Napkin Notes from L’Etoile 1903, Champs Élysées:

A girl comes and sits across from me: a porcelain face framed by a razor-sharp fringe, as sharp as the edges of the cracked caramel of my crème-brûlée. The waiter asks if I’d like to order something more – more wine maybe? Everything in this city seems to be crackling and crisp: the wine, the faces, the leaves even. Where was the sepia softness of Paris that I had read about? I looked for it in the Luxembourg Gardens, on Île Saint-Louis, behind the facades of the huge gates barricading the residential buildings. The personal, the out of sight. You could lie dead in one of those and no one would come to know for days, I thought with a grimace as I turned one corner after the other. A bicycle parked here, a vendor of crêpes there. It was Postcard Paris. Still, I searched for the softness. Paris, mon amour.

No sign of that one.

What was it that I was looking for? A couple gathered in an embrace in front of the Eiffel Tower? No, I certainly wasn’t naive enough to have made a twelve-hour long journey for such a sight. Not, at least, without a monochrome filter. But all the filter that I got was Paris’ overcast skies, which did not look pleased at my arrival in the least. Why else would you give me a locked up, blank slate instead of the azure? I had even chosen the time of travel carefully: springtime. So you see, my disappointment was legit.

I thoroughly disliked Paris. The apartments growing in alleys, stuck to each other like leeches, looked monstrous and malevolent. They said the Seine was flooded. Parisians’ idea of floods seems laughable to anyone from the Indian subcontinent. What a privilege, I thought, again (read: obviously) with a grimace. By now I was restless and impatient. I wanted to turn away from the cold and damp. From the passing of time that acted as a constant hindrance to the longing I felt. I wanted to love Paris. The cobblestone streets snaked and stretched endlessly, welcoming all the gentlemen in their tailor-made Armani and all the ladies in their jewel toned coats and camel-coloured pumps and all the pooches with their engraved collars.

All but me. I stood at the crossroads between Bastille Stalingrad and Gare de Lyon wondering if I should photograph the woman in polka-patterned stockings with a bag of art supplies lying open at her feet; wondering if I should cross the damn road. If I should cross over at all, to the Paris I wanted to experience.

“All you have to do is write one true sentence.”

This article so far, has been honest, if nothing else. My apologies for the stark lack of shine. Of the shimmering lights of la tour Eiffel, any mention of children running around on the promenade of Notre-Dame, faces smeared with chocolate. You see, I saw all of that. But somehow, I do not feel like I know Paris at all. There is no end to Paris; that I can tell you with certainty. But this is the end of my first, most basic tryst with the city that seemed so different from anything I had ever read about it. The fragments I find myself now holding in my hands are more than incomplete. There are sweeter stories to be read on the padlocks, stories I read as ‘mishap’ at first glance. The banlieues of Paris where men and women let the tar spiral down their lungs, lungs panting and heaving their way through, were not places to romanticise. You don’t take a photograph of a ghetto add some noise make it monochrome, and call it ‘art’. Art must have been the writing on the subway walls I shrugged off as gibberish because I had a shoe-bite on my left foot. That writing must have been the words of prophets. Who knows?

For all I know, I was so busy searching for the Paris of my imagination that I had missed the city that actually lived and breathed. So you see, my disappointment was legit. Or so I thought.


Vagabonding ft. Chai
Ramblings from the life of an insomniac Lit major living by Stevenson’s aphorism: “The great affair is to move”, and trying to make sense of life and its squiggles.

Written by Deyasini Chatterjee

Updates monthly

Column icon by Sanna Jain
Featured Image by Deyasini Chatterjee

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