It was a week before the official end date of our Nantes study abroad program. Luggage was starting to be packed, goodbye meals were being planned, and souvenirs were frantically being bought.
It was a time of disorder — a confusion of both physical things and emotional things. Between the high-pitched excitement from the anticipation of going home and the melancholia of sorrowful thoughts like, “I will miss this place”, we were all focused on the same things — to take home with us as much of our version of France as is possible. To pack into our suitcases all that we can of this France that we’ve become so familiar with. Perhaps with the intention of sharing it with friends and family back in America, or perhaps to preserve them in our jars of time, to be taken out and relished in small doses as we reminisce our great European adventure once upon a not-too-long-ago.
Souvenirs and photographs, what importance do they hold without memories?
My memory of France is hard to describe.
As a young girl, as trite as it may be, one of my dreams was to visit France. It was an utter tourist’s dream: to climb the Eiffel Tower for a sweeping view of Paris, to lunch on baguettes and cheese and dine on escargots and dishes whose names my tongue wasn’t yet trained to pronounce. To cycle through the narrow paved streets bearing unmistakably French names, the polite chiming of my bicycle bell floating upwards and mingling with the enthusiastic dialogues of a language so sexy one could make love to it. Passionate; in my mind, the French were always passionate. For food, for people, for life.
It was a cheesy dream. A dream about a place only possibly conjured up by a tourist who has merely been there through movies and idealized stereotypes.
In fact, when I first visited Paris, that was my France. Touristy and lots of English.
And then, with a great stroke of luck, I was given the chance to call France home, even if just for a few months. And oh, what those few months brought to me, I did not anticipate.
During that time, my France became more French than English, more living than touristing.
By the time I left France to come home, my image of the country had changed so drastically.
To be honest, I don’t think I miss Nantes all that badly. It is a quiet city, less crowded than Paris, and people there are nice. The city is nice. But “nice” is an inconspicuous palette of quiet pastel colors. Paris, on the other hand, is a flamboyant palette of raging reds clashing with breathtaking blues.
Paris is… there is no one word to describe Paris. It is all at once as haute as the Pinot Noir in your crystal wine glass, and as street as the weed in your joint. It is so full of contradictions, but yet makes so much sense. It is your Mercedes Benz in grime and dirt; it is your worn rags in diamond embellishments.
Since my first visit to France, I’ve returned to Paris several more times. I can’t claim to know it inside out, but I am familiar with it enough to know its history, its peculiar personal stories and idiosyncrasies, even to have favorite places of my own.
After my Nantes program ended, I went to Paris one last time and stayed with a friend who is renting out an apartment there for the summer. I was going to go to London after, and when it was time for me to leave, there was an intense sadness that I’ve not felt in a long time. It was a mournfulness that I completely had not expected.
It was like going to the party of your life and meeting all these awesome people who were all at once funny, intelligent, outgoing, thoughtful, ambitious, and every other positive adjective in the dictionary. You feel like you’ve found your best mates for life. And it was like having an incredibly inconsiderate curfew that necessitated leaving really early. So you leave with a sinking feeling — a sadness of having to miss out on something amazing, every fiber of your heart praying that these awesome people will suspend all awesome activities until you are able to join them in their adventures again one day.
It was with that kind of heavy feeling that I left Paris. I was futilely hoping that the city would stop all activities to wait for my return.
I was to take a night bus to London. On my last afternoon there, after we’d visited the Château de Versailles, my friend presented the question of how I wanted to spend my final day in France.
There wasn’t a shadow of a doubt that the perfect way to end my stay in France was to see the sunset at my favorite place in Paris — on the steps of Sacré-Cœur, the Basilica of the Sacred Heart, in Montmartre.
I have lost count the number of times I have been to Sacré-Cœur, but I know that I have always visited it every time I was in Paris.
It is ironic that my favorite spot in Paris, situated in my favorite neighborhood in Paris, is quite different from central Paris. Walk past the fabulously large, ravishingly red windmill of the Moulin Rouge, and you’ve passed the gateway to Montmartre, the neighborhood higher than any other in the city.
Montmartre is more quiet, calmer. It is incredibly artsy, and proudly so. It is where your business-minded yuppies go to declare what bohemian free spirits they are. It is where people saunter instead of walk, savor instead of eat, and they proudly take time to lose time.
Even though I’d been to the Sacré-Cœur Basilica several times before, I’d never been there when the sun hit the stained glass windows just right — until that day. That evening, the golden light of the sunset shined through the stained glass and bathed each chapel in the basilica a glorious medley of the lushest colors. One of the windows was directly under the sunlight; it gave out the richest of hues that glided past the top of my head and landed gently on a man seated on a long wooden pew, his hands clasped and brought up to the chin of his downward-bent head. This man—an image of tranquility and solitude, a man in a position of humility before his God—was glowing from the splendid colors cast down on him that danced off his clothes.
I swear, I have never loved the Sacré-Cœur more than I did at that instant.
My friend and I spent the sunset sitting on the steps of the basilica, one of the highest points in Paris that allowed you to indulge in the most gorgeous view of the city. The steps of Sacré-Cœur would cease to be the steps of Sacré-Cœur if it weren’t for the performers. On that perfect sunset, there was a skinny, middle-aged woman in short skirt and leggings who, in that deep, husky voice of a long-time smoker, belted out familiar old French songs that delighted the crowd as they joyously sang along.
It was so incredibly perfect, it made leaving Paris ten times more difficult.
Paris is no longer a foreign place that I enjoy as a tourist, but a city that I relish the time I spend with, the way I would take pleasure in spending time with a close friend.
Paris always brings a tingle to my spine. It is a tingling invoked by an intoxicating mixture of anticipation of the mysterious unknown, and wistfulness for adventure, art, could-have-beens, and simple contentedness. Its name evokes the nostalgia for events that seemed mild and ordinary at the time of taking place, but are thrillingly special in that it couldn’t have taken place anywhere else but in Paris, and not any time else but during that spring.
Paris turned out to be different from that perfect tourist city I dreamed up many years ago, but I think at the end of the day, it is not so far off from that haven I painted it to be, either.
Needless to say, I am already dreaming of the day I make my return to, quite honestly, one of two of my favorite cities in the world.
(The other being San Francisco!)
I started this post intending to talk about Nantes, because I realized I hadn’t shared anything about my experience on this blog. Instead, I ended up talking about Paris. Only goes to show how much I’m missing it.