Paris is a city that seems only to be spoken of in exultant platitudes: artists, poets, musicians all write of the city’s grandiosity as if to speak of Paris is to channel the Muse of Art and Beauty herself.
This is not that kind of tale.
I had been to Paris once before, for three days in the fall of 2005. Having taken the TGV from Aix-en-Provence, I arrived at the Gare de Lyon with no plans and no place to stay. I wandered the streets for hours with my little duffle bag hoisted on my shoulders like a backpack, both enchanted with the beautiful churches and nervous that I would find myself sleeping in one of their pews. Finally, exhausted, I hailed a taxi to take me back to the station, thinking that at least I could sleep there for the night and try again in the morning to find a room. But the driver and I got to talking and so I described my plight to him, and he dropped me off at a hostel he recommended.
Now, I’d been traveling for several months and had stayed at many hostels, all of which were barebones but pretty decent. This place, though . . . this place was run by WITCHES. The “reception desk” – which was a closet – had a 3D holographic picture of Jesus. A severely obese goldfish stared at me from a shelf behind the witch’s head, with a look that could best be described as the utter devastation that occurs from living in a fetid tank corrupted by one’s own fecal matter, and having absolutely no recourse with which to deal with the situation except to merely survive.
I told these wretches that I was looking for a room for two nights, and we agreed upon some price that has now been driven from my memory. (Whatever it was, I overpaid.) The younger sorceress removed a sedated Chihuahua from her lap and heaved her giant body from behind the “desk” – a rickety card table, likely in continuous use since the first World War – and led me up a narrow set of stairs that quaked and groaned from the stress of our two bodies (but mostly hers). She unlocked the door, put the keys in my hand, and silently turned back, though it’s also possible she vanished into the ether, as I never saw her again for the rest of my stay.
The room consisted mostly of a small nighttable and a queen-sized bed upon which a coverlet lay in tattered floral shreds. I was surprisingly fine with this because, despite the delapidation, it at least seemed clean. And yet – I walked over to the private bathroom (such luxury!) and witnessed grayish-colored pills concealing what was left of the floor tiles. Wallpaper from long, long ago had peeled and the paint had gone with it. A layer of dust and filth rendered the shower unusable. There was no way death didn’t occur in this room.
Both pride and the spirit of adventure kept me there. I stayed in that hostel for three days and two nights. Had I been aware of couchsurfing at the time, I surely would have posted to the Paris Emergency Requests: “Hi all, my name is Jessica. I’m from New York City and plan to be in Paris for a few nights . . . BUT I AM BEING HELD AGAINST MY WILL BY TWO SHAPE-SHIFTING VOODOO SISTERS AND THEIR THAUMATURGIC DOG! So, you know, if you have a free couch for me to sleep on, just holla at yo’ girl. Thanks!”
I thought of that episode often during this year’s visit, as Dan and I would prepare for an afternoon picnicking at the Jardin des Tuileries, or as we stood marvelling at the beauty of Notre Dame at dusk. The melted faces of those two creatures would seep into my mind like memory-discharge, haunting me as I read passages from Lady Chatterley’s Lover at Shakespeare & Company, or as I sat at cafés sipping espresso. I would mutter quiet words of comfort to the obese goldfish as we watched dancers dip and twirl on the banks of the Seine.
The Paris of Hemingway and Balzac finally revealed itself to me on this trip. I was dazzled by its living symphony. Its light, its color, its glow of streetlamps – all of these speak to the essence of a grand civilization, one lifted up by those things . . . and by the sibilant hiss of two insane sisters and their demented dog. J’adore le juxtaposition.
Our guest blogger Jessica, originally from New York City, is currently spending a year traveling across Europe, photographing and blogging about her adventures. Read more about Jessica here