Like Hemingway said of Paris, “And then there was the bad weather,” at the beginning of A Moveable Feast, the only book that I try to reread every year.
In this case, the weather is merde.
Flights are cancelled in and out of Charles de Gaulle Airport. Paris is buried in snow, cut off from the suburbs and the rest of the world. It is a city fending for itself for the weekend.
But Paris is unapologetic about its weather. C’est la vie. Deal with it.
This is Paris, after all, a city that is still so perfectly beautiful even under a heavy blanket of snow that falls softly from the sky and settles with resignation on the ground.
The city that moved Nietzsche to say, “An artist has no home in Europe except Paris.” This is Paris awash in a strange green color by Amelie director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, in a golden hue by Woody Allen in Midnight in Paris.
Even in this miserable cold in the winter of 2013, Paris has me putting her back on top of my list of favorite cities in the world (after a brief dalliance with Berlin).
Like many tourists, I think of Paris through a hopeful Hemingway and his merry band of creative misfits, through pop culture, through corny lines in film. I think of Paris when I was a younger writer and the smell of freshly baked baguette from the boulangeries gave me such hope.
Paris is a city for writers, lovers, artists, shoppers, wandering souls, and to borrow a literary phrase, for innocents abroad who, according to our local tour guide Mireille, pronounce Avenue des Champs Elysées as “Chumps Delysis.”
The arrondissement (district) that most tourists gravitate to is the 8th, home to Champs Elysées, inarguably the most beautiful avenue in the world with its wide footpaths and horse-chestnut trees (bereft of leaves in winter but still a breathtaking sight).
Champs Elysées is Paris’s busiest avenue, “12 roads and a circle in the middle,” and our Trafalgar travel director Hamish Wallace explains the 50/50 rule here. Since so many cars get rear-ended, the city simply imposed a rule that splits liability and fault 50/50.
Talk turns to art when our coach snakes its way through the 1st. As we pass The Louvre, Mireille says, “The Italians are accusing the French of stealing the ‘Monalisa,’ but we say we didn’t steal it, we just lost the receipt.”
That French sense of humor!
Rodin’s stone sculpture “The Thinker” looks to have become naked after a night of partying in Oberkampf and is now in deep thought as to where his clothing might be. “That’s why the Monalisa is smiling — she knows where it is.”
The Eiffel Tower, a stone’s throw away from our hotel for two nights, is in the 7th arrondissement. It is closed due to maintenance when we go in the morning, so we enjoy wandering through the snow-covered grounds instead.
Mireille says a lot of people used to commit suicide by jumping from the Eiffel Tower, so the city fenced off the platform.
“And tourists want to know, ‘Where can you commit suicide in Paris?’ They are very concerned about us,” she says dryly. “I tell them, ‘Just cross the street. If you’ve seen the traffic in Paris, you know what I mean.’”
Amid the sludge and snow on the grounds of the Eiffel Tower, this is where we bond and laugh a lot — four Filipino girls and one guy from a group of 30. Binky, Anna and Vangie are from the travel industry whom I meet for the first time; Gibbs and I are newspaper journalists who have been bumping into each other at this or that coverage.
Two years later, we are all still trying desperately to see each other over lunch or dinner at least three times a year, because living in a city like Manila and having our schedules is like trying to find a Frenchie that doesn’t drink wine. It’s doable but close to impossible.
But like the movie said — and even for friends it’s a cute and corny line — “We will always have Paris.”
* * *
For all the times that I have visited Paris, I literally followed the footsteps of the writers I worshipped as they walked all over the city in their books and during their lifetimes.
From Montmarte’s cafes and bistros, the bridges on the Seine that connect the Left and Right Banks, the museums, the Notre Dame Cathedral and the boathouses moored on the Seine.
Obviously, Hemingway wasn’t the first writer to love Paris, but to my heart he loved it best. He articulated it in the way Van Gogh did of Provence on his canvas: with such tenderness and affection even if neither of them knew of their influence then. Their deaths, both from self-inflicted gunshot wounds (Hemingway to his mouth and Van Gogh to his chest), would not deter generations of painters or writers later.
They would all love Paris through its sadness, joy and beauty.
