City of Memory
October 15, 2013
“Paris is a great blind love, we are all hopelessly in love, but there is something green, a kind of mist, I don’t know.”
–Hopscotch, Julio Cortazar
I remember eating snails for the first time. I was fifteen, in a dim small bistrot in the Quartier Latin, and the waiter laughed to see the foreign teenager eager for garden pests. I remember scooping them out with a little fork and slurping the salty flesh, the dusky mouth feel of butter, garlic, and herbs. The bistrot was split over two levels, and I sat with my family on the upper level, looking down on the heads of the Parisians below. Young and golden-haired girls. I don’t know why that made such an impression on me. The table was darkly wooden, worn smooth by elbows and swipes of the kitchen rag and the whole place was dark. Deep red tapestries on the wall and strange, small knick-knacks powdered with dust on wooden ledges. Every now and then, the grit of sand between my teeth.
I feel beautiful in Paris. As if the cobblestones kiss my feet, and the wind blowing up the green Seine smell is a caress along my cheek.
I remember once, sitting in a café in Montmartre, before I went back later and it all seemed forced, sitting there with friends and a carafe of wine and a basket of pain, feeling very old. Paris was fresh, wrapping me up in its magic cloak, and of course the wine was bad and the checkered tablecloth covered in tannin spots and bread crumbs, but there beside our table were the artists with their thick trompe l’oeils of the Eiffel Tower, the Lautrec posters I bought by the ream to later hang in my college dorm room, the cafés the cafés the cafés with tiny tables and even tinier wickerwork chairs. I remember the broad white back of Sacre Coeur blooming out of the earth against a painfully blue sky.
Walking along the corridors of the Louvre, there are too many people. A crowd huddles in front of the Mona Lisa. She, if it is even really she hanging there, is ensconced behind thick glass. The crowd sways together like a giant mass with hundreds of antennae, these are hands holding up cameras, fingers blindly clicking, hoping to capture the perfect shot of her smile which has been called mysterious, of the glass, which can be called obscure. In the Italian wing, there is the ring of alarm after alarm after alarm.
In Les Philosophes, there is a waiter who must moonlight as a musician or an artist in his after hours. He is solidly built, with the kind of legs that look as if they were meant for leather pants. His hair is long and whitish gray, thick and pulled back into a low ponytail. And his eyes smile, as if he is laughing at you in the kindest way possible. As if he were a trusted friend who takes your hand between his and doesn’t say a word, just holds your hand until it is warm and calm and still. He wears little black glasses pushed back on top of his head and as far as I know, has never worn them on his face.
I remember a macaron in the palm of my hand. Soft and purplish-gray like a small mouse. Earl gray egg white and lavender buttercream.
We walked into Notre Dame while a service was underway. The cavernous church heavy with the cloy of incense, a hush of smell, the sonorous intonation of the priest, then the children singing. What if you wanted to be a priest, but you couldn’t sing? What if you had a nice singing voice and thus felt called to the priesthood?
At dusk, the buildings of Paris are like film fronts. The too perfect white apartments along the Seine, gashed by windowsills of red geraniums, stand sentinel like rows of teeth. Every night the sky plays along, purplish-gray like my macaron, and slightly green when the sun goes down. It doesn’t help that there are three musicians, a bassist, a guitarist, and a mop-haired jazz-flutist, who are phenomenal, and the night feels like a movie set.
I remember the very first word I learned in French. Une tarte a l’oignon. An onion tart. And the next few words. Un pain au chocolat. Un croque monsieur. Une croque madame. I loved the sound of the words, the way they rolled along my tongue. And I knew that I would love any language whose first words I could eat.
I remember the flowers on John Lennon’s grave. I remember the whole plucked pigeons in the window of the boucherie. I remember the red coat I wore that was just a little too long in the arms and the way the espresso foamed up inside the tiny, white cup