“Very old, very beautiful . . . “ That’s been the mantra and constant joke since a trip to Paris as a poor student when a comrade and I sat on a city bus behind the quintessential elderly tourist couple from Middle America who reacted to every site along the route, monuments and apartment blocks alike, with hubby muttering “Very old,” and wifey echoing in confirmation, “Very beautiful.” Four words that pretty much summarize the European experience for most first-timers.
But I am no first-timer in Paris anymore. I have duly found friends to crash with – avoiding the cost and indignity of those cheap hotel walk-ups where the toilet paper was always yesterday’s newspaper torn into careful squares. I now treat the place much like any parent of an eight-year-old, eschewing the latest art exhibits or Left Bank bookshops for un-Celine-like journeys to the end of the Metro line in search of places like the heartless, mammoth and stylishly bulky in the French manner city of science, housing within a “Cite des Enfants” which, much to my daughter’s disappointment, is all sold out on Easter Sunday. The Pompidou Centre’s gallery for kids is empty when I check, but the bookstore, one of the world’s finest, offers more than enough amusement and browsing through a selection of games, puzzles, activity books and stickers that aspire to turn any vapid tyke into the next Monet, Manet or similar.
This time, I have only a single frigid afternoon to wander freely along the Seine or down the back byways of Le Marais, increasingly another designer outlet mixed with falafel and deli outlets that are places of pilgrimages for co-religionists seeking evidence of French-Jewish life (though the corned beef and cheesecake are among the few items that the local gourmet touch seems to have left unimproved). I don’t really do much: discovering a special bakery window full of home-style plum cakes, taking a chance on small art gallery viewings, or simply allowing myself to get lost and go agog once more at the City of Light’s enduring, bone-white blocks of oldness and beautifulness. And I let the high quality of jazzy buskers in the underground tunnels of the Bastille stop impress me as much as the Mona Lisa.
Yet I am once more put back into what for me is the finest state of travel. Suddenly, a strange excitement clutches at my chest and I feel myself communing with the spirits of the millions of restless, solitary wanderers who have come before me. To me, the best part of traveling isn’t the opportunity to meet and forge mutual understanding with millions of strangers. No, the great gift is to be allowed to have an excuse be alone, even deeply lonely and estranged, in fact to revel in it. Bereft of map or language or purpose or context, to simply amble along streets one has never walked down and never will again, allowing an unapologetic curiosity at new things to mingle with the very old notion of one’s solitary place in the universal, even of circling toward fate.
The French have certainly grown much friendlier, less stuffy, since olden days when they turned up their noses at my attempts to buy just half a loaf of bread (and survived, with my friend, on honey-soaked Tunisian doughnuts instead). Now they all wish “Bonne Journee!” like automatons, void of sincerity in the same way American fast-food greeters spew out, “Have a Nice Day!” But Paris, for me, affords the chance to take stock of the lifetime in between youth and age and to find the link that is always there – the person who is forever happy, perhaps at my most bittersweet happiest, to mingle with humanity while bereft of language or status, simply privileged to look upon the spectacle, and better yet, unequipped to join in, at once accepting the world as it and glorying in this momentary refusal.