(A free-write inspired by Christopher Moore’s blog.)
It has been said that every visitor finds his or her own Paris. In this city of boulevards and baguettes, everyone discovers their own unique world, quite unlike the Paris described by the guidebooks.
I can assure you that this is indeed true. My personal Paris, it turns out, is a charming city filled with life and culture. It is a place where the wares of a certain patisserie on a certain unassuming street will change your life. A place where every evening the setting sun’s rays paint the buildings of the 6th arrondissement the most amazing gold, and where the beauty of the night-time view from Montmartre will break your heart. In my Paris, the sweet notes of a busker’s violin float through the square on a sunny Autumn morning, and every street-lamp is a work of art. Every narrow avenue in my Paris is filled with the laughter of young lovers. The avenues are also populated by fedora-wearing ants the size of Cocker Spaniels.
Yes, that’s what I said. Giant ants wearing hats. They wander every street, mingling peacefully with the human residents of Paris, and nobody seems to pay them any heed. When I asked about them, on my first day in the city, no one had any idea what I was talking about. I was driven to distraction. Why did nobody notice them? Why were they not mentioned in the guidebooks? Why had my travel agent not seen fit to discuss their presence? Now, though, I understand: I have found my Paris. Nobody else’s Paris contains giant ants.
You might assume at this point that I have been sampling too much French cannabis, but this is not the case. Indeed, after spending all day staring at waist-high insects, I wish I could find a recreational herb to help me relax. I’ve looked. But in my Paris, apparently, it is completely impossible to procure marijuana. The dealers, who lurk furtively in alleys but are fashionably dressed and are all called ‘Jean-Marc’ or ‘Phillippe’, are actually selling asparagus. Welcome to my Paris.
My Paris also has a disproportionate number of stores which specialize in selling piñatas – at least one on every street, ranging from small mom-and-pop operations to multi-level piñata superstores. There is also, apparently, a piñata district in the centre of the 7th arrondissement.
These are but a few of the peculiarities specific to my Paris. But it would seem that I’m not the only person whose Paris is strange and surreal.
Occasionally, wandering the streets at night after the ants have all gone to bed, I will encounter a tourist inhabiting a separate but equally bizarre Paris. Somehow we know how to recognize each other. They may tell me how in their Paris everyone speaks Swahili, or hats are outlawed, or the colour orange is conspicuously missing. I tell them about the asparagus. They talk of how horrible this vacation has been, and how eager they are to leave and return to their normal lives. I envy them. I wish desperately to leave, but my Paris does not contain an airport.
Strange, yes? I know that it had an airport when I arrived, for this was how I arrived. But when I sought it out on the third day of my trip (for the ants were beginning to get to me), it was no longer there. Nor are there any trains or buses which lead out of the city. I have questioned taxi drivers, travel agents, police officers, but none of them have any idea what I am talking about. All roads, it would seem, lead to my Paris.
Sartre once said that hell is other people. Based on this, I can only assume that his Paris was radically different from my own, otherwise he would have used a different metaphor. No, I am quite certain that in my Paris I have found the true meaning of hell: a heartbreakingly beautiful city filled with interesting and vivacious people, breathtaking sights and unforgettable tastes, and dog-sized ants who wear hats. Hell is a world where only outlaws own asparagus, and piñatas are in plentiful supply…
…and you can never leave.