That Girl and Her Sister
Blogs from Across the Pond
In our last European city together, Jesse and I spend a week, a lifetime, and not nearly long enough in Paris. It’s fall in France. Golden leaves flitter over the walkways and across the streets, tumble down from branches to sit on the grass of the gardens.
Moody clouds press against the sky. On our first morning there, fog hides the top of the Eiffel Tower from our view giving the monument and the city a misty, magical feel.
As we make our way through the Metro tunnels from one line to the other heading to the little apartment we’ve rented for the week, a woman sings into a tinny microphone to an accompanying tune.
“She’s singing Jean Jacques Goldman,” I say, stopping in my tracks as I recognize the French rock n’ roll star’s song Comme Toi. When we were young, our family and our friends’ family hosted French exchange students who then introduced us to the popular J.J. Goldman. Loving French ‘80s rock ‘n roll as a child and then a teenager, I’d never imagined that one day I’d be here listening to the words I’ve known for so many years fill the subway tunnel and carry on with me even after the sounds fade from our hearing as we move on and away.
Over the week, Jesse and I visit many of the main Parisian sites. We stand in line for three hours to get into the Louvre where we see the Mona Lisa and (to my great surprise and joy) the Nike of Samothrace among other wonders by da Vinci, Fra Angelico, Bellini, Luini, Raphael. Many of the paintings and painters I’d learned about in art history I’m seeing with my own eyes. And it’s crowded and busy and overwhelming and wonderful.
The next day, we stand in line again and eventually get to the Eiffel Tower’s summit from where we gaze down upon all of Paris. We drink espressos from the second level immersed in our own lofty thoughts.
Another day, we climb up all the stairs of Notre Dame’s North Tower where we make friends with gargoyles and meet Quasimodo’s bell.
Later on, with the song in our heads, we venture down the busy Champs-Élysées without shopping and then go stare at the Arche de Triomphe.
Yet another day, we descend into the Sewers of Paris with their Jean Valjean fame, excited as children to peer down at the murky water, twisting pipes, and covering grates, remembering Hugo’s Les Miserables and the movies made after his story which we’d seen both as children and adults. As I lean over a railing, I imagine Jean Valjean carrying the wounded body of his enemy through the dirty, cloying sewage to safety, and am glad I don’t have to do the same.
In between the waiting in lines and the seeing of sites, we stop off at cafés for drinks and desserts. We wander along the Seine. Pass by museums and churches and even the apartment where Marie Curie lived for a time. We shop for fruit at our local corner store. We even take a daytrip to Versailles.
Every morning but one (when we have French Toast in France at a little restaurant around the corner from the Eiffel Tower), Jesse and I eat our breakfasts at the café on the street below our apartment where we’re waited on by the Happiest Waiter in the World. Each morning, he greets us with a cheerful “Bonjour!”
“Bonjour!” we reply.
“Ҫa va?” Jesse asks, her French better than mine (mine is very rudimentary consisting mostly of phrases from the French Albums we listened to as children. “Bonjour, Helen” “Bonjour, Maman.” and then a long exchange about it being late and time to get up which I can still recite even if I can’t spell the French correctly).
“Ҫa va bien. How could I not be?” the Happiest Waiter in the World says, a morning person who truly loves morning. “The usual?” he asks going back toward the kitchen. His smile has enough energy to light up a street. His joy at living is nearly better than the caffeine in our cappuccinos for waking us up.
He’s the spirit of Paris, this waiter. The joie de vivre. Élan. The expression of emotion that neither Jesse nor I quite know how to voice for ourselves. And now, why should we when we have the Happiest Waiter in the World to do it for us?
All in all, it’s fiction that brings Paris to life for me. The connections between Victor Hugo’s work and the city, and then to the more recent books I’ve found.
More than anything else I’ve seen or loved here, I fall most in love with the river of Paris.
This is in part by its own merit and partly because I’m taken by a fictional character who also loves the Seine. For a number of years now I’ve been reading the French author Fred Vargas’s Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series, waiting eagerly for each new book to come across the ocean, translated to English from the French.
From book to book, Adamsberg, a quirky, flawed, intuitive rather than practical Commissaire of the Serious Crimes Unit in Paris, leads his team to solving the tricky murders that his city suffers under. When he needs to get away from the bustle of the station he goes for long walks along the Seine and it’s there by the changing colors of the water that he often gets his breakthroughs.
In one book, the mystery is solved in part by a packet of sugar and the apple brandy Calvados which the characters drink throughout the story. One night, blending the real Paris to the Paris I’d read about, I order a Calva while Jesse gets a dessert. My drink is served on a small saucer with an accompanying sugar cube and I’m thrilled by this. With the magic of fiction and reality swirling like the waters of the Seine around us, we sit outside of our café (waited on by someone who is not the Happiest Waiter in the World) and enjoy the night air. Jesse reads and I people watch.
Following in his fictional footsteps with more than liquor, on more than one day we wander a long path along the river, and as we go, I think, “This is where Adamsberg walked. This is what he saw. This is where he was.” And the fiction comes alive, the stories take on a more solid reality. The books and characters and arrondissements come to life. And isn’t that the power of fiction, the power of place?
On our last day in Paris, Jesse and I take the Metro to the far end of the line and then trace our way back through the city along the Seine. Stopping occasionally to eat, to get a latte from a charming café with outdoor seating, to have a glass of wine and a snack, and to sit on the stairs and ledges along the river to watch the water move. Jesse reads. I sit and muse.
Was there ever a more perfect time than now? Was there ever a more perfect place than here? The answer is no. Not when I live in the moment. Not when I’m here feeling so full I could cry, feeling bittersweet that this is my last full day in Paris, trying not to remember that. In only a handful of hours, Jesse and I will part ways. I’ll head off to the airport and back to the states and she’ll stay at the apartment one last night before taking a morning train to Brussels. We’ve been together, working over the summer and here on our trip, for five months and this parting is strange and disconcerting. We’ve grown accustomed to looking over our shoulders to make sure we haven’t lost the other as we take trains, subways, and meander down streets. We’ve come to rely on our separate strengths. Now what will we do?
I don’t think about that here by the Seine as the clouds move and the water slips on by. I don’t think about that as I add this day, this week, this city to my growing list of perfect days, weeks, and cities. With my feet dangling over the water, thinking about real life and fiction, I sit there in companionable silence with my sister for a little while longer, feeling so lucky to be alive.
Behind us, the Eiffel Tower stands tall against the clouds, a silhouette of wonder. The bridge in front of us charms people into walking across it. And a tour boat passing by carries tourists who take pictures of us sitting there like Parisians, like we belong, like this is home.