My heart is thumping as I push open the door and walk into a techno soaked lobby slash chill out room slash internet cafe. This is my first time staying in a hostel, and I feel like I’m back at CC New Student Orientation, hands shaking at the prospect of, gulp, having a roommate that I’ve never met. The entranceway is painted pink and black, and there are spirally silver tables and posters everywhere advertising unimaginably cool CONCERTS and COMEDY. I sway as I put my bag down.
The girl at the desk has a lip ring and bright bubble gum. (How long has it been, I suddenly wonder, since I last saw someone chewing gum?) She hands me a set of faded sheets and my plastic key. Up the creaky stairs and through a dilapidated-cute courtyard I meet my roommates: A Brazilian walker who sets out each morning with his headphones to conquer the dawn; a fellow college student with saggy pants and a convincing smile; and an Indian man who practiced law in Malaysia for twenty years and has now fled the country fearing reprisals after pursuing cases against the government. At first I’m impressed with their salvo of stories, but soon realize that interestingess is common currency in hostels. It’s downright normal. After a few laughs downstairs at the bar, we retire to bed so as to maximize the next day’s sightseeing potential.
The Seine flirts with me every time I see her. She glitters as if to say Relax, You’re in Paris, Silly. The bridges and islands and trees on the bank have a stateliness perhaps borne from age, different from the hushed reverence of ancient Oxford. I have a little map and every day I hunch over it on the sidewalk. And every day I look up to find I have somehow made it to the gleaming riverside. Bird song and souvenir peddlers and lovers strolling through crackling leaves. Once I stop on a bridge when I see that the railings are covered with padlocks that people put there, names written on, to symbolize eternal love. Couples are doing it right now, buying the locks from entrepreneurial men standing by with a bright selection. (Meanwhile someone else sells roses and a third guy plays La Vie en Rose on the accordion.) It’s a sunny day in winter. Some of the locks are even custom engraved. That night, as I eat pastries in a quiet corner of Montmartre, I think about those locks. Not all of the lovers have stayed together, I’m sure, but it seems that they have successfully trapped their love on the bridge. It’s in the Parisian air. Or perhaps, I should say, in the baguettes.
Alongside Paris’ charm I feel a deep, angry rumbling. Often I see spot police telling people to quiet down, move on, or else. The police seem to be watching all the time, trying to stop protest before it ignites, like popping bubbles in boiling water. Even if there is not a full blown protest happening there now (in fact there was when I was there), one can feel the people’s power–they are not afraid to get rowdy, even violent. One evening I climb the steps to the Palais de Chaillot, past a clamoring Christmas market shooting steam into the sky, and stop to survey the Eiffel Tower across the river. The name “Nelson Mandela” is projected onto the tower as part of a memorial being held nearby. It’s a participatory event, where we are encouraged to yell and wail in honor of Mandela’s life’s work. This display, while loud and right next to a tourist attraction, is respected by the police.
Museums: of course. There’s the cavernous Musee d’Orsay, once a fully functional train station and now a gorgeous curving collection of marble and ink which drowns my thoughts in color and form; the iconic Louvre, where I spend nearly thirty minutes searching through the world’s treasures for the Mona Lisa (She’s charming I guess, but not nearly as impressive as many of the museum’s other works–same with the Venus de Milo); and my favorite museum of all, the Art Ludique museum which curates exhibits about media art. It is in that museum’s dockside gallery that I spend three and a half rapt hours admiring concept art from every single Pixar film, from A Bug’s Life to Brave. No marble statue can hype me up as much as a clay sculpture of Mike Wazowski, paired with paintings of mysterious sequences that never made it into the final version of Finding Nemo. I even get to see early versions of certain characters–did you know that Celia from Monsters Inc was originally set to have two heads?
Paris, more than anything, is elegant. Its beauty lies in the marble statues dotted around the boulevards; in laughter on the Metro; in the grounded strength of the Arc de Triomphe; in apartment balcony gardens; in the cracks between cobblestones; in beggars who rather than asking for spare change simply say “Bon soir” with a wink; in the classy cafes that I can’t afford and the friendly bakeries that I can; and even in the thieves who make you think you are signing a petition to help disabled children while they steal your wallet. Even if you are that unfortunate soul who gets his wallet stolen (a fate I avoided only barely), there is still live jazz on the Metro home, so you can feel your sadness as deeply as this city feels everything.