Many years ago, perhaps decades even, Mary and I were walking along the right bank of Paris on one of those cobbled pathways that follow the sensuous curves river. It was a hot summer night in August when most Parisians were either out of town or were planning to leave. They knew how warm it could be during the day, when the streets are empty except for the acrid smell of garbage and the sewers, largely depleted of the chic and replaced by coach loads of tourists from all corners of the world. The sun was fading and the sky turning to a soft pink revealing the gorgeously familiar skyline. We were for once without plans for the evening, in my opinion it was still a city to get lost in, one where you could come across a restaurant and take a chance. Mary’s instinct took her across the river to the left bank while mine were to turn to the younger, more fashionable north east towards the Marais.
At some point we needed to make a decision, already we could see the spire of Notre Dame in front of us and we stood looking down at the river lost in our own thoughts. Below, a handsome couple were laying down a blanket on the edge of the river and I noticed Mary admiring the guy who was lean and tall, sure in his movements, smoothing the blanket and attentively positioning their small rucksacks so they could be used as a back rest. I had noticed the woman. She was slim, but not painfully so, of medium height with straw colored hair and dressed simply and modestly by this cities standards. She was the kind of woman that you notice not because of expensive clothes or high heels or make up but because of the lack of these devices. To my eye she carried a certain indefinable elegance and I wanted to add, intelligence, but I fear this is what psychologists would call projecting.
Mary was keen to cross the river and I think she was thinking of a longer walk to La Coupole or Les Deux Magots which I was secretly opposed to, in my mind they were obvious choices and some snobbery in me feared being placed in a table next to British or American guests with Hemingway paperbacks peering out of their bags, requesting an English menu.
As we delayed longer I noticed that the couple were now extracting from their bag two China plates and silverware with napkins and then, carefully, a pair of crystal glasses into which they poured Champagne. Mary and I glanced at one another sardonically. We watched on when food was served by the young woman; what looked to be a simple salad, the man reached into his bag to retrieve an ornate antique candelabra which he lite up with five candles and then brought out a music player that seemed to be quietly playing Chopin.
When we finally walked away I laughed and said something inane like “that is the most French thing l’ve seen for a long while” but only to break the silence that had come over us both like an accusation.
We crossed the old steel bridge, where tourist lovers had already adopted the fad of padlocking locks with their names on, innocent to the fact that in years to come they would be removed by municipal workers with steel cutters to save the bridge from collapsing under the weight of their failed romances. Sometime later we found a perfectly acceptable restaurant off the main road, tucked into an eighteen century alley. It was almost full, cheerfully noisy and busy. Some of the diners did seem to be actually French but predictably at the nearest table I could hear the Southern accent of an American couple who seemed as disappointed by our intrusion into their evening as we were of theirs, leaving us feeling perhaps that our presence had diluted the authenticity of their overseas adventure. I performed my normal trick of translating the French menu for Mary, only to be contradicted by the unmistakably contemptuous waiter, who spoke perfect English saving me from mis-ordering. It wouldn’t be the first time that I had waited for a perfect medium rare steak only to be served a mound of uncooked red meat with a raw egg on top or other local conceit so I should have been happy at his intervention, yet still the mood of the evening shifted again.
I had woke that morning with a sense of unease, something beyond the dull fog of jet lag which still persisted several days after arrival. The city hadn’t changed but I had, or rather my sense of time had. I realized I no longer had the luxury of wandering at will, in love and with the city’s foreignness. Now everything had to be planned. It was a slight source of contention between Mary and I, but she was right, we had so few days here that we wanted to extract as much as we could and so the hours passed by quickly almost in a blur, we hadn’t accounted for the heat in August and between exhibitions and shops, had to seek out shade whenever we could and take plenty of rest stops.
Walking home that evening I had to ask myself why is this place still so irretrievably romantic and magical, why does it force us to speak in clichés against all logic and good sense. Earlier in the evening I had used a small digital camera to take photographs along the Seine but when I replayed them on the small screen they were all disappointing, instead of the inky blackness of the night and the warm reflections on the surface of the water, I saw the sky was an acidic purple and heavily pixelated, a cityscape washed out and lacking definition. Cars appeared as streaks on the boundaries of the image and people in the foreground ghost like; the images were a cruel distortion as if it was forbidden to capture the moment as I saw and felt it.
On that night I was also struck by the severe contrast between its formality and the Saturday night energy, the cars that crawled next to us as we walked the streets seemed to be either full of either predatory young men, smoking to the deep bass sounds of rap music vibrating inside the car or were driven by young women, usually in pairs, laughing and evaluating everything, apparently open to be preyed upon. From the base of the Eiffel tower laser beams projected into the night, a carnival or fairground atmosphere, while next to us the grand apartment building on the opposite side of the river were being revealed by spotlights coming from the party bateaux mouches for reasons I’ve never understood but imagine it is to annoy their wealthy residents.
We passed the place where our young French coupe had been sitting earlier in the evening and Mary said out of the blue “How pretentious was that couple earlier tonight with that candelabra?”, “I know!” I said hopefully, “It was so ridiculous, they were preposterous..” my complaint drifting into the heat of the still evening, and now satisfied with our rebuff of all things French, our happiness returned and I held her closer as we turned towards our little hotel.