Mark O’Leary muses on his recent trip to Paris, and whether its significance lies in its location or the feelings it inspires.
Since my first visit to the city as an adult, last summer, Paris has occupied an almost sacred space in my self-conception. Travelling alone for the first time, Paris was the only place I had ever felt entirely untethered. The city had become a cathedral of the kind of authentic experience that I longed for. Yet twelve months later, as I once again strolled through the narrow cobbled streets of the Latin Quarter, It occurred to me that perhaps it was not the place but its place in my life which was special. The architecture and the repetitive conversations with other travellers had started to turn dry.
I stopped for two pints at what was still nominally a little Irish bar, which had by erosion become authentically Parisian. Faded advertising for Magners (the defunct name of the Irish cider which is now Bulmers) adorned the front, while the bathroom walls were scribbled with black and red marker, proclaiming ALL COPS ARE BASTARDS. I considered joining the only other patrons, two Parisian girls, but was deterred by the thought of the irritation I would feel if my evening in Tom Barry’s with a friend was interrupted by a French tourist, trying to find the ‘real Ireland.’
Boarding the Metro, I was resigned to meeting some other tourists to spend my evening with. Yet, when after just two stops everybody else in my completely full carriage rushed out the doors, I was driven to see where all of these Parisians were in such a rush to get to. Chasing them up the stairs, we emerged into an indistinct residential neighbourhood. Everybody began to filter out into different streets. There was nothing happening. I checked the time. It was 6pm on a Wednesday. Paris was merely returning home from work.
It occurred to me that this was the real Paris I had been searching for. These people were not awestruck by the Sacre Ceour and they probably almost never visited the Louvre. They thought about what to cook their children for dinner and whether they would have time to watch an episode of American Vandal season 2, just as much as the rest of us. I wondered if they ever stopped dead in the street to marvel at the architecture that they were surrounded by every day and concluded that they probably didn’t, just as I never stopped on Patrick’s Street and looked above the garish shop fronts at the beautiful Victorian buildings above.
Back on the Metro, I realised that in coming here I had been seeking a secret life that I had believed always existed around some corner. A life from a film, where all of the unimportant bits are edited out. I was convinced that my life thus far had been mere exposition. All I needed to do was finish school or to go somewhere different. Somewhere I would also be different. To think that life in Paris could be just as mundanely human as life at home, dashed a conception of a future that had always been central to my self-perception.
I concluded that if Paris was not this utopia, then it must not exist. Life would remain mundane, if perhaps punctuated by brief moments of excitement. I would remain the same person I had always been.
Later that night, two Australians and I stumbled toward the Eiffel tower. Its thousands of twinkling lights mimicked the night sky and I thought how uniquely arrogant it was for humans to try and recreate something so impossible to replicate. Yet in this case, we had come close enough to succeeding. The tower shone with all of the dumb expectation I had thought I had lost that day.
Hemingway called Paris a “moveable feast.” I think that he was slightly off the mark. It is not Paris but the feeling it inspires that is a ‘moveable feast.’ Paris is the place to go to learn how to bottle the awe that every brick of every house and every blade of grass at le Jardin de Luxembourg inspired during my first trip. Wonder is perhaps the most valuable human emotion. Maybe it is not the things we see that inspire it but how we look at them. Here’s to looking up on Patrick Street.