I was in Paris, eventually, after a crave of years. When people asked me about it, they seemed eager to get an opinion out of me. Do you like it? How is Paris? While in fact, I think Paris has way passed the line that it needs anyone’s opinion of it, certainly not mine.
I remember wanting to go to Paris for most of my life. Why it didn’t happen earlier, I don’t know. I guess I was waiting for “the ideal person” who I wanna go to Paris with. Silly, but true. I have even dated two French boyfriends, but neither of them made Paris happen. I remember telling myself, there is no rush for it, Paris would always be there. But earlier this year, one day in February when I was feeling an unexplained edginess and desperately needed to please myself, I thought, I’m not gonna wait anymore, I’m going to Paris. I booked the trip in the next twenty minutes. When you’re over 30, you would have learned that for many things, you simply have to make it happen yourself. Even Paris. Especially Paris.
Three months later, on the night I arrived, I took a walk around Le Marais, the neighborhood I temporarily lived at, and feeling “wow”, silently marveling at the fact that I was walking in Paris. It’s indeed quite amazing to still be able to feel that way like you’re a little simple girl when you’re in your 30s. On that evening, I felt like a little girl finally getting what she wants. I don’t even care how corny it may seem. I walked around and saw people gathering in casual groups at bars and restaurants, all looking so lighthearted as if life is nothing but a joyous party. It was exactly what I imagined Paris would be.
I settled at a quite busy wine bar with a great google-maps rating. They didn’t have tables anymore, but I didn’t need any table. The single seat at the far end of the bar was calling for me. I had three drinks that night, two ordered by myself, one ordered by a guy who stood by the bar for a while. He is about my age, manages a gallery in Marais. Do you like your job? I asked. I like it, but I don’t always like the arts I’m selling, he said. He left for parties elsewhere and I told him I was too tired to join. That was when I knew my “little girl” moment was gone; I was back to a 31-year-old woman, fatigued and self-reserved.
Paris is truly an inspiring city, like all other great cities. You don’t just feel that from art museums, you feel that everywhere, boutique stores, corner cafes, avant-dressing transgenders, street singers, metro posters. But art, god, art, it has to be what makes Paris great. Here we have to separate art from art business. I always feel more drawn to the traditional art scene than the modern. In traditional art, you see art. In modern art, you see money and vanity. Maybe I’m being unfair. After all, art, like everything else, is always influenced by money. I’m sure Monet had to worry about money at some point, not to mention Van Gogh. But I wasn’t there in their time. I am here in my time, I’ve seen how art business works in the capitalist world, I’ve seen how people become phony and repulsively snobbish and I really can’t appreciate that. Anyways, I was thoroughly in awe when I was in Musée de l’Orangerie watching Monet’s curvy and large-scale Water Lilies. In the museum of Orange Rice (my French ex told me the pronunciation could mean this way), I felt I was one centimeter closer to what art truly is. Art is, in the most simplified way, simply a repetitive practice one conducts towards something one truly loves and appreciates, like Monet’s commitment to his water lilies, like Van Gogh’s commitment to himself. Their works are only so absorbing because of the commitment invested in them.
After several days in Paris, I felt like I could already move about like a local. I’d become quite acquainted with the metro lines, I visited unknown museums after seeing random posters in the Metro, and I had a go-to bar for a nightcap before I went “home”, the wine bar that I went to on the first night. The bartender recognized me when I showed up the second time. He tilted his head towards “my seat”, and I sat there as he hinted. He barely speaks English, and he seemed genuinely apologetic for that. When I tried to make a casual conversation, he frequently came across words from me that he couldn’t make of. He’d then turn to his colleagues and inquired them. One time, I said “I was too old to go to clubs”, he couldn’t understand and turned to his colleague. After getting what it means, he turned back to me and said, “How old are you?” His colleague hinted him that he shouldn’t ask so bluntly, I laughed and said it’s fine, I’m 31.
