Hands in Pockets

"Hands in Pockets"

Travel memoir.


The first thing I thought about Paris, sometime after my arm was tingling from my over-stuffed bag cutting off all circulation, was that the Seine was small. I grew up on the Ohio River, and it defines a lot of my personal history and my city. So, when it came to a city as famous as Paris, with a river as definitive as the Seine, I was expecting it to be larger. Je suis américaine.

Paris, however, is massive, far larger than any city I could have ever imagined. It sprawls over the twenty districts – arrondissements – and tall buildings, old and new, are packed tightly inside them. Before I visited Europe – before it was even a possibility – a middle-aged acquaintance told me off-handedly that he thought Paris was over-rated. It was too crowded, he said, and listed other European villas and cities where a person’s time might be better spent. I nodded solemnly before raising a sheepish and questioning eyebrow at my fellow intern, the signal we’d used all summer for ‘look at this jaded and privileged old man.’ But, now I think I might agree with the journalist who embarrassed me in front of my boss.

Though I wouldn’t venture to call it over-rated, Paris was far different than my expectations. Especially in February, it lacks charm or any warmth of invitation. Like any city, it’s gray and dirty; you have to watch your step and your pockets, and you’ll likely spend more time Photoshopping cranes out of your photos than you will reminiscing over happy memories. The city’s sheer size makes it difficult to get around, especially for someone unused to public transportation. I cling tightly to my friends as we navigate the city, and wonder how Paris became so touristy when it’s so spread out. Or, perhaps, I realize, it was the other way around.

The river does widen somewhat, further down the city, away from the Latin Quarter where we stayed. Here, man-made islands create long breaks in the Seine, to provide extra docking for boats. One holds the Allee des Cygnes, a small, concrete park standing firm as the wind whips through its bare trees. It’s stark, with a paved gray path running between narrow strips of dirt. We walk on the curb to avoid the puddles in the middle of the path and the mud on the other side. Rusty teal benches face the water, prominently displaying the graffiti covering their backs. Matching lampposts run the length of the island, covered in stickers and hastily drawn marker doodles. On one I see a faded swastika, drawn on a panty liner and stuck diagonally across the post. I hope no woman would waste a pad on that nonsense, and I’m silently enraged, both at the nerve of the asshole, and at Paris, somehow, for being a normal city underneath all its mythos.

Between the lampposts grow gnarled trees, reaching down to the water, which is a muddy green color and constantly moving. On either riverbank, tall glossy apartment and office buildings reach skyward, so different from the historic concrete and stone I’ve seen in the rest of the city. On the other side of the park, through numerous people walking their dogs, lies the scale model of the Statue of Liberty. It’s one-third of the size of the statue in New York, but it still reminds me of the time I visited the actual statue with my mother. It was a gray, windy day then, too. Today in Paris, the dark clouds blow clear for just a second, and the sun shines down on the statue.

In the Champ Du Mars, I notice first the same bare trees and brownish grass as the Allee des Cygnes. There are some greener patches, here and there, but they are surrounded by landscaping mesh, in a desperate attempt to preserve them until spring. There’s a lot of construction here, too, that I’m sure will make its way into plenty of tourists’ pictures of the Eiffel Tower. I try not to take too many pictures, just one or two at each stop to satisfy my mother. At first I am underwhelmed by the monument and its tall and dark arches criss-crossing far above my head, but it slowly grows on me. Over the week it becomes a sort of game to find it on the skyline or in the backgrounds of pictures.

We don’t linger long here, driven away by women with clipboards, aggressively asking if we speak English, and men in black hoodies with hands full of plastic Eiffel Tower keychains. There are others, too, tourists taking selfies, people reading on the park benches, and a man in mismatched blue jogging alongside the road, but we ignore them, our eyes flitting warily between the people who move to approach us. 

