This post is long overdue, I know. I can say that I wanted enough space between the trip and writing this to have a precise, objective view. I can also say that the experience was so magical, so personal, that putting it down in writing would smear the memory.
Truth is, as with everything else, I've been procrastinating. It's the one thing that I do with any passion at all.
However, it has come to mind that the longer I wait, the less vivid I can recall the sloping streets of Latin Quarter, or the stillness of chapel grounds despite the heavy traffic just outside the gates, or the cool autumn breeze atop Notre-Dame that carried with it the warm scent of freshly-baked pastries. So I write this now, for good or for ill, for better or for worse.
I write this now, in hopes that I will continue dreaming of Paris, city of artisans and dreamers, city of love eternal.
I had always dreamed of visiting Paris at one point in my life. It was high in my bucket list; if I were to travel anywhere, especially to Europe, Paris was always the first name that came to mind. Maybe it was because of the movies that featured this city of amazing architecture and art, maybe it was because the Paris I read in books like The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown, Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins and Just One Day by Gayle Forman. Maybe it's the language itself, perfect to be whispered just behind the earlobe, and perfect to be shouted from across the street. Maybe it was all of the above. For a helpless romantic like me, Paris was the perfect place to be.
My trip there, to be honest, was only a tentative plan. Had I cemented the decision earlier, I would have arranged to fly back home from Paris instead of Frankfurt, and I would have gained another full day there. As things turned out, I extended my stay in Europe for two days—I still owe Kasha RM150 for the ticket change. I used the ICE trains between Frankfurt and Paris, which took about four hours and 140E one way. Unfortunately, it was also a long weekend for the Germans celebrating the union of East and West Germany, so a lot of Germans decided to visit Paris the same dates I went there. Needless to say, tickets were limited and freaking expensive.
The trip itself was excellent. First class, with croissants and hot chocolate (I did mention expensive, didn't I?). Outside, I saw sloping hills of green fields and quaint villages with steep roofs and smoking chimneys as the train speed along its track at three-hundred-and-thirty kilometers an hour. There were no mountains, and there certainly was no snow.
In the four hours, I edited the photos I took in Germany—those I hadn't edited yet, of course—and before long, the city came into view. At first there were only railway stations and graffiti-adorned walls, and everything looked drab. Definitely not the Paris in my mind. Then the train stopped, and I disembarked, and—
"PARIS, I AM IN YOU!" I yelled (in my heart).
Well, to be honest, there were plenty of very tall, very blonde people all around me, all conversing in German. Not the gentle, rolling language of romance, but the clipped, wintry language of conquerors. Fine, if you want to get technical, Napoleon Bonaparte was the conquering French emperor, and he certainly used French as a military language. Bear with me for a minute here.
Anyway. There were plenty of Germans to make me feel like I was still in Frankfurt, but looking at the signboards, there was no doubt where I was. Even the station I was at, Gare de l'Est, sounded so French! Oh la la!
Since everything was so French and I was so over my head, I headed straight for the tourist information center. Best. Decision. Ever. There was a line, but it was okay. I snapped a picture of the mailbox because it was yellow, not like the red ones in Malaysia. Ours are red, right? The guys behind the counter were friendly and helpful, and they advised me to get a five-day Metro ticket that could be used for the trains and buses, and a four-day museum pass. The two passes cost me 54E. Or was it 75E? Can't exactly remember, and Evernote ate my expenses list. The info counter guys offered me a Disneyland Paris pass, but I wasn't about to visit Disneyland without my family. No, sir. They also supplied me with a Metro map, and showed me which train to take, and which station to disembark at.
Of course I took the wrong train.
Technically, they gave me the wrong direction, and I still have proof of it. The guy whose English was decorated with French connotations marked the station Jussieu, so I took the number 5 (orange). But as I stood in the train, doing my best not to ogle at pretty French people—both the women and men were more than pleasant to look at, these French—I checked my hotel reservation email, and it said the hotel was near Notre-Dame, and where I was going, the cathedral was nowhere near. Well, on the map it looked near, but hey. I called up the hotel and they instructed me to take the number 4 (purple) to St-Michel. So I went back to Gare de l'Est and took the number 4 to St-Michel as instructed. In retrospect, I could have just taken the number 10 (mustard) to Cluny-La Sorbonne and then walked along the tunnels to St-Michel. Yes, French people, I KNOW, RIGHT?! Such a tourist.
