This is the first in a series of posts I wrote in my notebook while on vacation in 2015. Republishing it here.
A smell can tell you a lot about a place. Does the putrid smell of garbage mask the smell of window box gardens and falafel stands like it does in New York on trash day in the summer? This smell tells you New York needs to work on its infrastructure.
Paris in the fall smells like a symphony of a city fully lived in, overflowing with people who are only there for a moment, and those who have lived there for decades. It smells like cigarettes and fresh-baked bread. It smells like fog and tour buses. It smells like the damp, dead leaves that crunch or slide under your feet when you walk to the subway, which, while being efficient and easy to navigate, smells like the blood and sweat of a city that’s held humanity and commerce in its arms for centuries.
I like riding the trains in Paris. You see all kinds of people in transit—tourists folding and unfolding their maps, making sure they’re headed in the right direction and inevitably get off a stop too early or too late. Old ladies dressed in colorful wool with black patent leather shoes, reading pages of yellowed French novels. Moms lecturing their bored-looking children about homework that wasn’t turned in on time. Drunk people.
The best part about traveling by train is that it’s impossible not to fit in. You are one of hundreds of people traveling in the same general direction, none with anything in common except that your bodies are simultaneously gliding the same way, which means you all have more in common than you might have considered in the first place.
Along with luggage and groceries or maps and books, each person carries with them a story that is not immediately obvious. When you ask one about it, you’ll discover their stories are just like yours, but with different characters, emotions, belonging, and scents. Your stories are the same because you’re each carrying it with you; it clings to you like a shadow. Different because no one is the same.
I get off the train in the 12th arrondissement. It smells like spices from the rotisserie and coffee from a nearby cafe. I walk a few blocks through the rows upon rows of fruits and vegetables in Aligre Market, stopping for a banana and a slice of fresh bread bursting with nuts and dried fruit, so hot that the first bite singes my tongue and I have to wait impatiently to finish it. I keep walking. It smells like vegetables transported in crates that mushed up a tomato or two en route.
My boots slip on the cobble stones as I wander into Oberkampf. Here, no tourists clutter the streets, and shop keepers stand outside smoking with neighbors, all of whom seem to have their hands full of baguettes. Saturday mornings must be the time to refill the pantry.
A child no older than six walks by with his own grocery bags full of fresh-baked carbohydrates. A man in a window three floors up, whistles and waves at him between drags of his cigarette. The boy smiles and nods, careful not to drop his packages.
I wait outside a cafe for the street art tour to start. On a large blue wall, “Mother Teresa is Kate Moss,” is spray-painted haphazardly as if the person didn’t really believe in their graffiti. By the time the group begins its tour, the black graffiti is painted over, and Mademoiselle Kat is preparing to put up her own masterpiece on Le Mur. It’s a commissioned wall that changes each fortnight, our guide, Virginie, explains.
Things are changing throughout these neighborhoods, which include Oberkampf and Belleville. Artists like Késa and Diamant take to the streets with art meant to provoke and inspire you to look up, away from your feet and your phone. At the same time, the city is slowly chipping away at the culture that makes these neighborhoods so diverse and vital. Here is the “real Paris,” Virginie says. Different cultures giving the neighborhood its diversity in food, clothing, and art. And smells.
It is here that street art is as much a part of Parisian culture as croissants. Along Rue de Noyez, professional artists’ work is intertwined with the public’s, adorning walls gifted to the street artists by the city. But soon one of these walls will disappear; a projects building will be erected to house the people who are getting displaced, or cannot afford to live in their apartments anymore. Gentrification, Virginie says, means that soon many of these ethnic restaurants will be replaced with hip joints attracting a new kind of crowd to the neighborhood. The “real Paris” is disappearing. And so is the street art.
Take pictures to put on Facebook, she says. This way the art can live on.
By the time we’re back in front of the blue wall, it is covered with zombie brides.
