Grant McWilliams

Falling for Paris

This is your story, I am only the writer putting it to words just as Homer was to the Illiad. Imagine it as if you were there and you will be.

You know Paris, the city where lovers stroll and unknown couples edge along Pont Neuf to get a better view of the passing barges only to look up and find each other's eyes. Paris is the city where there's a violinist on every corner and all flowers are shades of red. It's a city of beautiful women who dress like fashion models and are accompanied by white poodles with pink bows in their ears while the men wear berets, ride bicycles and nearly always have a baguette tucked beneath their arm. Postcard perfect little girls in frilly flowered dresses peek out from under their mothers skirts with gorgeous brown eyes and long curly locks. You've seen this Paris on greeting cards, in commercials and of course movies. Writers wax poetic and fashion designers yearn to live there. This Paris is real, I knew it and couldn't wait to arrive.

After stashing my things in the Hotel de la Place du Louvre I ventured out onto Rue de Rivoli only to find automobiles buzzing everywhere - lots of them. Strange looking Citroen's, Peugeot and Renaults careening with reckless abandon with horns honking and tires screeching. Every potential open space was filled with delivery vans, tiny runabouts, scooters and more. Not what I had expected Paris to be and definitely not what I had dreamt of but nonetheless I ignored the sounds and smells and ventured on in search of the Paris I knew to exist. I seemingly walked forever in an attempt to get a glimpse of a man in a beret or a woman in red stilettos. I would have even settled for the little girl with the deep brown eyes in the flowery dress. I went down avenues, up stairs, around churches and through parks in search of this magical city I'd heard so much about. My vision of  the dreamy Parisian city was slowly chipped away by the reality of a buzzing metropolis filled with millions of busy people just getting by. I expected to see a French waiter dressed in white apron with towel in hand gesturing a smartly dressed couple toward their white linen draped table. The table of course outfitted with a candlestick thin vase holding a solitary red rose. Instead I got Muslim Arabs hawking kebabs in street stalls or selling corn cobs roasted in grocery carts surrounded by beggars and other riff raff. When I looked for picturesque French architecture I got exhaust stained stucco covered concrete block buildings. Who replaced the beautiful fountains of Greek mythological lore with dry glorified urinaries covered in graffiti? The grand boulevards that look so uniform and graceful in pictures were jam packed with cars, motorcycles and buses - strewn with loose trash - it was hard to notice anything else.

As I walked along a dirty side street I started to feel betrayed as if I'd married perfection only to wake up next to a wretched mess. The entire day I spent looking for Paris had taken it's toll, I was positiviely famished. I asked a man on the street for his gastronomic recommendations but he just shrugged and motioned to the burger joint on the corner. Disheartened I marched on but desperation now filled my heart in place of wonderment and anticipation. The midday sun was hot and unforgiving, tormenting me with it's rays. My feet hurt and I wreaked of perspiration. In the distance I saw a hill rising up over Paris holding the most beautiful domed church glistening in the sun and I thought finally I'd found the Paris of postcard fame. Depleted of energy I gave into a kabob seller and devoured it on the way. The classiest parts of a city always seem to be at the crest of a hill and this one no doubt cradled the Paris I knew so I attacked it with renewed vigor. Stairs led to more stairs and I started to glimpse cobblestone streets and gardens. My pulse quickened as did my pace. Readying myself to be overwhelmed I reached a plateau and as I turned the corner my heart hit the pavement smashing into a thousand pieces. There in front of me was a sex shop selling all kinds of vulgar and despicable things used for God knows what. Across the street was an adult video store next to a 7-11. Not giving up I continued to climb only to be harassed by an infestation of mimes and incapable artists offering to cut my side profile from a piece of paper worth only a fraction of what they asked. The mimes gave way to caricaturists and tourist shops selling trinkets and Eiffel tower key chains.

