Wandering and musing in the city
Ever since I was a child, Paris has been a place of awe and a spiritual destination. My mother spent her early childhood there and she always would describe it as a lost paradise. She would tell us about her family gatherings and magical evenings at Christmas time.
Her aunt, a glamorous platinum blonde who lived in a Haussmannian apartment, taught her all the intricacies of French living. The heady notes of jasmine and rose of her Mitsouko perfume would linger in my mother’s memory like Proust’s madeleine. A perfume created in 1919 by Jacques Guerlain, its name means Mystery in Japanese and it has an intoxicating intensity. My mother’s grandmother would also be present at those gatherings. She was an aristocratic lady with an adventurous past who was as intimidating and mysterious as the perfume. Then there was my mother’s favourite uncle, the charming Marcel, a young bachelor who, like a Cary Grant character, would come back in a tuxedo in the early hours of the morning. He would sometimes surprise my mother with a small gift, telling her that he had found it in the bins of Paris (no, he wasn’t a thief, just a bit of a teaser). My mother grew up believing that there were actual treasures to be found all
around Paris and, even as a grown up, she would still furtively glance at the ground and in bins expecting something shiny to catch the light. It was actually quite surprising when, many years later, she found a beautiful enamel brooch on the pavement in a street near Trocadero. It was almost as if Marcel was making sure she never lost faith. I was in my teens when I first went to Paris. I discovered all the art in the museums which I had only seen in books and movies. Although I was disappointed by the small sized La Gioconda (whose famous smile was obscured by the many tourists) I loved Rodin’s sculptures, Monet’s waterlilies and visited most landmarks, loving the Eiffel tower, the Place des Vosgues and the Sainte Chapelle...
Since then, there have been many trips. Like every seasoned visitor, there are places I like to see time and time again. I don’t have to go and visit museums or monuments. I just like to walk, aimlessly, mainly around the Left Bank. I don’t mind the repetition, I never get tired of the windows with their exterior shutters and the cobbled courtyards and I love the flowers. There is something quite unique about
Parisian flower shops. I have noticed that they rarely display flowers outside. It´s the plants that, in bloom, create the illusion of there being flowers. It’s only when you go inside that you discover the cut flowers, which are preserved in the dark. And the colours. Whether on doors, shop fronts or cafes, colours are always balanced: never strident, never boring. Sometimes the memories are just like small lights that fade in the distance, other times they are as intense as the scent of that Guerlain perfume: my mother and I in the Tuileries Garden in December, covered by snow. My visits to my great aunt, now her platinum hair white. My year learning and working and finally my Eurostar escapades from London… And here I was, once more, this June in my latest escapade. Back to a city full of memories and ghosts from the past, yet a city to which I did not belong and where I was now a total stranger. This time, I was there stranded in life, alone, walking down the same streets I had walked down in happier times. I took out my camera determined to find my way through the rubble of my mind, to capture the beauty in the architecture, to explore the many details, the reminders that this or that artist lived
I realised how I had managed to take pictures with no people in them and how the only people I photographed were alone, like me.
here and there, and so I crossed the Seine and reached the Tuileries Garden, a summer garden this time, and sat by the fountain to watch the ducks like any Parisian or tourist would do. There were even goats grazing and flowers everywhere. Such a different place from the memory of the frozen park under the snow. Yet how beautiful that memory was. Despite all the light and colour surrounding me, there was only silence and winter in my mind.
At some point, I noticed a bride was being photographed in the distance, her white wedding dress sweeping the dusty staircase. A father and his small daughter were flying a kite. Life was all around me yet I felt left behind. I looked at the symmetry of the tree avenues and tried to capture them, the timeless sight of the old maples, the white sky, the emptiness between the branches. As I downloaded the images onto my computer that evening, I realised how I had managed to take pictures with no people in them and how the only people I photographed were alone, like me. A Parisian man walking his dog, a cyclist…and then on my last day, there was the moment an old lady asked me for the pizza I had stopped eating. “Did you not enjoy it?”, she asked. I said I was full and she carefully wrapped it in a catalog.
One comes across many tramps or ‘clochards’ in Paris and even though there are tramps in all cities, here they seem to be as much a part of the city as everything else. They are testament to the dark side of a humanity who revels in the beauty of buildings and history and enjoys shops and food and music and dance, but ignores the pain and suffering of fellow human beings. Paris, I thought, is like life, full of wonder and full of sadness at the same time. Like a heart pounding with the heaviness of Les Miserables. I wondered whether I would end up like that lady one day. Whether my life would go so wrong that I would need to ask for a piece of discarded pizza from a tourist enjoying a sunny day. As my life laid uncomfortably uncertain before my eyes, I could not rule that out. What leads us to a destiny of despair and sorrow? Is it, like in the Greek tragedies, due to our character flaws? Or is it the indifference we feel towards one and other? As she left, thanking me with a smile, I felt ashamed of being unhappy. Yes, I had suffered but I still had a future ahead of me, it was my choice to go and find a treasure somewhere, even in the waste my life seemed to have become. Uncle Marcel was right after all.
Colours of Paris Whether on doors, shop fronts or cafes, colours are always perfectly balanced.
DiscoveriesPierre de Ronsard roses at StephaneChapelle’s florist shop;a typical boulangerie; the courtyardin Merci; a painting spotted in an antique shop.
Moments A pizza at Pizza Chic in Saint Germaindes-Prés, the entrance of Le Saint Hotel, an à propos sign with the name of an art gallery.