You always remember the first time you visit Paris like you remember your first kiss. I always go back to when the smell of baguettes brought inexplicable happiness to me, or that first time at the Louvre seeing the Monalisa and I didn’t have to line up or pay because I had a press ID as a newspaper reporter, or the first time I saw the Opera House and not far from it Galeries Lafayette with all its designer brands.
This district has always amused and baffled me. That the beautiful Opera House, center of the culturati and the well-heeled, is a short walk to the red light district and its supermarket-like sex shops. I’ve always wondered if this was by design or happenstance.
I remember the first time I went to Paris alone and it really didn’t matter because despite its being the most romantic city in the world, it is perfect for loners.
You don’t need anyone to enjoy or fall in love with Paris.
* * *
In 2014, I would visit Paris twice. The first is with good friends Claudette and Steve for our road trip through Provence. We land in Paris in July to news that Russia had shot down a commercial flight over Ukraine. We had taken the same airline and friends urge us to change our flight back to Manila. A week later, when they are leaving and I am flying to Prague again, another plane from a different airline would crash in Algeria.
It doesn’t seem the right time to be traveling, but the three of us agree that no one can really predict such tragedies.
The second is over the Christmas holidays. I fly to Paris armed with my laptop and my external hard drive. In Manila a few days before, I decided to launch this travel blog on Jan. 1, 2015.
Like I told friends after: never start a personal project when you are about to go on vacation because it will consume you.
Paris is this city outside the flat I’m renting in Bastille where I am writing like crazy, it is the bustling place in front of me as I write in cafes and drink wine until my fingers are frozen from the winter chill, as I walk along Champs Elysees and look at the Christmas markets and can’t wait to get back to the flat because I’ve suddenly remembered some things from past travels.
For the first time, writing gets in the way of Paris and me.
It feels like I have wasted my time with Paris, but my friend Marta, a Polish girl married to a Filipino friend, puts things in perspective. She says, “Maybe you wouldn’t have written as much as you did if you weren’t in Paris.”
She is right, of course.
At our lunch a few days after the New Year with Marta and Hendrik is my French friend Cedric, who helped me with the tech details of doing a blog. We met the year before and he was so generous and patient in explaining things to me.
The irony is, even as I fall deeper in love with Paris, he can’t wait to leave it for Tokyo. I am struggling to understand how anyone could ever want to leave Paris.
One day after I arrive back in Manila, the Charlie Hebdo shootings would occur, less than a kilometer from where I had been staying for more than a week.
It fills me with sadness and rage.
* * *
Around 2008, my high school friend June and I are in the same city (Geneva). He gives me a book on which he writes and misquotes Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I tease him, “Dude, you can only use Hemingway as a pick-up line to girls who haven’t actually read him if you’re doing it wrong.”
Almost a year later, we would find ourselves in Paris, nearly missing each other by a day, but he redeems himself here having really read the book now. We spend the autumn afternoon walking around Trocadero and the Left Bank, go on a cruise on the Seine consuming a bottle of red wine each because it is so damn cold.
It is at this time that my crush on Paris becomes real, ten years after my first visit.
Three years later, in the spring of 2012, I am in Paris for a work trip with Alex from the competing newspaper, Anna from a magazine, and Olga from the LVMH Group. Paris is a stopover. Olga and Anna have arranged lunch at the Jules Verne restaurant on top of the Eiffel Tower.
I am looking out at the views from the top of the tower, and at some point during the Alain Ducasse lunch, say, “I wonder if Parisians realize how lucky they are to be living in Paris. Look at this!”
Below us is all of Paris, spreading its arrondissements outward like the shell of an escargot.
I realize, of course, that there exist two sides of Paris: one for those who live here, and another for those who visit. One for whom the French are an absolute nightmare, and another for whom they are darlings when you talk to them in your bad tourist French.
I know this is the Paris that I love, the city that melts my heart like no other. The same Paris that Hemingway did before so many others like me, the Paris whose skyline hasn’t changed much even as its people and immigrants did.
Even I have changed from when I was a tourist here for the first time in the 1990s, when Paris threw stardust in my eyes that I have never really been able to wipe away.
It is the same Paris even as I am older, a little wiser, not much richer because of this pesky need to travel.
But, unavoidably, still a writer.