I could take no more. I was devastated, my heart felt like it had been run over by a truck and my spirit crushed. I'd been walking all day, my dogs were barking and my knees hurt. I started the long decent from this mound of despair and disappointment. I felt like someone had pricked me with a thousand needles and let out my life force. I felt lied to and betrayed, I felt used and then I felt angry. For the next 20 minutes while I descended the hill called Montmartre the anger in me boiled. How could so many people get Paris wrong? Where did the writers and painters get the inspiration for the Paris I'd heard so much about? Exhausted I decided to descend into the dreaded subway system and take the first train going anywhere but here. Since I had arrived I had avoided the Metro in an attempt to spend every waking moment in awe wandering the streets of Paris. Now exhausted, I no longer cared. I figured what I saw in the subway was going to be no worse than what was on the street. The train clacked from station to station to a destination I'd never heard of. I had no idea where Chatillion-Montrouge was nor did I care. In my daze of disbelief a disturbing thought penetrated my mind. What if this train is taking me to the housing projects where the recent riots took place? Visions of overturned cars and street fires impregnated my thoughts. The Paris riots were real to me now as I could imagine THAT Paris. In a flash the walls of the subway car seemed to cave in on me and I couldn't breath. The train stopped at a station and I frantically scrambled toward the door shoving my way through the crowd of people and nearly fell to the ground. Gasping for air I clambered up the stairs to the surface. What have I done coming here?

With my head dragging I walked up the broad expanse of concrete paralleling the street in search of a place to rest. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted a small table outside a cafe. As I sat down a man wearing a white apron approached me and asked me something in French. I barely glanced up and just responded with un café, s'il vous plait and he vanished into the shop only to return in a few quick moments with the cutest little cup of coffee. I sat there head drooping over my cup contemplating the agony in my feet when I noticed the bistro table I was sitting at rocked a bit. I looked down at the ground only have cobblestones staring back at me. My eyes followed the dainty wrought iron table leg up to the tiny round table surface which was covered in a starch white linen cloth. Another sip of coffee brought warmth to my skin and a sparkle to my eye. As I sat there silently cup in hand my eyes lifted and I started to take in my surroundings. The silence was broken by an orderly column of children dressed in their best school uniforms marching down the opposite side of the lazy boulevard. They came to a stop near two large double doors - wood with dark green paint on the verge of peeling. It appeared to be an automobile entrance to an inner courtyard or was it? Maybe it was a secret garden filled with cherry blossoms and a swing hanging from a tree. With that thought I could feel the corner of my mouth rise just a tad. The school teacher leading the group opened a smaller inset door and each child stepped high over the pronounced door sill like a bunch of ducks waddling onto shore. For a second I glimpsed through the door another world unknown to me until then. I saw a clothes line weighed down by fresh laundry dancing in a beam of sunlight over the cobblestone entryway like a living Picasso. Next to the entryway was a window barely holding in the rhythmic succession of tones identifiable as Edith Piaf singing Le Vie en Rose. The melody eeked and squirmed it's way out the window, through the blowing sheets and narrowly escaped the attention of the children only to land softly on the ears of a total stranger across the street drinking an innocent cup of coffee -Quand il me prend dans ses bras Il me parle tout bas, Je vois la vie en rose. The muscles in my neck, tense a minute ago relaxed and the rest of my body followed. The sounds of kids shuffling their feet across the 2nd story parquet covered floor vanished abruptly when the teacher closed the window. With my attention now drawn to the balcony surrounding the window my eyes followed every swirl of the ironwork railing, Art Nouveau I thought to myself. Above it was another balcony with the same beautiful ironwork and above that another.  My eyes quickly raced from one building to the next only to find more of the same. It appeared all buildings on this boulevard had similar balconies - short one that is. That building, a lonely brown edifice a couple steps into the distance was devoid of any ironwork but in it's stead had a grand stone entrance with two nymphs bearing the cornice on their shoulders. They looked as if it were the heavens they were suspending and maybe it was. My eyes wandered upward to the third story terrace which cradled two large double glass doors. These were made from the type of glass had that dark contrasty look to them that's not present in modern panes which in turn made the heavy crimson drapes hiding behind them all the more vibrant. Why had I not noticed this before I silently asked myself and why had it remained hidden until now?

