Paris is an assault on the senses.
Last night Paul and I ate dinner in a neighborhood bistro called the Alchemist. We ordered the prix fixe dinner that was listed in chalk on the wall. We didn’t know what we were ordering. Paul was curious.
He stood up in the middle of the restaurant and positioned his phone to take a picture of the whole menu written in loopy, smudged handwriting. It was a moment where I experienced what it must be like to be Paul married to me.
“Sit down,” I hissed. “Everyone is looking at you.”
Paul sat down and fiddled with his phone. The Google Translate app could take text and translate it into English. He looked up at me. “It didn’t translate. We’ll have to guess.” We each pick an appetizer—goat cheese stuffed peppers for me and lentil soup for Paul. He put a large spoonful in his mouth and then stopped. “Potato?” He swallowed. “Here,” he said and shoved the spoon between my lips. A marble-size lump rolled onto my tongue.
“Not a potato,” I said biting into it. It melted and broke into pieces. It tasted like everything in the soup in one small little bite. The restaurant owner came over and Paul scooped one of the chunks from the soup and held it out for his inspection.
“Champigon,” he shrugged. “Mushroom.”
Paul and I held hands over the table. “It’s a mushroom,” I said relieved.
“A mushroom,” Paul sighed, happy and satiated, and scraped his bowl clean. “A mushroom.”
The sounds of Paris are the barest whisper to the most frightened wail. Dishes are stacked softly, croissants crumble and flake to the table top, feet shift on the Metro as riders wait for their stop, vespas buzz like bees and jump curbs. The scream of ambulances and police vehicles sound like the ones in Rome and London. I think hard, but in that moment, I cannot remember the sound of our own ambulances at home.
Paul attempts to jaywalk across the teeming streets, but I will no longer follow him. He thought we had time to run across a traffic circle near the Alexander III Bridge, and the stoplight turned. Motorcycles, cars, taxis, and buses merged together behind and to the side of us. We ran, splashing through rain puddles, and I yelled, “Shiiiit, Fuuuck, Pauuul.” Now I shake my head and point my finger at him when we become separated on different sides of the street.
Touching Paris is best done in shops while caressing silk scarves laid out in overlapping swaths like splayed decks of cards. I rub cashmere wraps against my cheek and wonder if perhaps I can get can one more if we buy another suitcase. Two different women have taken off my over garments, eager for me to see the grace of the scarf wrapped around my throat, the drop of a sweater against my leg, or the elegance of fur snuggled against my neck.
“Here, here,” one woman fretted, unwinding my scarf and throwing it to Paul. She pulls on the back of my collar and eases my coat off. This too, she tosses to my husband. He sits, refusing to remove the 5 euro hat he bought while my back was turned. He hunches on a low stool and glowers at the carpeted floor. It’s even worse when he decides to wait outside. He paces back and forth in front of windows always staying within view.
“It’s beautiful,” I say as I admire it in the mirror. It’s a black swing coat with black fur ringing the neck and circling the cuffs. She takes my hands and tucks them together so it looks like I have a muff between my fingers.
“It’s 500 euros, Darling,” she coos. “A coat for life, a coat to remember Paris.” I feel myself weakening. If I average the cost of the coat across over my lifetime it begins to seem like a deal. The saleslady wanders away to allow Paul and I time to negotiate.
“It’s fox,” Paul said holding my things out. “The fur is black fox.” I shed the coat instantly and hand it back to her. She whisks it away, cradling it in her arms like a wedding dress.
In Paris it is as if you cannot separate a smell from what it is or what it will become. The Seine’s waters are brackish, quick, and malodorous, moving and churning towards a port I cannot imagine. On the sidewalk at night we walk through clouds of flour that hold the promise of tomorrow’s croissant. Meat steams on plates, and unlike the States, swim in pools of au jus. Flowers on the street corners smell spicy and unusual. Buckets of Birds of Paradise, spiky and exotic, stand tall and graceful, while hydrangeas, heavy and full, are unmovable. I feel displaced, lost, adrift. Decades ago my children and I would make Christmas cookies together and the flour drifted over us in a haze. I did not know I would walk through a cloud of flour in so different a place and time. Similarly, on my wedding day, I was unaware that the flowers I carried in my simple bouquet would someday lay in my gloved hand on a freezing Paris morning. Although aromas both linger and flee, they can unseat you and wash over you with memories made then and now.
The taste, sound, touch, and smell of Paris layer over one another like a tapestry, and it is impossible to pull the threads apart once they are bound together. To see Paris, however, is different. The enormous buildings, hundreds and more years old, feature copper cornices galvanized into green. The Louvre’s glittering pyramid looks like it has always been a part of the eight-century year old museum. Notre Dame’s Gothic spire and silent towers come to life when the bells toll. But, it is the moment you catch sight of her that make you swallow the lump in your throat and think to yourself, ‘It was worth the wait.’
The Eiffel Tower looms vast over the Seine. She is more substantial than I thought she would be. Her base is massive, and the interlocking metal skeleton appears determined as she climbs towards the top. She becomes graceful as the legs merge into the center. When I was in junior high school, I tacked a poster of her standing in the face of a setting sun to my bedroom wall. She was my totem, my affirmation that my romantic soul (so out of proportion), would someday find legitimacy. Never did I think it would take until my 52nd birthday to stand beneath her and watch her illuminating lights glow in the foggy night. I looked at Paul and noticed the shine in his eyes. He looked just like I imagined he did as a small boy on Christmas morning. We clutch each other in the cold and laugh and kiss and laugh again.
I am convinced I can do anything in Paris now. I have tasted a soup in one marvelous bite, donned a fur coat whose secret made my heart blanch for being unaware, thrilled at the clash of traffic causing me to curse at the top of my lungs, discovered the allure of a scent, like a siren, that calls me back and leads me forward, but mostly, it is the Grande Dame herself who said, ‘You were right to wait. Your life is unrelenting and beautifully so.’