City of Light

Seine River with a view of Notre Dame, by Mason Hayek

Paris, city of light, of enlightenment and illumination: When I was in Paris one winter many years ago, the sky was blue for only a day. The streets were still dark at eight in the morning, and dusk arrived by late afternoon. Yet no other city shares the blazing aura of the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe and Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Champ de Mars, the bouquinistes along the Seine, the Pont Neuf and Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris as it was and may be again, and the Left Bank’s intimate intensity. At night in the Latin Quarter, jazz drifted out onto the cobblestones; the melodious cacophony of horns in tiny cars made a counterpoint to the music, and the distinctive smell of the smoke from Gauloises cigarettes hung over the sidewalks. I vividly recall such details, but what I hold in my mind above all is the feeling of Paris as its chilly, damp, enticing air transfused my spirit and my senses.

When my roommate Margaret and I and two-dozen other University of Delaware students arrive in Paris from Luxemburg on December 30, the train stops in the Gare de l’Est, where a guitarist is singing an angst-filled song that says to me, “You are in Paris, city of philosophy, beauty, and romance.” On the Métro-station wall hangs an enormous poster of a young man wearing only red bikini briefs and standing among flowers outside a house. The caption urges, “Jardinez votre matin,” “Make a garden of your morning.” Just after midnight, our group emerges from the subway to find ourselves outside l’église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the oldest church in Paris. By twos and fours, we separate for our tiny Latin Quarter hotels.

For our first two weeks in Paris, Margaret and I stay in the Grand Hôtel des Deux Continents, which isn’t grand at all in size. Our room provides two twin beds, along with a sink and a bidet. We bathe in the former and ignore the latter. A shower elsewhere in the hotel is available for a few extra centimes, beyond the $3.60 in francs that we each pay per night for the room and breakfast. Our room is on the third floor. Pushing the minuterie illuminates the stairs and hallways long enough for us to reach our door. The WC is one floor below us and supplies toilet paper that is slightly softer than a paper bag.

Rue Jacob, the site of our hotel, in more recent years, photograph by Par Mbzt — Travail personnel, CC BY 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Each morning we drink café au lait and eat croissants for our petit déjeûner in the little nook behind the lobby. The milk and coffee arrive in separate small pitchers, and we mix equal parts of the hot liquids in our heavy white cups. Many evenings, Margaret and I eat dinner in our room: Port Salut cheese and red wine from one of the nearby outdoor markets operating even in the winter. Before falling asleep, I write about the day in the best French I can manage. I will earn three credits for taking this trip and recording my impressions.

Our first Parisian morning is the only clear day we will find in the city. Along the Champs Elysées, the Christmas ornaments—gold metal spangles the size of six-inch rulers—hang from tree branches. The spangles chime in the wind and glitter in the sunshine. Women with children, children alone, young couples, and dogs fill the Tuileries Garden. In spite of the cold, a little boy sails his toy boat on a garden pond. We will visit the nearby Louvre another day. Inside the museum, a Japanese man will ask to take a picture of me standing next to the Mona Lisa. I will tell him no but later wish I could imagine a picture of Mona and me existing somewhere in Japan.

Saint-Germain-des- Prés, photograph by DXR – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Margaret and I spend New Year’s Eve listening to two singers in a small folk-music club within the shadow of l’église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés and the café des Deux Magots. Les Deux Magots is above all for tourists now, but I imagine the café air resonating with the conversations and inspiration of Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Pablo Picasso, and James Joyce, who, like Margaret and me, dreamed and drank coffee within its walls.

Two nights after New Year’s Eve, Maurice, a young Frenchman who is spending the academic year at the University of Delaware and who has returned to Paris with our university-sponsored trip, hosts a party at his parents’ elegant apartment near the Eiffel Tower. We jeunes filles whose Delaware dormitory is la Maison Française know Maurice well. He is friendly and quite beautiful. Back on campus, he and I eat breakfast together in the Caesar Rodney Dining Hall on many mornings, but we only go out once—to a dance where he is more interested in some of the other girls than in me.

At Maurice’s Paris party, I admire the French couples dancing what looks like a smooth and sophisticated jitterbug. While the French young people dance and we Americans look on, Herman’s Hermits incongruously sing about Mrs. Brown’s lovely daughter and John Denver tells of his mountain mama in West Virginia.