Once I disembarked at St-Michel, lugging along my freaking heavy bags (yes. Plural), clunking each step of the endless staircases, I got a little intimidated by all the people rushing about. It was something like the LRT stations in KL, and people didn't wait for others to disembark before going in (unlike in Germany, where people actually waited out of the way), but the people there were generally bigger. And had way more fashion sense. Then, out of the underground station and into—
Rue St-Michel was as French as it would ever get in my head. Even the air was different, supercharged with this lively energy. People were everywhere: sitting outside cafes facing the street, gathering around fire-eaters in front of the statue of St-Michel, walking along the riverbanks lined by stalls that sold artworks, entering and exiting shop lots and boutiques. I was breathless, but I breathed deep regardless. The air was damp from the rain that had just settled, with an undercurrent of pigeon dropping, but over this was the scents of baked goods. Also, I noticed that it was much warmer than Germany. By warm, I meant twenty Celsius, which was cold by my native standard. However, having acclimated to the cold German air, I felt warm enough in Paris to take off my jacket and walk around in my short-sleeved T-shirt and jeans. The beanie and neck scarf I bought in Mainz were just a fashion statement. Ehem. My stomach was grumbling already, but I needed to store my bags first. I booked a room at Hotel Europe Saint Severin through http://www.agoda.com for the price of USD240 per night. Again, in retrospect, I could have saved on hotel, but I wanted someplace safe for me to leave my things for extended periods. The hotel was tricky to look for, but the staff were friendly and accommodating, and there was this big fat cat who had his own chair in the lobby. Plus, the hotel offered free WiFi. Schwing!
The room was small but quaint, and the bed was oh-so-comfortable that I could just lie down and….
I immediately got up, took out my camera and map, and made sure I had my Metro ticket and museum pass in my wallet. I was ready to walk about. The receptionist recommended me to visit Notre-Dame, which was within walking distance.
"Merci beaucoup!" I say with a smile. So French! Full disclosure: I almost said danke schoen.
I stopped in at St-Michel square to snap pictures of the statue. I would come to know in the days that followed that statues like this adorned the city. Works of art were not restricted in museums or special spots, but everywhere. Then I crossed the busy street and walked along the riverbank. Oil paintings, retro posters, noir artworks and of course, touristy souvenirs were displayed at the stalls. I wanted to get something for my family, but decided to take my time to look for something meaningful and not just touristy. And Notre-Dame, tall and imposing on its own island, got ever bigger as I approached it. Even from a distance I could appreciate the intricate details of the carvings and statues populating the cathedral. There was a long line to get into the cathedral, but I was not about to spend the evening lining up. Or so I thought.
After snapping pictures of the arched doors, which, I came to know, were carved to depict the Bible for commoners who were illiterate back then. When I walked to the side, intrigued by the scents of cinnamon and vanilla and chocolate coming from bakeries beside Notre-Dame, I spotted a shorter line along the side of the cathedral. It was for the top-level walkways where the gargoyles were. So I lined up, which ate up fifteen, twenty minutes. I showed my museum pass when it was my turn to walk up, and the unsmiling guy waved me in. We tourists walked in one file up the narrow staircase and into a very modern shop, another tourist trap. I browsed around, eyeing possible purchases, but then I just headed for the real goods: the view from above.
The spiral staircase were narrow and lit by slit windows that I imagined were for archers in medieval times. The rock walls were cool to the touch, and I could feel their age. I wondered what stories the walls were willing to share, and I imagined monks shuffling in their habit up and down the staircases, silent and devoted. I imagined the hunchback slinking in the shadows, looking out the windows where the world that could not accept his deformity went about without him. I imagined generations of builders and artisans working toward building one of the grandest, most intricate architectural wonders of an age long gone. Notre-Dame was celebrating its eight-hundred-and-fiftieth birthday when I visited Paris. Nearly a thousand years in existence, and it still stood strong.
Despite the crowded walkways atop the cathedral, there was this hushed, awed silence. I could hear the wail of breezes over the steep roof and between the stern gargoyles. I could hear the city below and I could see the entirety of Paris splayed as far as I could see. The Eiffel tower looked small but still majestic in the late-evening light, and so did Basilique du Sacré Caeur to the north. The imposing rectangle of La Défense stood among skyscrapers in the far distance. To the south, the white walls and dome of the Pantheon reflected the golden light of the sun. The gargoyles had been witnessing the rise of Paris, from ancient times to modern ones, for hundreds of years. The city below moved forward with time, but up there, I did not feel a part of it. Instead, I was part of something much older, something hallowed, something indescribably beautiful. I could feel God's presence for the first time in a long time. Masya Allah. God is Great.
