I’ve been to Paris twice. The first in September of 2007 and the second in November of 2007. It was on the same backpacking trip and the only destination I circled through twice. When I first arrived in Paris, in September, from Vancouver, my heart and my head were full of expectations. So full that I’d forgotten to fill them with directions from the airport to my hostel. I was traveling with a not entirely pleasant girl who kept barking at me to, instead of my somewhat broken but mostly passable French, ask for directions to the 10th Arrondissement in English.
After an hour or so of asking random Parisians on the street — On cherche Rue la Fayette! Savez-vous où est le hostel Peace and Love?* — and, mind you, we were actually fumbling closer to our destination… I finally broke and consulted a hotel desk clerk… in English. She directed us to a bus and, relieved, we got on. I remember Rhianna’s “Umbrella” was playing over the speakers, but in my jet lag-addled brain, the words sounded French. Figuring they must have recorded a different version for this iconic country, I said as much to my travel mate. She sneered and I listened more closely: “When the sun shines we shine together…” Oh. Well, that settles that then.
*Not “Paix et Amour”, but Peace and Love — obviously catered to travellers and missing from any well-to-do Parisian’s radar.
What I know now is that the Paris Metro system runs from the airport I landed at (CDG) and meets a connecting line that would take us a block from where we were going. But I had an overly-confident attitude heading into my first backpacking trip, stemmed likely from travels with my parents to various countries — some of which I don’t even remember but figured, surely, that the ability to travel well rested within my blood. And, perhaps, also, I assumed Paris would take me in, accept me as its own. I knew I belonged there, so shouldn’t the city know it, too?
Whatever confidence I assumed my blood to be filled with, it certainly wasn’t there three days later as I sat, crumpled, at a dusty train station, halfway to Versailles to visit some long-lost cousins. Crumpled because of construction closing the train line and deterring me from carrying on. Crumpled because I didn’t know now where to go. Crumpled, dreaming about returning home. I arrived in Paris expecting to be swept up, but Paris laughed at my romanticism. It chewed me up, spat me out, and kicked dirt on top of me.
When I returned to Paris two months later, everything was different. My maddeningly passive aggressive trip mate had returned to Canada, taking with her 300 dollars that she would never return and any sense of obligation I had to anyone. Paris, the second time, was going to be mine.
I selected a bunk in a large co-ed room at the 3 Ducks Hostel; this time in the 15th Arrondissement, a 25 minute stroll to the Effiel Tower. Their policy was ‘no outside alcohol’ as to promote sales at the bar, but we snuck 97¢ bottles of France’s best non-champagne region sparkling in anyways. We played Kings Cup/Ring of Fire/Sociables with the harshest rules: anyone who swears gets that word written on their face in sharpie. I learned how to roll cigarettes.
The two people I remember most were an American girl and an Australian boy. Though I was only 20 at the time, I remember thinking they were so young. They must have been 18 but to a 20 year old as wise and experienced as I, they were children. I was jealous of them, though, as the American girl would spend our pre-drinking evenings reading French newspapers, analyzing and translating every single word — the Australian boy was invited to look over her shoulder, but I was not. She was living in the hostel and in Paris for an indefinite amount of time. Part of me wanted to be her.
One day the Australian boy and I made plans to sightsee. First, we made our way to the Catacombs. Over time I’ve been told they can often be severely backed up with tourists, but on this brisk day in early November, we walked straight in. Straight in then down and down and down and around the winding steps. Unsurprisingly it is quiet down there, muted. There is something special about being underground. It is the opposite of the thrill and unease you feel while flying. There is comfort in the depths, familiarity. Even in the dim atmosphere there were still tourists behind us that yelled and shouted. So we kept our voices hushed and our pace slow, losing them for several minutes of quiet until another group rushed by.
The amount of bones is staggering. Skulls on skulls on femurs and fibulas and thousands of other human puzzle pieces. Despite the stacks of deconstructed skeletons, it wasn’t at all scary or terrifying. More contemplative than anything. I read every plaque but I couldn’t now tell you a word of what they said. The bones of six million people.
Once we emerged from under the city (and after we found the nearest crepe truck), the metro whisked us off to Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. If you can visit on an overcast fall day, I suggest you do just that. Crisp leaves and dark skies are the perfect setting for visiting the above-ground dead. Most cemeteries around the world could put their Canadian counterparts to shame, but of all the storied haunts I’ve wandered through across the world, this one stays in my memory the most. The best set designer in Hollywood could not mimic the grandeur of Père-Lachaise. Perhaps because the atmosphere is so dense with history, with devotion. This is a place where you have to die as somebody. Père-Lachaise elevates your artistry in death and the tombstones reiterates that.
We hovered by Jim Morrison’s grave, giving the French teenagers space to smoke their In Memoriam cigarettes and listen to The Doors through their headphones. I put on red lipstick and kissed Oscar Wilde’s grave. The Australian boy took a picture on his camera but never sent it to me.
I tell anyone who will listen that one day I will live in Paris. You could play a game in my home of ‘count the Effiel Towers.’ Including photographs and magazine cutouts and artwork and postcards and my metre high statue, there might be 2o. Or more. It is a cliché, I know. I am Owen Wilson in Midnight in Paris. I am Carrie Bradshaw in season six, but I don’t skip out on dinners in my honour to please a man. Magic lives in those streets and I want to be a part of it.
They say Paris is for lovers, but that’s not true. Paris is for anyone who wants to believe. In something. In anything. Be it love, magic, history… death. When you go to Paris — or when you go back — I suggest you leave everything behind. Bring a map and if you can’t resist it, a camera. Speak in broken French. Get lost. Make new friends. Avoid anywhere playing Rhianna. Smoke cigarettes outside cafés and drink the cheapest sparkling you can find… on the street, by the Effiel Tower, by yourself or with that bloke you met at your hostel. The magic of Paris is what you make of it. It won’t present itself to you, you must seek it out instead. I imagine Paris as a bridge troll, not allowing you to pass until you have given it something. Not money or trinkets, but something of yourself. Blood, tears, dignity. Perhaps that can be said of all great cities, they take nearly just as much as they give. But sometimes, I think, Paris gives just a little bit more.
Every Tuesday I’ll be doing a new Travelback instalment. It’ll will likely be different every week — sometimes a list, sometimes an essay, sometimes just highlights or photos. A huge dream of mine is to write about travel and the world… Okay, well, I’m already living that dream, so I should specify: a huge dream of mine is to get paid to write about such things. This exercise may be a bit self-indulgent, but ultimately I want to work my travel writing muscle to the point that it’s strong enough to entertain and inspire you. As such, I hope you enjoy. xo Kelly.