Most of the time, he was too busy to converse with me anyway. It was really a popular wine bar, always crowded, evidently appreciated by Parisians. The bartender, also the manager of the bar, told me he had been working there for 10 years. I wanted to ask isn’t 10 years a very long lifespan for a bartender? But then I decided it was too complicated a sentence, and only quietly admired his commitment to this job. I think it’s amazing….some people go on holiday, by themselves, he said, I can’t. I’m always with family or friends. I looked at him, this guy that could barely speak English, and felt bitterly amused. In all these years that I travel alone, I’ve heard a lot of people’s comments about it — they’re usually surprised, sometimes they’d say “that’s very brave”. It was indeed the first time I heard people use “amazing” as a comment, and there’s a chance it was simply a misuse of English words. When I left that night, I told him it was my second last night in Paris. “Maybe see you tomorrow?” he said. “Yes, maybe.” I didn’t go back in the end.
After the first few days of coldness and rain (even the yellow vest protesters didn’t come out on that weekend), there was finally some sunshine on a Monday. I started early, went to the plaza of the Louvre and took some photos and selfies around the Pyramid with all other tourists that didn’t seem interested or brave enough to join the endless queue. I walked from the Louvre to Pont du Carrousel, and from there, watched the remains of the recently burned down Notre Dame from the zoomed-in lens of my iPhone. I crossed the bridge, walked along the other side of the Seine, and was greatly impressed and entertained by the variety of books displayed at those green foldable old bookstalls by the Seine. When I grew bored of that, I went down from one staircase to the riverside and sat on the bank for a while facing the Seine.
I thought of all the romance movies that have featured the Seine in them, from early Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You to Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset to the deadly romantic La Fille Sur Le Pont. I thought of all those evening movie scenes and the ambiguous and flirtatious atmosphere emitted through the glistening river surface in the shade of the moonlight. And as I was sitting there, facing the river in the daylight, the yellowish green water which was hopelessly unphotogenic, I saw with sheer clarity the discrepancy between this world and a romanticized world and my position in between. I didn’t feel disappointed, in fact. I appreciate the wateriness in the truth, as much as I appreciate how much effort our predecessors have made in creating a rose-colored filter for all of us so we could have a better vision of this world.
I continued to walk, crossed back to the other side of the river and wandered into Jardin des Tuileries. Everyone in this 17th-century garden seemed eagerly breathing on this bright sunny day. I walked to the fountain and took a seat by it, the kind that let you lean back in a sunbath position. Two seats beside me sat a French old man, feeding biscuits to pigeons. He took some biscuits crumbs from the chest of his jacket and stuck out his palm, waited, in a few seconds some pigeons would come and take it. From time to time even ducks from the fountain pond and crows from the upper sky would come and join the biscuit fete. Not only did he attract birds, but he also attracted tourists. People came close, happily intrigued by how he interacted with his friends with wings and took photos of them. He shared some biscuits with little kids and encouraged them to try.
The old man noticed me as I was filming it and couldn’t help chuckling. I like your shoes, he said. Is there a better opening line than complimenting a girl’s shoes? Life has certainly taught him something, I thought. We started to talk and he told me he had been to China three times. I have a love in China, he said. Is she still your love? He laughed and said, Time passed. But we are still in a good connection. Every year she’d say happy birthday to me. I guess he told me this becoz the fact that I’m Chinese reminded him of his past love. But as we were there, sitting by the pond on a Monday morning, he seemed completely at ease, as if nothing is more important than feeding pigeons anymore in life. I asked him if he came here a lot to feed pigeons. He shook his head. “I came once last month when the weather was good. Yesterday I sat in front of TV the whole day. I don’t worry anymore. I just relax.”
Later that day, after paying a tribute visit to the Effeil Tower (yet not seeing the point) and more art-cramming and time-traveling at Musée de Montmartre, I ended up at Parc de Belleville in the 20th arrondissement to wait for sunset. The 20th is evidently more local a quarter with a heavy hipster and street art vibe. As I arrived at the top of the park with my takeaway wine, I found myself immersed in an agreeable smell of marijuana. I picked a spot on the lawn to settle myself, surrounded by but not too close to other groups of people.