My ankle burns as I follow the streets to Canal Saint-Martin. No one I walk by looks up, and I find that now I have a hard time looking anywhere else.
I pass by multiple vegan restaurants and fusion cuisines on my way to a place that could only be described as a hipster haven. Le Comptoir General has a tiki bar, coffee bar, wine bar, and snack bar, decorated with pop culture and history I know little about. No one is speaking English.
Across the canal is a design and bookstore, and I find myself wishing I knew more people who appreciate the same things I do. Those who keep coming to mind are exes. They would love it here.
I fall in love with the boutiques and cafes, and cacophony of noise that seeps out through the streets of the canal neighborhood. It reminds me of Brooklyn. Or Valencia street. It is then that I realize that this is what Virginie meant by Paris losing itself. I think for a second that I am part of the problem.
I buy black and white shoes from the Bensimon popup store. I drink organic coffee.
At night by the Eiffel Tower, you can feel an electric human energy. It’s fueled by selfie sticks and city maps, tired children and grumbling locals who, by accident, find themselves in the middle of it. I buy a baguette and eat it in a silent park, watching the light fade from lavender to navy to a deep, dark black, and the tower change from an orangeish yellow to a bold, sparkly gold.
I yell at a man selling trinkets who won’t leave me alone. My foot hurts. I’m tired. I walked 18 miles today.
Perhaps it is because I romanticized it so much in my head that Paris feels like a bit of a let down. Or perhaps that it’s because I’m on the tail end of my solo trip, not hearing a voice I recognize for days, seeing couple after couple cuddled up in cafes, or strolling through markets feeding each other bits of crepe. I’m happy for them and a little envious. For they surely planned their trip better than I did.
But I end up at a warehouse party with a bunch of design students on drugs, so there’s always an unexpected adventure when traveling serendipitously.
Some places smell like love. Paris is not one of those places. You may sense it briefly on the wind as it rustles the changing trees along the Champs-Élysées, or in a quiet moment when you’re sitting alone on a park bench. But then someone wanders by with a cigarette, and it disappears in a puff of smoke.
The serenity I found in Bruges was not matched in Paris. It’s too busy, too big, too transitory, while being rooted in history. It’s familiar and unrecognizable. It can overwhelm you, or force you to stumble upon something entirely unexpected.
I’m not sure I found what I was looking for in Paris, though I’m not entirely sure what that would be. I half-expected to know it when I saw it.
Someone recently told me I had too many expectations. Perhaps he is right, and true inspiration or romance comes when you’re not looking for much of anything at all.
On my final evening in Europe, I wander through the third arrondissement, and the Île de la Cité. Lit up at night, cathedrals like Notre Dame look even more imposing. Sainte-Chapelle is completely dark on the outside, inside illuminated only by a soft glow of yellow lights. The stained glass towers over the room, lifeless, its beauty snuffed out with the sunset. A man with a violin begins to play to a small audience in the freezing chapel.
The notes cascade like raindrops echoing on the stone walls of the church. Slow, fast, impossible chords filling my heart with joy, melancholy, curiosity, and frequently, heartbreak. With each piece he exposes something of himself, and with it, a part of me, too. I sit so still my legs go numb, my brain thinking of things I tried to forget, and remembering moments long-forgotten.
Sixty minutes feels like sixty seconds by the time he is done.
I am the only other solo patron at the program. Sitting in front of me, an old man who shuffles when he walks became a statue, his expression not changing from the moment he sits down to the time his feet shuffle slowly out of the theater.
I feel lighter when I leave the chapel, as if the heaviness I felt inside is carried off by notes composed long ago.
The train is quiet and smells like old, worn clothes. When I get to the quiet street on which my temporary apartment sits, filled with photos of best friends, postcards, and post-it notes, scribbles reminding the bed’s occupant that life is beautiful and love is real, I say goodnight to Paris.
My breath glistens in the moonlight.