Might seem like an odd photograph to start with. Why show an empty coffee cup when one’s imagination fills with the possibilities that a weekend in Paris could have, should have yielded. As I write this I’m feeling a little bit sad. I’m eating cheese that I bought back from Paris, on bread that I bought in a boulangerie on St Lazare. I’ve never felt this sad to leave a place and never felt so certain that I will return. The empty coffee cup you see in the photo is from Les Deux Magots in St Germain; a cafe once frequented by the best and most brilliant minds of western culture – Eco, Borges and Hemingway. It’s where Picasso was introduced to his muse Dora Maar, where Satre would sit with his lover Ms de Beauvoir. It’s where intellectual battles were fought and philosophies were born.
The photo above was my behind the scenes view of the Coquelicot bakery in Monmartre where I ate a millefeuille. I dined well at L’Entracte brasserie in Opera and Le Pres en Clercs St in Germain. I discovered St Marcelin cheese and the joys and curses of drinking wine at lunch time. The bread was as good as I remembered it.
I went to Paris in 2000 as a backpacker and I am confused as to why I didn’t love it then. Perhaps because I had no money or because I had other things on my mind. Who knows. But this time was different. This time I left Paris with the heavy heart of unrequited love. I never understood the fuss people made about Paris, but this time I bought with me the wisdom of all the characters I’ve read about in books set in Paris and with the perspective of the authors I have grown to love. Paris has melancholy in the air, in the buildings and in the streets, perhaps from the ghosts of past struggles; but it’s balanced, ever so finely, with an infectious exuberance and makes for a stiring atmosphere unlike any other city I’ve been in.
It’s only as I looked out the window of the London-bound train that I almost missed, that I realised that the country is as vast diverse as any other. The city of Paris is a concentrated deliverance of culture, people and experience. In the city you don’t see the masses or the fields and farms or gypsy settlements. You don’t think about power stations and the larger, important factors. You see only cobbled streets, graffiti, ghettos, icons, wealth and distractions. I want to say the ‘real’ Paris is the beauty that springs up unexpectedly in hopeless places, like the music that wafted through the crumbling underground of the Metro from the string ensemble whose cases leaned up against the peeling painted walls and whose vibrations bounced off the ugly tunnels that people only pass through.
But Paris is also as much about the monumental Trocadero and elite elegance of St Germain; its character as reliant on the dirty streets of Pigalle and the fast and rugged water of the Seine. Paris is many things and I’ve only scratched the surface. I have seen the Opera Garnier, the sparkling Eiffel Tower, heartbreaking paintings in the Louvre, Gustave Moreau’s self-curated museum and segwayed on unsteady wheels by night through the rain, the crowds, the deserted boulevards, through the riff-raff and the elite.