For someone who was experiencing an existential crisis, the sudden welcoming presence almost brought me to tears.
So I stood there and existed.
Once out of the cathedral, I crossed the bridge back to the 6th arrondissement. By then, my camera battery was almost out, and I was charging the spare one back at the hotel. I made my way back, snapping pictures of fountains and streets, and I also bought a kebab for dinner. 5.50E, but try converting it into ringgit with an exchange rate of 4.41. Almost RM25 for a freaking kebab. It was good, but hey. I went up my room, finished the kebab, changed camera batteries, and then stepped out with no particular direction in mind. I just wanted to walk and breathe in Paris. I went into a comic store to look for graphic novels for Aunty Fa (didn't find them, sorry), and stopped by a pastry shop in Latin Quarter because I could no longer resist the warm scents of bread and chocolate. A cup of hot chocolate and a slice of lemon meringue cake cost me slightly over 10E (yeah. RM45 for a freaking slice of cake!) but it was worth it. My mouth still gets watery thinking about the dessert on the pavement beside a quiet street, and it's already four months since I ate it.
I walked up sloping streets and along old buildings. I stepped into chapel grounds and snapped pictures of busts and flowers. I had no direction, but the Pantheon loomed ever larger, so I used the dome as my compass. It was closed, but bathed in the light of the setting sun, the Pantheon and the Roman buildings around it lit up with a fire of their own. It was breathtaking. And I have pictures to prove it.
The Pantheon was closed for the day, so I walked downhill toward a congregation of trees, which turned out to be the park of Luxembourg palace. Here I finally experienced autumn for the first time. The trees flared red and orange and yellow and green, more often than not all these colors on the same tree. Dry leaves littered the walkways and grass, and the white statues with age stains seemed alive among these brilliant colors. I took in the scents of trees and wet grass, and I watched people cycling, jogging, sitting at the clearing in front of palace grounds and picnicking on the grass. I studied statues after statues. I was doing all I could not to get overwhelmed by it all.
At six, security guards started herding people out of the park, and I snapped more pictures as I made my way out. I had spotted a Metro entrance earlier, so I headed toward it. I wanted to go to the Louvre. Hells yeah.
With the map as my guide, I took the Line B (blue) train to Châtelet-Les-Halles, and then the number 1 (yellow) train to Louvre-Rivoli. I should have stepped out one station farther, Palais-Royal Musée du Louvre, but I didn't know any better. By then, the sun had set and streetlights were on, giving the city a different air, making it even more intriguing. The museum itself was closed, but people still gathered around the glass pyramids, and more than one couple in wedding attire were having outdoor photo sessions.
Louvre. What a sight to behold.
The main pyramid was lit from inside as well as out, and the illumination contrasted brilliantly with the indigo twilight. The centerpiece within the pyramid was a shrouded statue. I could not wait to get inside. I was already thinking about spending at least half a day there. Once I was satisfied with the amount of pictures I took, I strolled further west, along boutiques with expensive wares on display, past hotels with smartly-dressed doormen. Surprisingly, with the distance I had walked, I did not feel tired at all. Not a whit. Maybe it was the comfortable half-boots. Maybe it was the sights. Maybe it was the mild temperature. Maybe it was Paris itself.
Yeah. It definitely was Paris.
I made a stop at L'Obelisque, but I was more interested in the fountains flanking the Egyptian obelisk. Statues of water gods and goddesses glowed green. The details were exquisite, the faces expressive. Using a slow shutter speed was a fruitful endeavor, though I wished I had a tripod or a monopod with me. I made do with the outer basin of the fountains.
I wanted to walk farther up, where Arc de Triomphe stood majestic beyond the heavy traffic going uphill. Yeah, you Parisians are rolling your eyes at me. Crazy guy, planning to walk from Concorde to Arc. The drizzle stopped me. Or saved me, come to think of it. For all its wonders in capturing amazing photos, my E-P5 had no weatherproofing, so braving the rain was definitely not a good idea. I rushed back to the Metro entrance I saw just before the obelisk, and then took the trains back to St-Michel. I took a wrong train or two, of course.
The exhaustion did not overwhelm me until after I took a hot shower back in my hotel room. As I lay on my plush bed editing photos from the day, my eyes became heavier, and I surrendered to sleep.
That night, not only did I dream of Paris, I was also one of the dreamers in Paris.
That night, Paris dreamed of me.
Photos were taken using the Olympus E-P5, with the 17mm f1.8 lens, and edited on the iPad 3 using the Snapseed app.