Le Vrai Paris

I stumble onto the platform at the Barbès-Rochechouart Metro station, having missed my stop at Anvers and almost getting crushed in the slamming doors of the train. My feet are swollen and I can feel the blisters tear under the chafing of the new shoes I bought before leaving America. I am glad I’ve got codeine, as I have no idea how to say “aspirin” in French. I pull my suitcase along and feel for my wallet, certain that a pickpocket has marked me as an easy target. It’s still there.

The city smells like sweet baking bread; like roses opening in the rain. It is a heady bouquet of longing and regret for lost time that fills the narrow streets. Paris is the best of all the women I have ever loved: the first pang of lovesickness, the first gentle word. It is the taste of lipstick on a shared cigarette and scotch and water flavored kisses before you say goodnight and walk down the street, away from her door, replaying her voice in your head. It is lavender and violet powder and her tobacco-sweetened perfume, as rich as tamarind and orange peel. I am drunk on Paris. Despite the surrounding chaos and the searing pain in my feet, I suppress a tourist’s stupid smile.

I walk down Rue de Rochechouart. All around me are hands offering bottles of perfume, belts, and kitschy souvenirs stamped out of base metal. People call out to me, “monsieur, monsieur, parlez-vous Anglais? Francais? English? You speak English? Un moment, monsieur, un moment…” amidst the hiss of traffic. I hasten through the crowd and turn onto a side street in the hope of getting away from the hawkers, shoulders aching and my backpack straps digging into my neck.

I get to my hostel and check in, stammering in broken French. “Bonjour, monsieur. J’ai un reservation.” The man at the desk — inexplicably wearing a paper top hat covered in silver glitter — answers me in flawless English: a polite way of telling me that my French is godawful. The room will be ready at 4 pm. I have five hours to kill before I can take these damn shoes off and throw them into the Seine. I leave my bags, take my receipt, and wander out onto Rue d’Orsel. I turn and walk half a block to Sacre Coeur. There is a carousel slowly revolving in porcelain pinks and golds as hustlers sell keyrings and thread bracelets to obliging tourists. Small groups of gypsies huddle and disperse.

A seemingly endless series of concrete steps interspersed with benches and platforms ascends the green and cement hill facing the setting sun. I sit and watch the long-limbed, beautiful Parisian women walk by. They traverse the streets with no problem; never making eye contact with anyone, in unbreakable bubbles of nonchalance and with aloofness that is electrifying. In painful contrast, I see Americans stuffed into velour ordering coffee in Midwestern English, their voices like nails driven into my ears. “Is there a Starbucks near here?”

I am suddenly ashamed of my Americanness and wish that I were French.

I console myself by buying a pack of Gauloises and ordering a small carafe of bordeaux at a brasserie. I sit outside, at one of the sidewalk tables and for this, I pay an extra 50 cents. I don’t mind the soft drizzle that has begun to fall as the cobblestones sparkle like wet jewels, sparkling with the waking lights of the cafés.

The wine is cheap and young, but every swallow loosens the knots in my back and washes away the taste of loneliness. I try to write in my notebook.This is Paris, I think. I should be able to write something. I am resigned to sketching a picture of my dwindling carafe of wine and the ancient apartments across the street from the brasserie. I fumble some more with words and then I order a plate of cold, sliced meats and cheese. It is the first food I’ve had in nearly a day and the salt and smoky flavor of the ham and cheeses makes me happy, content. A man passes by with a small dog that defecates near a parked scooter. I stare at the crossed out lines in my notebook and drink more wine. After two small glasses of claret and a couple of codeine, I surrender to my failure and put my pen down. I take a long drag from my cigarette, watching the smoke curl against the topaz sky cut into rectangles by the gray buildings that line the street. A girl smiles at me. I smile back. I pick my pen back up and I write two sentences.

It is raining on my first day in Paris.

And I am in love.

(Originally published Fall 2012 in the U.C. Berkeley Comparative Literature Undergraduate Journal. Also on www.ksanthony.com)

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