Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Paris je t'aime

We are just back from celebrating G and E's 13th birthday with L and her family in Paris. The girls' birthday wish was to take a bâteau mouche down the Seine to finish off their birthday night, so after cake and kir royale (and fizzie apple cider for the girls), we walked down to the Trocadero and crossed the bridge to the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

There are all sorts of boats that make the tourist trip up and down the Seine: covered ones that offer dinner and dancing; uncovered ones that shine their own colorful lights up at the monuments. The boat that we always take is the plainest: no dinner and dancing or lights, just some recorded commentary. The commentary is faintly ridiculous--the English sounds as if it was translated directly, maybe with a free Internet translator, from the French, and the French sounds as if it was translated directly back from the English. The sentences dangle. But it doesn't matter. As the boat pulls away from the dock on the hour, the lights come on on the Eiffel Tower, and it starts to shimmer and twinkle. This summer, it's lit in blue, to honor the French presidency of the European Union. And the tower is huge: an obvious thing to say, I know, but you see a thing so often, you forget what it really looks like, and it becomes just an image on a postcard or a tshirt. When you see the tower up close, though, it's astonishing. Huge and gangly and absurd, and graceful and beautiful and touching. And, every hour on the hour, sparkling.

The girls and C sat on the bench behind L and my mother and me. It was C's first trip down the Seine, and from up front we heard them talking and laughing and pointing things out. The girls kept leaning up and touching my shoulder, asking questions, pointing things out, wanting me to settle bets. The three of us on our bench were quiet. We watched the monuments float by us: the Musée d'Orsay, the Louvre, the Institut; Henry IV on his horse, the Conciergerie, Notre Dame. And then back: Samaritaine, Châtelet, more Louvre, the Tuileries, the fairy lights in the trees just before the Pont d'Alma.

It's one of the most touristy things to do in Paris, take a cruise on the Seine. But it doesn't feel cheap and tacky and like someone's just trying to make a euro. It feels like a privilege. Here we are, living through times that, even to my historian's long-term eye, look pretty damn dark; and here we were, on the birthday night, looking down the barrel of the girls' adolescence and our own--dare I say it?--inevitable middle age, and getting ready, too, to say goodbye to L's magical time in Paris, as she and her family go back to America at the end of the month. And yet building after beautiful building scrolls by, each one perfectly proportioned, each one, despite and even because of the foolishness of the people who built it and lived in it and around it--each one so perfectly situated, so perfectly at home. It feels as though Paris was ordained to look like that, like at the beginning of time, right after figuring out DNA and moon pies, God said, and then let's have a city on a river, with boulevards and quais and one, no, make that two, islands in the center, and we'll call it Paris.

It's reassuring, that beauty, that solidity. It makes me think that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, beauty and truth and balance and proportion matter, and that maybe, just maybe, they last longer than all the other stuff. Even the Eiffel Tower--it's ridiculous, useless. But there it is, a testimony to our ability to create whimsy when we want to, a witness to our ability to create beauty. And if that were not enough, it twinkles: earth hath not anything to show more fair.

Every time I leave Paris, I like to think about how it goes on without me. Driving out of the city in a taxi when the girls were smaller, taking them home after their first trip to the city, I watched the shopkeepers raising their shutters, the market vendors setting out their cabbages, and I thought, this will happen the same way tomorrow, and the next day, and every day after that (except, of course, in August, when everyone goes on vacation), until I come back. On the birthday night we didn't talk much on our bench, we just watched as Paris went by. I was feeling a little melancholy, with all the changes of birthdays and departures in the air. But as we sat there listening to the laughter behind us I began to feel grateful instead, gliding through this wondrous lit-up city with people I love. I wondered how I managed to be set down in this life. And I knew, then, as much as you can ever know these things, that the city would be there waiting when we made it back.

As the boat returned to its mooring, a dinner cruise drew alongside. In a glass-enclosed room, couples leaned together over round tables, sipping champagne in tall flutes and gazing out at us. We gazed back. There was a small deck at the end of the boat, and a young couple was standing on it--actually, she was sitting; he was standing. As they drew alongside us, the young man threw out his arms and called, in an accent that made it clear English was not his first language, I love you Paris! He didn't pronounce the 's', so it was Pareee, and the vowel echoed across the water.

Our boat docked and we lined up to get off, and then walked back across the bridge. The tower began twinkling again, and we could see its lights reflected in all the windows of the boulevards as we walked home.

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