Paris, ReviewedPosted: November 19, 2013
Ask me to describe Paris to you, and I’ll balk and try to change the subject.
Despite spending a week there, all I can muster about the city when pressed is … well, there is a river in the middle of it, and the surrounding banks and hills are dotted with pretty buildings. Information you can gather from Wikipedia, or your imagination. Oh, and there’s art in museums and good food in restaurants but you should probably check out Trip Advisor because I don’t remember the name of that fancier hostel I stayed in or the bar I drank at every night. No recommendations from me, buddy, no specifics to give, now move along now please before this gets more awkward.
I try not to bring up I’ve been to Paris in conversation, because my inability to talk intelligently about the city is embarrassing. I want to remedy this situation by going back there and actually paying attention to Paris, the city proper, the second time. The funny thing is, months before my trip I planned to take detailed notes and photos for my mother. The Hungarian nationalists inside us wanted to compare. Budapest, my birth city, is considered the Paris of Eastern Europe and we were curious about its French counterpart. Could Paris in fact be the lesser, the imitator, the Budapest of Western Europe? I accepted my mission to do research for the Motherland wholeheartedly.
My time in Paris was, more or less, hopelessly distracted. Sure, the wine was great, attractions great, cafes and hostels great, all great great great blur. My original goal of studying the city (even its public transportation system!) was scrapped almost immediately and instead, I spent the entire time observing one thing and one thing only: a human male called “M.” Out of the corner of my eye.
I was constantly alert to his presence, my brain obsessed with tracking him. I watched where he walked, analyzed what he wore and who he was talked to and what he took a photo of. When he laughed, all my senses left my body and hovered steps near him like a ghost. Looking at him with both eyes was out of the question.
I had gone to Paris with M and his best friend who very importantly was my just-days-ex, as well as all our friends in college who were very intent (this they made clear) on the ex and I making up on this overseas break. M and I were madly, secretly in love, (I had been for a year), but we feigned disinterest in public; the trip would be more pleasant this way, we agreed while we packed the night before. On top of covertly spying on M, I had to diplomatically refuse and sidestep reconciliation schemes hatched by ex-and-friends. It was an excruciating week.
The journey began as a long and breathtaking bullet-train ride from Amsterdam. The seats M and I had tickets for were inexplicably, miraculously next to each other on a first class car separate from the rest of the our group, seated in coach. We were free to enjoy each others company in earnest, in addition to the complimentary food and alcoholic beverages. M and I cuddled and watched the countryside go by, a lightning thunderstorm time lapsing into a gold and sunny scene in minutes. We arrived in France in the afternoon, and before we disembarked vowed to be cold to one another once again. The train ride was cruel this way.
Our first stop, the Notre Dame, didn’t leave any impression on me whatsoever. To this day, when I conjure up Notre Dame I think of the Disney movie about the hunchback that lived on top of it. I blame M, who wasn’t with us, for this. M left his brand new iPod and film notes for his upcoming final in a backseat train pocket, and ran back to the station to see if he could retrieve them. (He couldn’t.) He promised to meet us at the hostel later, so don’t worry! Even though I knew he wasn’t going to meet us at the cathedral, I kept scanning the busy square, swearing I saw him in the crowd. I even did that thing where I waved at people I thought were M and when it became clear the man doing the “who me?” eyebrow/pointer finger dance was not M, I pretended it was a person near him I was really waving to. No, not you, the guy behind you! And then I ducked, scooted away. Me at my finest. The architectural masterpiece that is Notre Dame was completely ignored, its domineering presence diminished by my love-sick psyche.
The next day saw a group hike up the white Sacre Coeur. I reached the top first where you’re supposed to view the entire city, but my eyes feasted on M climbing the stairs, his camera heavy around his neck. He hid behind his lens when he noticed my gaze and quickly wandered off. Later, I would see him trying to make eye contact from across the street.
Near the market on top of the Sacre Coeur, a vendor sold bracelets that he wove onto unsuspecting wrists. Once on, the only way it came off would be to cut the thing and ruin the vendor’s craftsmanship, so many tourists gave in to the ruse and paid for the accessory. When M started framing a photograph, this vendor saw his chance and began weaving on M’s arm. Despite not knowing French, M’s friendly silver tongue saw the vendor remove his handiwork without an exchange of money. I was more charmed by this exchange than ever, way more than the vendor. Smooth talkers aren’t dangerous, they’re sexy, said my aggressive heart beat. Members of the group asked to see M’s photos on his camera’s LED but I didn’t dare.