I was perfectly enjoying myself, the 7pm setting sun and the smell of youth, while a homeless-looking Dominican guy came with a broken guitar and sat down two meters from me. He was very likely high on something, eagerly making reckless conversations with people around, especially me. I wasn’t really in the mood of conversing with someone high. Unfortunately, his English is much better than most educated Parisians. More unfortunately, I seemed to be the object he decided to focus on. I wasn’t really responding but he kept speaking to me about stuff, that he is a philosopher, a musician, he writes songs and sings to make a living, he practices a special kind of yoga, he is looking for someone to translate his lyrics into Chinese, he thinks I’m beautiful. My guts told me he wasn’t dangerous, but he still made me a bit nervous. Two young guys sat not too far in front of me. They tried to speak to the Dominican guy in French to divert his attention from me but had limited luck. Another Italian couple on the other side of him then managed to occupy some of his attention, which I felt deeply grateful for. As the sun was slowly setting, the temperature slowly dropping, people were also slowly taking off. When I was getting ready to leave, he said “I’m gonna sing some songs to make some money tonight, probably 70 euro, 80 maybe. I will see.” I didn’t know if he was speaking to himself or me. But out of a rush of curiosity, I asked, where can I hear your music? He seemed to be more awake by then, told me he had only uploaded one song online and taught me how to search for it on Youtube. It’s about a heartbreaking marriage in the past, he said. Most good music is about heartbreaks, I said. I listened to his track that evening and it actually wasn’t bad. At least he was serious about his music, I thought.
On my last full day in Paris, I joined a Write and Wander in Paris experience booked on Airbnb. The experience was led by Sarah, a young French girl with a bookish but pretty face who doesn’t seem to care much about her appearance. She walked with me and another young Argentinian girl around the little-known neighborhood where the Romantic Movement artists gathered in the 19th century, and introduced to us in strong French accent some historical anecdotes of the Romantic Era. From her, I learned how George Sand had an affair with Frédéric Chopin; how Felix Nadar, an iconic pioneer at the very beginning of Photography, took a group of selfies of every angle of himself while one photo would take 30 minutes to make at that time. But what I enjoyed most was still the experimental writing, the creative perspectives she provided for a number of short writing exercises we did throughout the tour. On that morning, with Sarah’s tips and timer, I wrote paragraphs about an imagined internal monologue of Nadar on a postcard, about the ideal Salon scenario in my heart (and thanks to that I decided to throw a small party when I’m back in Hong Kong), about a speech I’d give to my friends at a party I host every Tuesday like people in the Romantic Era, and about nothing but simply automatically write for five minutes without lifting the pen from the paper. I’ve always been very private and protective of my writing process. But on that morning, I felt open and inspired enough to read and share my immature writings with the two young girls with completely different backgrounds and found myself secretly loving it. In some way, it’s the kind of intimate and connected feeling I’ve been missing, the kind that one can only get from spending time with people of similar passions.
In late afternoon that day, I went back to Marais and visited the gallery of the guy who bought me a drink on my first night. He seemed genuinely surprised to see me and showed me around the gallery a bit. It’s a small boutique gallery, but with some interesting works. We had a drink after he closed the gallery and before he had to leave for a theatre show that evening. It was nice in its own awkward way. After that one drink, we walked to République together and said goodbye in front of the metro. As I walked back to my apartment, in hindsight, I realized that was probably the most “French” thing I did in Paris, to randomly connect with someone in a new city and say goodbye in a casual manner without any unnecessary reluctance.
If my personal opinion matters to the slightest degree, Paris is great, it’s all I ever imagined, and perhaps even better in reality. When I was walking in Paris, I found myself couldn’t help wondering, would I really wanna live here? As much as I enjoy almost every moment in Paris (and even the cold rainy days, the compromised communications, the rude metro coordinator and the airport taxi driver that tried to con me didn’t impair my fondness of this city), it’s after all a reality I can’t truly relate to. I dare not to forget I was a visitor to the city. All my perspectives, my experience, my emotions and my attachments, only exist from the identity of a visitor. No matter how happy Paris has made me, it’s the kind of happiness that lacks a bit of weight.
Paris might not be my reality. Maybe it never will be, maybe it never is supposed to be. Though I think I do have taken a piece of Paris back with me. Like Hemingway said, “if you’re lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.” I guess in my discounted version, I could always look back at my Instagram stories and tell myself, “We’ll always have Paris.”