This is a true story. This is the story of how I got to know you. Frankly, I came to see you with no expectation. Like many other times before, I let randomness take over me. You are no exception to me and I was neither enthusiastic nor exited when I first saw you covered by sober darkness.
Very much to my surprise, you glowed in sunlight. I looked around and saw:
- Your streets: small, interwoven and curvy.
- Your buildings: majestic, grand and exquisite.
- Your people: friendly, eager, sneaking around street corners with fast speed. All of it with the sort of ease and elegance that there was no vocabulary for.
Strangely but pleasantly enough, most of time I spent with you, really spent with you, was when sunset came. Now don’t be mad, I know it sounds like Gil from Midnight in Paris but I’m not Gil even though we have a few things in common:
- We fancy Ernest Hemingway and the rest of the Lost Generation.
- We like walking in the rain and preferably at night.
- We have messy hair and walk around with our heads in the clouds.
I’m not Gil. I don’t need a car to see an older version of you. I walked. At 5 pm when I was done with work I made my way into the unknown. My first starting point for this short tour was Place de Saint-Augustin. From there on I strolled along Boulevard Malesherbes, passing countless trendy bars, shops and restaurants to meet La Madeleine at the end of the street. Tall, imposing and much more of a Roman/Greek temple than a church. There was only one thing on my mind.
Left or right?
Choosing has never been that easy. All I had to do was to choose left or right and whatever I took would turn out to be the right road and the right decision. I opted for right. Ahead of me was Rue Royale boasting with the egalitarian flair similar to what people might find on Avenue des Champs-Élysées, Fifth Avenue or Ginza. All the glory and exclusiveness of a modern metropolis. The end of the street, however, took me to your past. Place de la Concorde was the place where the execution of King Louis XVI and his wife took place. As a high-school student, I was fascinated by the French Revolution and anything involving Marie Antoinette. I spent hours in local libraries; Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman became one of my favorite books at that time. Place de la Concorde was smaller than I had imagined: simple, sparely decorated and designed with geometric precision. It made a tranquil and peaceful impression and there weren’t as many tourists as expected. A woman observing birds. A group of Asian visitors posing for a photo. On the right side across the river stood Eiffel Tower, tall, concrete and resolute.
Time to cross the bridge and turn left. I followed the Seine, walking along Quai Anatole-France. Your constellation of buildings and river reminded me of the way how Berlin’s landmarks are positioned along its river Spree. People can get a similar view of Berlin when they choose Jannowitzbrücke as the starting point to follow the Spree. Back to you, I ignored the urge to visit Musée d’Orsay and turned right for the second time to Rue du Bac. A remarkably beautiful street: long, narrow and fully packed with charming shops, restaurants and bakeries. I killed my time, browsing through them with the idleness of someone free from schedules and time constraints.
I passed many other streets and continued my tour through a number of Japanese restaurants in the Montparnasse neighborhood. They were definitely more authentic and charming than the Vietnamese-run venues that I used to know from Berlin. I stopped for dinner in one of them, watching the cook prepare my food with care and accuracy. Something that I’ve learned to appreciate about Japanese cuisine when I lived in Tokyo.
By the time I reached Boulevard du Montparnasse the streets became more crowded. Wind around me. I kept on walking. It was a clear but icy Tuesday evening, full moon shone through. Ahead of me was a group of Americans asking for direction. It turned out that they were students of architecture, looking for a gallery somewhere in the 14th arrondissement. Curiosity got the better of me and I decided to join them. We strolled with ease, chatting, oohing, ahhhing and pointing at things like kids on their first trip. They reminded me of that time when my friends and I went out for some drinks at a karaoke bar called Hafenbar in Berlin. The music was good that night; people around us singing old German songs. We did our best to enjoy our time together.
And so we danced. Oh boy did we dance.*
There was, of course, no dancing at the gallery. The crowd scared me. There was too much talking but none of the talks was substantial and interesting enough to make me stay. I said goodbye to my newfound friends and walked back to my hotel, which was located near Champs-Élysées. I had no idea how to get back but you were with me. Your lights: my eyes. Your buildings: my compass. By the time I reached my hotel my feet were numb. I slept like a baby.
End of Part 1
* I was the worst. If I remember correctly, one of the bunnies even referred to me as “bốc” that night.