One afternoon M and I complained about our wet shoes and this gave us a whole five private minutes in our shared hostel room to change them. The time was spent in a hug, in our damp socks. It was bittersweet.
When ex-and-friends walked in the street during our trip, M and I would make sure not to amble next to each other, but if we did, it was only natural that we would have a conversation. Naturally, since we were just friends, having a very natural conversation about lighthearted no consequence things, was completely natural. Naturally. Were the others watching us? Did they know? My mind screamed. The problem was, the more I thought about acting naturally, the more I wanted to run off with M, grab a private room and fuck his brains out. Everyone else could just go to hell.
I spent most of my time in the Musee d’Orsay looking for M. I whizzed by Monets as if they were merely wallpaper, my ex hot on my heels. He was trying to convince me to see a painting he thought was interesting and I eventually caved. It was a sunset. Can you tell someone to stop trailing you and that they know nothing of art in the same breath? In my fever to get a glimpse of M and lose my ex, I forgot about the Van Goghs on the walls and my respect for the impressionist artists. Nothing was worth more than seeing M from the other side of a room. The thought of his smile and the enlargement of his dark pupils consumed me. Did I mention I was wretched?
Art meant nothing to me on that trip. I spent half of another day doing the same exact thing in the Louvre. When I got really lost (because I misplaced my map), I slowed down and roamed wings of marble wares until it dawned on me M would probably be spotted at one of the more famous works. It never occurred to me to look at these famous pieces for their fame and beauty, their only value on that trip was their ability to draw M. I’d find out later my ex went to exhibit halls he thought I would be interested in and kept running into M there. Both had maps.
I finally met M in the hall with the Madonna on the Rocks. I remember, because M talked at great length about his theory behind Leonardo da Vinci’s composition. We sat and discussed the work for a while, breathing freely for the first time since the train ride and wet socks incident. The marble floors and walls echoed with the sounds of large tour groups and we had to sit close to one another to hear each other speak. I stared at M’s mouth, his jaw, neck and freckled shoulders. A member of the group was noticed eventually, and we both stood and greeted the intruder, cheerfully. After ordinary smalltalk, M and the intruder went their separate ways, but I lingered. The meeting with M was euphoric and I spent the next hour contemplating the encounter in an adjacent room, memorizing a painting of a woman about to stab a Greek or Roman hero.
The entrance to the Louvre was the group’s meeting place, and while M, I and ex-and-friends waited for the stragglers, we watched ducks swimming in the artificial ponds. I commented on how cute the birds were, and M indulged me by taking photos of them. The ex thought this was a perfect moment to interject with his knowledge of ducks and their flight patterns. If M said this, I would have found it fascinating, but my ex just vexed me. Nodding politely at my ex, my attention drifted to M as he retreated behind the wall that was his camera. French soldiers in uniform patrolled the courtyard and my chest filled with pride when M convinced one to pose for him.
M chased a horse and I involuntarily smiled. M could have stopped to tie his shoe and I would have marveled at his expertise. My ex, always oblivious, thought he was making headway with the ducks.
On the walk to the Arc de Triumph, we watched a man receive medical attention after being hit by a car on his motorcycle. There was blood everywhere and I cried, using the man’s injury as a vessel to lessen the growing anger and frustration in my chest.
The Eiffel Tower excursion was no better. It was drizzling and the cold wind was restless. The group stopped at a local cafe on the way to the tower and someone ordered snails. It was a pretentious cafe and the atmosphere called for pretentious things. No one was drinking because the alcohol here was too expensive so I ordered an espresso. M asked for a sip. It was an inadvertent kiss. We drank from the same spot and it was hot knowing our lips touched the same porcelain surface. Outside, my jacket collar pressed against my face, I cursed the pelting rain, the wind, these so-called- friends, international politics, the gods, the universe, everything that was preventing me from actually putting my mouth on M’s. It was in this mood that I deemed the Eiffel Tower worthless for its inability to offer any shelter whatsoever.
