A city of millions, Paris makes every woman and every man feel unique. Something in her air—crisp and cold in winter, heavy with the promise of thunder in summer—whispers in your ear: you are my favorite! The flowing wine emboldens you with audacity. Magical particles baked into your daily baguette ration (and the croissant you indulge in on Sundays) fill you with singularity. “You are the special one,” is the consistent theme playing constantly in your head, and sometimes in a metro car.
Everyone in Paris feels talented, beautiful, and creative. Everyone turns writer, painter, and musician. Everyone turns artist. Creation and exploration are the life of this city. And everyone partakes.
You sit in your corner café, sipping your café crème and enjoying a pain au chocolat, and think, “Is that the next Toulouse-Lautrec sketching in his notebook at the neighboring table? Could that be tomorrow’s Joni Mitchell strumming her guitar on the bench across the street, playing melodies for pennies?
“Sitting here, scribbling wild thoughts in my journal, could I be the next Hemingway?”
In Paris, everyone is an artist. Which is exactly as it should be.
Whenever I return to Paris, I feel that all is right and good in the world. I step off the train, or out of a covoiturage car, and feel at home.
Writers, painters, and musicians have invested lifetimes in their attempts to describe Paris to others, for Paris is exceptional. You can’t help but want to share her brilliance with the world.
The first time I returned to Paris after two years of being away, I felt like nothing had changed. The same shops stood on the same corners. The same advertisements for Galleries Lafayette papered the metro tunnel walls. Even the entrance code to the building I had lived in was the same.
At every metro exit was a café in which I had shared a café crème or a glass of vin rouge with friends and lovers. On every street was a storefront awning I had ducked under, hiding from surprise downpours. Around every corner was a ghost-memory, waiting to surprise me and haunt me with remembrances of times past.
It’s difficult to believe, but that first return trip was two years ago now.
These times, when I go back, I still sense the comfort of home. I still see some of the same patisseries and bookshops. Yet, more vibrant are the things that have changed: The bakery with the beautiful blue paneling has transformed into shoe store; the travel agency has turned produce shop; they empty building has become a convenience store.
These changes are minor. After all, Paris is still Paris. The Seine still divides the city into Rive Droite et Rive Gauche. The Louvre is still flooded with tourists. Children still push old-fashioned toy boats in the fountains of the Luxembourg Gardens. Yet, the small changes remain difficult to accept. Paris, my Paris, grows a little farther away with each passing year. Or does she? At times, I wonder if Paris is simply playing the part of a coquettish lover, an elusive vixen.
I am often lost in Paris. I wander the alleyways and boulevards, allowing them to take me where they will. Each street is a story. Each building has a tale to tell, a history to recount. I love rambling and wandering through the streets, falling into fantasy and lost treasures.
Yet in the depths these mysterious promenades, I find familiarity. Even as I fear I’ve become too disoriented to find the path home, I turn a corner to discover the falafel place where I grabbed lunch one day on my way to class. Here is the bookshop that invited me inside long ago during a particularly formidable rainstorm. And there is the covered alley of boutiques I once meandered though before on a similar wandering walk.
I am no longer lost, I am found. Found again by the places in my city that I love.
Paris changes. She always will. She is not a static black and white Robert Doisneau photograph, even if that is the way I like to picture her sometimes. She is bright and she is bold. Sometimes she moves too fast, and you lose her. But keep stumbling along, and you’ll find her there, waiting for you to catch up.
Paris changes: that is her only constancy. And I love her for it.
Paris is a city alive. She breathes. She loves. She drinks (Comment elle boit!). And she speaks.
Dancing down the streets of Paris you’ll hear French. Evidemment. But was that Russian whispered in your ear? Wasn’t that Spanish floating out the open doors of a café? Is that English following you through the metro maze?
Paris is alive. And she is exactly as you imagine her to be. She’s the cabaret dancer, and the dreamer-poet. She’s the neighborhood boulanger, and the accordion player hopping from metro car to metro car. She is Edith Piaf and Coco Channel. Her streets are cobbled and winding, her cafés are crowded and smoke-filled, her monuments are extraordinary, and her women all dress in black.
Paris is alive. She is a woman of the world, an enigmatic voyager, a sophisticated polyglot lady in a little black dress. She is a dreamer, ever lost in thought, obsessing over memories, dreaming of the way things were, or perhaps never were and are just romantically remembered to be.
Because Paris is alive. She is changing, and changeable. She’s never who you think she is. She’s never how you remembered her to be. She’s different and unexpected. She is the Russian that whispered in your ear. She is the Spanish you hear in a café, and the English that runs alongside you as you try to catch the last metro.
Paris is a foreign language bookshop. She is bagels, and smoothies, and donor kebabs, and the next popular foreign food import. She’s loud, modern music; and the boy with the beanie and dreadlocks. She’s the homeless man who sleeps on the metro grate for warmth. She’s the dog shit that never gets cleaned up. She’s nutella crepes, but she’s McDonald’s hamburgers too.
Paris is a city alive, and she is fickle. Don’t expect her to be like you thought. Don’t expect her at all. Just show up, and know that Paris will somehow surprise you, and you’ll love her all the more for it.