 I am a little in love with Maurice, but at the party I meet his cousin Philippe—known as Petit Philippe. His wild yellow hair bushes out like a dandelion gone to seed, and his large red bowtie clashes with the reserve of his white dinner jacket. I think he’s cute—and anyway, he’s French and charming. We drink champagne and eat macaroons, dance the slow numbers, chat, and then go out to his gray Citroën Deux Chevaux for a quieter, getting-to-know-you conversation. The car’s canvas seats resemble beach chairs.

All the other guests have left by the time we return inside, but we stay to talk with Maurice’s parents before Petit Philippe drives me to my hotel. On our block, he heads the wrong way down the one-way street and parks with the left wheels on the sidewalk. Margaret doesn’t—or won’t—wake up to let me in, so the elderly little man from the front desk fiddles with his collection of keys until he finds the one to open our door.

Théâtre National de l’Odéon, photograph by Daniel Vorndran / DXR, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

Philippe invites me to an evening with his friends. After watching the play Le testament du chien—The Testament of a Dog—from an orchestra box at the Théâtre National de l’Odéon, we arrive for a dinner of rice salad and cheese at the apartment of one of the girls. A window in the apartment is open; I wouldn’t be any colder if we were eating outside. Waves of conversation crash over me, and I drown in the sounds.

On another night, Philippe takes me to his ski club in Pigalle, near Sacré-Coeur—invisible in the fog. I drink wine and talk and dance a little with Philippe and a few other charming young men. Afterward, we drive to Philippe’s university, near Versailles. For a few moments on the way, we become a star in the Arc de Triomphe’s spinning galaxy of car lights.

At the university, Petit Philippe and I visit a classmate of his who is drinking cognac from the bottle and, miraculously, also studying. At one point, I start to follow Philippe out of the room, not realizing he is heading to the lavatory. Then I imagine he is angry with me, and so I cry a little. “Tu es trop serieuse,” he says: “You are too serious.”

The following day, our university group’s excursion to Versailles begins in the Gare St. Lazare. Inside the palace, our guide is a tiny woman in a fur coat. She speaks as if she’s never before had the chance to talk about these beautiful rooms she loves so dearly. Outdoors, the gardens are in winter hibernation and the fountains are dry, but in the courtyard once crowded with those whom Marie Antoinette, we are told, would have had eat cake, a man laden with baguettes rides by on a bicycle.

Château de Chenonceau, photograph by Taxiarchos228, CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons

For a few of us from Delaware, Maurice leads a four-day excursion to the Loire Valley and teases me throughout about Petit Philippe. We visit the castles of Chaumont, Amboise, and Chenonceau and walk through pretty villages. The entire town of Blois smells like chocolate. From the road back to Paris, I glimpse Chartres Cathedral seeming to rise out of the open fields, just as in my high-school art teacher’s slides. That evening Margaret and I leave for four days in Marseille.

After returning to Paris, we check into the Grand Hôtel des Etrangers, which the poets Verlaine and Rimbaud knew a century earlier. For Margaret and me, the cost is about two dollars a night; the light in our room doesn’t work. The next evening, Petit Philippe somehow finds me at les Deux Magots. We end up talking all night.

Margaret has already left by the time I run up to our room to throw my things into my suitcase. Philippe and I find croissants and café au lait across the street and then walk to the Odéon Métro for our au revoir. I ride a nearly empty Métro train to the Gare de l’Est. There the other Delaware students and I soon board the train to Luxembourg and our Icelandic Airlines flight home.

Back in Delaware, I receive one letter from Philippe. He writes that he thinks he still loves me. When I become engaged to Sam a year later, I throw away Philippe’s letter.

But I do not need a letter to remember Paris, and Petit Philippe is only a few scenes within the larger memory. Now when I dream of Paris, I am walking along cobblestone streets on a foggy evening under the hazy light of street lamps. Surrounding me are clubs from which music spills into the street, Gothic cathedrals and buzzing mopeds, the elegant Paris Opéra and legendary Sorbonne, the Parisians’ courtyards and balconies, and the beckoning bright havens that are shops, restaurants, and cafés. And yes, sometimes I am whirling around the brilliantly lighted Arc de Triomphe in a battered Deux Chevaux.

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