My attention was abruptly interrupted when a man riding by on an old single speed cruiser style bicycle rang his bell while swerving around an older couple crossing the street. He was dressed in what appeared to be very lightweight gauzy pants and shirt, white in color and looked extremely comfortable in the summer heat. A man definitely couldn't get away with dressing like that in the states. He did not have a baguette under his arm nor did he wear a beret but his basket was filled with his daily produce consisting of a head of lettuce and other miscellaneous vegetables in the company of a carton of milk. The man no doubt on his way home after a long day at work lazily pedaled his bicycle down the street ringing his bell when needed.

Something unexpected began to happen right about then. The school children, the bicyclist, the ironwork balconies, the nymphs, the little unstable bistro table and the waiter in his white apron. I looked into my tiny cup of cafe only to see in the reflection a face barely holding back tears and no sooner could I wipe them a woman walking by, turned and approached me. Excusez-moi. I raised my head to see who was addressing me. Are you OK?, she asked recognizing me as a tourist and thoughtfully using the English phrase. I focused on the voice only to find a woman in her mid thirties wearing a loose fitting dress crafted from a flower printed fabric. I nodded my head and pushed out a timid oui. With a relieved look on her face she replied with "OK, au revoir". Unbeknownst to me her daughter of about 4 was hiding behind her skirt the entire time. As she turned on her red stiletto heels to walk away the little girl looked back at me with the most beautiful deep brown eyes I'd ever seen only partially covered by her curly locks. I about melted as I realized that the Paris I'd been searching so hard for had in fact... found me. The warmth I'd felt earlier returned with renewed vigor as I raised my cup to my lips I saw yet another shape in the reflection. A shape that seemed oddly familiar. I looked up only to see the Cafe's glass windows looking back at me. I once again looked into my cup and as predictable as the sunrise there it was, the strange and yet familiar shape. A shape so elegant and feminine and positively beautiful. Determined, I again peered into the cafe windows to ascertain the origins of the object and realized that the reflection was not actually of an object but rather another reflection. The reflection was in fact a reflection of a reflection on an object that appeared to be directly behind me.

I turned my head slowly like a lover meeting a secret admirer for the first time at the beckoning of an anonymous note. As I my eyes lifted my heart skipped a beat - there she stood, the most beautiful girl I'd ever seen, feet spread apart with her lacy skirt stretched tight between her knees. Her left arm was so very elegantly raised toward the sky topped with a dazzling light. She was fabulously gorgeous with her tall slender lines and graceful stance. Ms. Eiffel looked down upon me from her 1000 foot perch and I swear I saw a twinkle in her eye. I imagine others saw it as well but a part of me wants to think it was only for me, even if for a second. Something sprang forth from my heart just then, a combination of things really. It's as if throughout my entire life I'd placed certain special emotions in a safe place to be brought out all together for that one moment that defines my very being. It's as if the purpose of every second of my life was only to lead up to this very moment. That instant I took those special emotions out and with the utmost care unwrapped them. Joy, happiness and serenity all substantial in their own right promptly melded into something greater - love, yes LOVE. I felt as I'd been separated from my one true love and now after a lifetime of searching, rejoined. With that feeling everything else started to make sense, the anguish, fear, uncertainty, happiness and sadness. The tumblers in happiness's locked door rotated and solidly clicked into place. Life started to make sense and the things I'd forever hated gained favor. Without night there would be no day, winter no summer? Without jealousy would love have it's place? Without fear would we yearn for safety? Would we be thankful if we had no pain?

The waiter returned with another cup of coffee and smiled warmly at my tear dotted notebook that I'd been clutching then quickly disappeared back into the darkened doorway. He knew as did the rest of them. What a way to spend your time, watching people repeatedly fall in love. With that I got out my pen and I started to write. I wrote about the man selling kebabs and the sex shops. I wrote about my aching feet and my disappointment. But most of all I wrote about what happened to me. I wrote about Love - Paris Je'taime - Paris I love.

And the cycle continues...