by Darri Farr
People watching is prime in Paris.
Although I’ve been here for six months, Paris and I are not completely reconciled. On speaking terms? Sure. Maybe it’s me and the fact that I hadn’t forged a slow and personal relationship with the city. I hadn’t peeled back each layer until its very skin was exposed and possessed. We didn’t have that opportunity for intimacy. What interrupted the courting process was a charming Frenchman in the streets of Paris. This was not even two weeks into my arrival, but already I was swept into the less subtle tap dance of exploring and knowing a real person. And so, I saw the city through his eyes, exposed instantly and perhaps vulgarly. This is the best ice cream in Paris; this quartier is stuck-up and there’s no reason to visit it; this is the place to go after the bars close. It robbed the romance, the infatuation period of my relationship with Paris.
And since then, the city has been rather flippant with me, never really reaching out and making itself home. However, there have been moments, as flitting and innocent as a quick look up the city’s skirt, where Paris forgot its grudge: feeding sparrows in the static of the last warm day of fall, eating corn the color of August that came from an African lady’s black trash bag, and the 5:30 a.m. metro community.
The rejection is difficult to explain but very real to experience. The young people, who are supposed to be organizing shows in the basements of churches and having karaoke parties in their 20- square-meter apartments, are spending the better part of their lives trying to achieve a Julian Casablancas hairdo, buying American Apparel duffel bags, and not dancing. They’re all Dop Gel and Cheap Monday jeans—pretty and exquisitely crafted cutouts of people who should be making something happen in the city, but have not. They look perfect and that’s enough.
And in my Parisian peers’ two-dimensionalness, I see that of the city, as well. Angel-food cake houses with the trimmings of black lace balconies posed along thin, sloping streets, exuding the old-world charm that America lacks but is eager to board a plane in order to find. And yet, what’s behind all that? What does Paris offer that is new and lovely and intriguing? London usurped fashion, New York claimed reckless youth and fun, Berlin cleaned up the hip-city vibe, Barcelona took hospitality and nightlife. Paris was left with pastries, and its Disney World array of monuments and architecture, which forced it to charge high admission and hope that the world would be distracted enough by its surface-level beauty that no one would notice the hollowness inside.
I live around the corner from a home for the blind, on the border of the twelfth and eleventh arondissements. I see these people with their long white canes, which they tap back and forth rhythmically, like drum majors, or slide against the cement like feelers. I wonder what it’s like to live in the most beautiful city in the world and not be able to see its shallowness. Does it smell lovelier than Nantes? or Wu-han? or Philadelphia? Can they feel a soft pulse of elegance quivering up their canes as they bounce and scrape them along the pavement? I doubt it. Paris sounds and smells and feels like a city regardless of its pomp. Paris is just another city.
Paris has snubbed me out of its own pride and because I didn’t spend my first months contemplating its handsomeness, because I opened its doors without examining the façades, because I spent my afternoons with another suitor in our cocoon-like apartment rather than in the city streets. Paris has turned away from me and wants me to feel it. I feel it. But I’m still here and I’m trying. There are times when I look it in its bitter face and still dare to feel young, invincible, special and full of promise. I can see this and feel this in the people I’ve met and made a part of my life. Paris cannot forget its people, all of whom are conscious of the city in which they live.
The city, though, tries to remain independent of the people who inhabit it, but it really can’t. And until Paris acknowledges me as a part of its long history of affairs, I will live through its people, who are weightier and more exquisite than the city itself.