Paris is a study in contradictions. The tourists and the locals blend together – except, I’m sure, from the locals’ perspective – but the constant dichotomy of old and new fascinates me. The Musée de Louvre is an iconic example, with the famous glass pyramid entrance jutting out in the center of the historic building. The fortress was erected in the late twelfth century, while the pyramid was added almost 800 years later in 1984. Both are covered in repetitive patterns; the pyramid with geometric glass panels, and the chateau with ornate carvings and vaulted windows. The chateau is all gold and blue, while the pyramid is colorless. It’s a different form of boldness, equally eye-catching, but in a way that makes my skin flush and my eyes narrow; I’m embarrassed by the starkness of modernity, but drawn in all the same.

Our visit to the Louvre was a surprisingly pleasant experience, compared to the jostling herd of tourists that I was expecting. It was crowded, of course; I stood on the tips of my toes to peek at the “Mona Lisa,” then turned away with a scoff when all I could see was a woman Face Timing in front of the painting. But it was also full of so much history. Beyond the art, the brightly colored walls and textured ceilings dripped with the memories of all the chateau had seen.

And there was, of course, the art.

Some pieces fall flat in person; at the Musée de l’Orangerie we walked slowly around the rooms of Monet’s giant water lilies, before my friend, Danny, finally said, “it looks like he used a giant crayon,” and I laughed, relieved, because it was exactly what I had been thinking. But, other pieces are astounding, hours of art history coming to life, and I know I am staring slack-jawed, but I just can’t tear myself away from Napoleon crowning Josephine or the dancers at Renoir’s moulin de la Galette.

I feel the same at Shakespeare and Company. Even though it only carries the namesake of the bookshop famous for hosting the lost generation writers, I can imagine them there. As my friend sips a small green cappuccino at the café, I see Hemingway swirling a glass of scotch and, for the first time, I journal on the spot. Inside the bookshop, people fold in and out of the small rooms, peering up, down, and every which way to take it all in. I shuffle alongside them all, trying to slyly take pictures of the poetry painted on the worn, red staircase, knowing I’m not as coy as I think I am.

I slide a rolling ladder along the shelves and reach tentatively for a fabric covered copy of A Tale of Two Cities. It’s a faded blue, overlaid with copper colored embossing. Half-knitted scarves decorate the cover, swaying like they were stolen straight out of “Fantasia.” I can’t not buy it. Not now, that I’m holding it in my hands. It’s about Paris, I tell myself, never mind the fact that you already own two copies of the book. I go back a second time, to buy gifts and to watch with delight as the employee at the desk stamps the books with a round stamp of the Bard and his ruffled collar.

On our last day in Paris, snow starts to fall lightly as we make our way from the small Italian restaurant to the metro. By the time we emerge again at Père Lachaise, it’s falling full force.

The cemetery is dreary and perfect for the gray day. It stretches on for acres, complete with winding paths, creeping moss, and the sound of a crow cawing as soon as we walk in. It takes forever to find Jim Morrison’s grave, but once we make it, it serves as the key to the confusing map. From there our group walks silently, and each at his or her own pace. We slowly become separated, strung out as we shove our hands into pockets and hunch against the cold, until we finally reconvene at Oscar Wilde’s grave at the far side of Père Lachaise. We had agreed to kiss the grave together, but once we see the unappealing Plexiglas wall, already covered in various hues of lipstick stains, we refrain without a word.

From there, we spend our remaining two hours in Paris huddled over two small tables in a warm café. Here at this last café, the waiter complements my ordering in French and pats me on the shoulder, and, whether it was honest or a joke, it makes me feel good. Like, maybe, after another week, I might feel like I could survive here. And then, after another year or ten, thrive. Je suis américaine?

The tables are always small at these places, and our elbows and knees knock together as we all file in and take off our jackets. I like those touches. The sharp contact reminds me that the people I’ve grown to love in the past few weeks are very much real and that I am, in fact, oceans away from my home, experiencing the world in a new light.