into the eyes of the Parisians and saw pain, but not nihilism.
I never did nor do I think I ever really, truly will understand the French. The passion with which they speak feels alien to the intonation of my native language. Their disregard for modern health preventions, such as not smoking, drinking everyday or eating red meat is, astonishingly, selective. The students are complacent to sit silent in class and treat their professor as an infallible god, for they fear to speak against him or her. Yet, they are simultaneously a people of revolution. They stage marches daily and strikes weekly. They do not care to act in a welcoming manner and even though the Parisians largely know English, one would stretch to find this fact outwardly forthright.
The French are, to me, endlessly fascinating. The Parisians are the blood of their city, and thus their connection to it is visceral. They feel connected to the heroes of their far and near past, from Montaigne to de Beauvoir to Foucault. They are lovers of intellect and passion. They make Paris a place where one can lose themselves, and subsequently find themselves, full of new ambitions and reorganized priorities.
I found myself in Paris. I found myself in cafés and riverbanks. I learned what is important to me and what is important to humanity. I developed a passion to spend my time constantly consuming and engaging in culturally impactful work. I learned what I want from my short time on this planet.
While in Paris, I often spoke with my two closest friends about how to wholly and truthfully convey the importance of our time in Paris to others. We came to no conclusion. I cannot tell you what it meant to live in Paris or how it felt. I can only leave you with these few, short sentences that I wrote during my last hours in the city.
“Paris has been all I could have asked for and more. It was the gap year I never had. A place to find myself and learn what I want. It will always be special to me. Rostand in the rain is a beauty never to be rivaled.”