Day 6- Paris
Paris turned colder and greyer than London ever was. I didn’t know such a thing could be possible. The threat of rain was ever present with thick dark clouds and sudden sprinkles. If I had been anywhere else, I would have stayed indoors with a cup of hot chocolate. But I was in Paris. The hot chocolate could wait. I wore my thickest scarf and a pair of boots because no precipitation was going to dictate my limited days in this iconic city.
Despite my enthusiasm, the rain proved to be a difficulty. Anything that required long walks or outdoors activities was cancelled. Many of us opted for a trip to Versailles but I couldn’t leave Paris just because she was gray. So out the infinite things you could do in Paris, we picked four and we were going to enjoy them, rain or shine.
1-Cathédral Notre Dame de Paris
It was a unanimous accord that you simply could not visit Paris and not see Notre Dame with your own eyes. It always amazes me how massive she is. It is something I forget until I see it from its side while walking over the bridge. Her iconic image of the frontal towers gives no hint to her real size and overall magnificence. Its southern façade is my favorite as it shows the intricate details of French Gothic architecture and the central round mosaic.
The square facing the cathedral’s entrance was full of tourists hiding under colorful umbrellas as they queued to go up the towers. I have always wanted to see the ten bells of the cathedral, but it wasn’t going to happen during this visit. We didn’t have the time so we opted for going inside while a ceremony was taking place.
Maybe it is because my first memory of Notre Dame is associated with Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the cathedral has an ominous quality, a darkness that can easily be attributed to its architecture and gargoyles. Even inside, the large organs, the tall columns and the dimmed lights show an eeriness of religion that is quite palpable. But when the light shines through both mosaics on either side, the colors can’t be described as anything other than heavenly. Amongst the pale stones and the heaviness of the structure, there is brightness. You would never know it from the outside. Only from inside and only because of the natural light can you see the beautiful colors emanating from the 600 year old stained glass.
Vincent Van Gogh used to live in Montmatre. I don’t know why but I always remember that. It might be because I want to convince myself that this famous village where Sacré-Coeur is propped is the kind of place where I belong but the truth is I am naturally lured to Montmatre. It always catches my eye as it peeks out of the skyline of Paris. The neighborhood in itself is quite artistic and Place du Tetre is always filled with artists looking to sketch an enthusiastic tourist while others are there selling their oil paintings.
But the arty scene would have to wait because it was four o’ clock and the cold rain was coming down heavily. It was the perfect excuse to indulge in a warm snack. Right by the side of Sacré-Coeur, we found a tiny store with a big umbrella outside. The constant burst of steam coming out of the store caught our attention. It was a crepe booth surrounded by clients trying to decide whether to fill their crepes with chocolate, strawberries or go for the traditional sugar and lemon filling. Mark is more a salty-snack kind of guy and ordered one with Gruyere cheese and ham. It looked great but my sweet tooth called out to me. Une crepe avec Nutella, s’il vous plait.
The process fascinated me. I watched as she prepared my crepe, like a child pressed to the window of a candy store. She took a ladle full of a thin batter and poured it gently onto the round skillet. Steam puffed up when she spread it perfectly with a strange instrument and in seconds the crepe was cooked on one side. Without any hesitation she flipped it to cook it on the other side and then folded it in half. Then the magic happened. She grabbed the big spatula dunked into the Nutella jar and smeared my warm crepe with the delicious hazelnut spread. She folded again three times to make a triangle, shoved into a parchment wrapping and handed it to me.
If anyone can describe accurately what it is like to bite into a perfectly made crepe, they have my respect. No arrangement of words can express what taste buds do when you bite into the softness of the warm crepe enfolding what will become molten chocolate goodness. I had to lick off my lips from the residual chocolate that oozed out with every bite.
I do my best to stay away from eating these delicacies at every turn. I even resist learning how to make them. Yet I can clearly recall every single place I ate a crepe, what I was wearing, the year and how it felt.
I love Montmatre. I am infatuated with Nutella crepes. But I didn’t climb the 300 steps up to Montmatre just to have a sugary snack. I had a very specific plan, a visit I neglected years back when I first came to Paris and I was not going to make that mistake again.
A few meters down the village is the Museum of Salvador Dalí, the pillar of surrealism and the kind of man you will never forget even if you hate him. By this time, I wasn’t a fan. I didn’t understand him but his melting clocks always interested me and I was strangely in love with his long legged elephants. I was aggravated by his art and deep down I needed to prove to myself that all his strangeness was not just some spectacle without any reason.
Once I paid the entrance, I took the stairs down to a dimly lit basement that held a large collection of his drawings and sculptures. There were more than 100 of his pieces but there was no sign of any of his grand masterpieces. Every wall, painted in a the darkest gray, was full of his work but it felt small and intimate. You had to get close to every drawing to see its details. You could be just a few inches away from touching the sculpture of his clocks, melting sadly over a single branch. There were no guards to pull me away from the experience, telling I needed to stay back or instruct me to put my camera away. It was just me and Dali.
It was the fact that I had to stand so close what made me see him better and all of his recurring themes, like his wife Gala, ever present in his drawings as the redheaded woman turned away from the spectator. I also noticed Dalí constantly appears in his paintings as this abstract figure, large headed but deflated and limp next to the fiery Gala. He also seems to love the presence of ants symbolizing decay and death, his frequent reminder that everything, sooner or later, will disappear.
I left there infused with the meanings behind the melting clocks, the contrast of the heavy elephants and their thin legs. By the time we made it to the next metro station, I admitted –only to myself- that I was in love with Dali.
4-Boat Ride on the River Seine
I have never been particularly interested in boat rides. I once fell asleep on a ferry in the Thames and I never fell for that gondola ride in Venice. But our whole group was scheduled to meet at dusk by the Eiffel Tower to enjoy a tour of Paris from the river.
The boat tour began as a mandatory activity but now I can say I recommend it. The sky turned orange and pink as the sun set behind the city. The perspective of Parisian roads and buildings from the river was different yet better than any other tour we had taken. We weren’t moving to the rhythm of honking cars. We got to see everything from every angle, enjoying it at a slow even pace.
It’s funny to realize a boat ride got me thinking. I thought of living in Paris, imagined myself walking the streets and buying a baguette every morning from nearby café. I saw myself in a tiny apartment with barely any furniture, writing in the balcony for hours every day as Paris continued to move beneath me.
By the time we passed under Pont des Arts, I was ready to cut my trip short, find some job and move to Paris for the rest of the year.
In hindsight, I would have missed out on so many memories from this trip if I had done that, but in that moment sitting next to Mark, Parisian life seemed like the only reasonable choice.
Maybe one day I will move to Paris for a year and look for whatever scrap is left of the 1920’s brilliant writers like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and T.S Elliot. In fact, that is a must. However, that night, I was satisfied with standing under a flimsy umbrella, getting my boots soaked in the cold rain as I stared in delight at the Eiffel Tower sparkling with its golden lights just for me.
The next day, I got a cold.