Across the street from our hostel in Montmartre, there was a bar where we all retired every night. When I think of Paris I think of that bar, a cramped back corner with wood paneling and orange lighting, small square dishes, reasonably priced drinks and well made cappuccinos. The waiter there grew to know us well, and encouraged us to think we were his favorite customers. A few days into the trip, M and I began sitting across or diagonally from each other. It happened at first by accident, but not a mistake every subsequent evening thereafter. The way ex-and-friends settled into our established back table was based on the order we walked into the bar. When I was out of order, I would excuse myself to go to the bathroom, check my purse in a false panic, or drop a leather glove. M helped with my machinations, unperturbed by the ex who claimed the seat next to me every time. See, our seating arrangement were key to M and my feet-touching plans. If we were feeling particularly dangerous, M would stretch his legs and I’d cross my ankles around his. As ex-and-friends got drunk, it became easier to brush knees, feet, legs… but always with minimal eye contact and conversation between us. Moderation is key. Moderation in Paris more so.
All this went down under the noses of my bad-at-wooing ex and these people that valued group solidarity and the TV shows “Friends” more than actual true love. I had stayed with the ex longer than I wanted due to peer pressure from these people leading up to this trip, so when the bar closed each night, I silently lamented. Wine would be purchased for the room, but by then ex-and-friends were in that drunken state where they wanted trouble. Tensions climbed higher each preceding night, with ex-and-friends shouting about religion and the differences of the sexes. It was all bullshit and manipulation and control. Isn’t this romantic, Fruzs? Doesn’t it make you want to be with ex again? Not particularly, no.
On one night near the end of our trip, someone purchased absinthe while another purchased hash from a shady gentlemen. That post-bar night, tears streamed, punches, bottles and lamps were thrown and doors were kicked down. Unwanted sexual advances happened. Everyone shouted at their lungs. One of the male friends kept calling me a bitch and physically wrestled and bruised me until we broke a bed frame. M calmed everyone down in all this mess. Jesus. Was there anything this guy couldn’t do?
We awoke in the afternoon the next day, my ex having moved his single bed next to mine to make a King. Subtle. If he snuggled me in my sleep, I couldn’t remember. Downstairs, the hostel staff threatened to kick us out until it was determined the majority of the complaints were about someone above us, who caused more damage and noise than we did. How was that even possible? Never mind, it was a blessing, and a lesson to never do bottled absinthe and hash (maybe laced?) at the same time. Drinking at our favorite bar though, we went and did immediately.
That night was the night of my long-awaited romantic Parisian adventure starring M. After lights out, I lay awake aware M was too. A reasonable amount of time passed before I sat up and said I was hungry (I wasn’t) and that I could not sleep, given I woke up so late that day post-hash and absinthe hangover. M chimed in with his apparent need for food too. I invited others to join us in our quest for snacks in the lobby, but there were no takers. M and I dressed quickly, ears ringing, and once downstairs, roared with laughter. We both shook with nervous energy as we clasped hands, in search of a cafe still open after 1am. It was raining again, but for once I didn’t care.
“The Artists Rendezvous” was a few blocks away and since they were closing up shop all we could order was crepe. We ordered a chocolate one with two double whiskeys, and settled in a red booth hidden from the street. The cook mopped the floor and the waitress counted her register while we gazed eyes glazed, our mouths in big grins that hurt our cheeks. (My face still aches gently, eight years later, thinking about that night.)
Once our snack was done, the workers shooed us out gently and locked their doors. My arm around M’s, because Paris is still cold and wet and the streets quiet and empty, but we don’t want to go back, not just yet. We detour. I want to say the detour idea was mine, as I like to claim credit for all brilliant ideas, but I can’t be sure. This brilliant idea was a sunken doorway shadowed by a stone arch on a side street. Underneath the doorway, the brilliant idea became a hushed, out-of-breath film noir movie of a kiss (and more), my hands clutching the collars of M’s peacoat fiercely. He bites my neck and images sear into my brain, quantum theory dictating that moment for all eternity so that at will I can slip into a parallel universe and relive those 20-or-so minutes any time. My own personal heaven might be that night on replay.
My Paris is one moment in time, maybe scenes at one bar, one cafe, one archway. This is why I can’t explain to you what the city is actually like or accurately tell you if a monument or museum is worth it. To me, finding that side street is “a must.” But that’s just me, who wants to be a tourist of my own memory.
Oh, and I’m still with M, otherwise known as Chris Murphy, my mighty fine mate, possibly the best in the whole world. #whaaat #marriedlife