30 April 2014

Here you are

I'm in front of an Henri Cartier-Bresson's black-and-white picture of a street in Italy. The title says it had been taken in Salerno. In it, a boy, maybe eight, maybe ten years of age, stands in the rectangular shadow from the wall to his right, behind him another wall and the carcass of a cart, both whitewashed in summer sunlight. One knows, sees, it's summer, the boy wears the dark shorts and white tank-top, and the light is bright, high, blinding. There is a distance between the boy and the camera, his face and the nature of the object in his left hand are kept unseen. His right hand cupped to the chin, he appears to be intrigued. Involuntarily I mimic the boy's gesture, I can't take my eyes off the picture. I probably take too long, soft words and rich perfumes steadily gather around me, mix in one, seep into my ears and nose. Someone steps on someone else's foot, "Pardon, pardon!" promptly ensues. I move on.

Outside are a fresh night and Paris. 

It was January when we started planning our trip. The four of us, girlfriends. We decided on the early April, a couple weekdays. Fewer people on the streets, more space for us. We rented out an apartment in Montmartre, on rue Lepic, curving and steep. To get inside is to walk through a courtyard, enclosed, unavailable for everyone else but the insiders and an occasional (and privileged) guest. A home for somebody's flower beds and herb pots, its other purpose, a more important one it seemed, was to collect, to contain, the evidence of everyday life. Piano sounds; a child's voice singing along with a song on TV; a plate breaking; even our loud and foreign exclamations about the light in the apartment as we stood by the elegant windows (two), and our "We have arrived!". Even those, perhaps. 

Ask my mother and she'll tell you I've been to Paris many a time.
In my early teens I dreamed of travelling like there was no tomorrow, and of all places I wished to see Paris was, somehow, the most important. I didn't have the means to go, so I was looking for a chance. 1998 FIFA World Cup was to be held in France, and Snickers® promised a free trip for the winner of their raffle. To participate I collected five (or was it ten) of the limited-edition Snickers® chocolate bar wrappers. I so hastened to send them in that I completely forgot I had to include an inspired letter about why I loved football, or was it why I loved Snickers®?  

I didn't get to be in Paris in 1998. 

Later one evening over tea I pleaded my allegiance with another city. It surprised my mother. 

"What happened with Paris?", she asked. 

"Nothing happened, but in my mind I've already been there more than a dozen of times." 

There are moments that attach themselves to one so strongly that no amount of time is enough to overwrite them. 

On our first night we strolled around the Sacre-Coeur, dignified, in no need of superlatives. We ascended the hill (by foot -- I refused to take the cable car) and our breath wasn't ours anymore. It was of Paris, among the breath of that homeless man who laid asleep by a metro entrance, and that of Hemingway who might have stood on the same spot and looked up the way we did. Silently and awed. Until someone threw an empty bottle at a taxi car and shattered the repose. We walked on, stumbled over the uneven cobbles. The night was fresh and clear, and in the distance were the Eiffel Tower's golden lights. 

I had to stop, stand still. I'd seen it countless times before, all through the eyes of others. From afar, through the bars of a fence, now I was looking at it. Here you are.

"I feel you've had quite an emotional moment there", said Morgane. She was referring to a heart-to-heart conversation we'd had earlier in the evening, over wine and dinner haute vitalité (Cafe Pinson), but I took it to mean this very instant.


A sight of worship for hundreds, thousands, millions. With each photograph I took I was stealing you from others. You are mine. You are everyone else's.


We were at The Broken Arm, in pursuits of caffeine (without a doubt one of the finest filters I had) and sartorial splendor (the best top in color blocks I almost bought), when I saw a familiar face. "This man'' -- I nodded towards the entrance --  "was on the train to Paris with us. Doesn't he look like somebody we might know?" Correct. The father of a good acquaintance, in Paris briefly for a meeting, he will snap (iPhone) the only picture of the four of us together.

I have this image in my head from years ago, maybe even since I was fourteen. I forget what brought it about, a movie, perhaps, or a book. A moody day, soaked in autumn, the color of the sky matches the buildings'. I stand at the traffic lights, waiting for its permission to cross over. Barren trees flank the road, cars swoosh through the pools of rainwater gathering by the curbstones. Parisian houses, a story in each window, up and down the street for as long as the eye can see. Not so picturesque, this image. But it's not why it has stayed with me. It has because in it I had felt very accomplished, the way one does after nudging their dream into the outside world.


I can't wait to go back to have more breakfast (pancakes strewn with crushed pistachio nuts and elegant pieces of fruit, in a pool of maple syrup, served with vanilla whipped cream; "Jesus!" escaped my lips when the plates touched down on the table), coffee, and lunch at Holybelly. A must! As is dinner at Septime, they say. And more of THE falafel sandwich (from L'As Du Fallafel).

La Fin