Of all the cities I have visited in my lifetime Paris holds, in equal place with Varanasi, India, the title of the city to have most romanced my soul. At the tender age of 16 I spent the heart of winter hosted by a vivacious family in a village 30 miles North of Paris, attending French high school during the week and being chaperoned around the sights of Paris on the weekends. The impression of the beauty, the opulence, and the artistry of every detail down to each street lamp never left me, and more than a decade later fueled by a hunger to luxuriate in that splendor once more I plotted a brief two day trip to Paris this summer.
Having stayed in touch with my host family over the years, largely thanks to their persistence, I was invited to stay with my host brother Vincent and his wife Deborah in their inner city apartment not far from the Champs Elysée. I had recently spent time with them in New York, touring SoHo’s boutiques, mounting the Empire State Building and brushing up on my French, and catching each other up on our adventures and escapades of the prior 12 years.
My arrival date and instructions on how to get to their Parisian apartment by bus from the airport exchanged by email, I arrived at their doorstep as planned at 9pm on a Monday night. I rang the doorbell with their name. No answer. Perhaps the buzzer was broken? I waved up to a couple of guys out on a balcony upstairs and spoke in French, “Hi, do you know Vincent?”
“No, never heard of him,” they called back.
How indicative of our exstranged urban live; we often don’t know our neighbor’s names!
“I’m a friend from the US. He’s expecting me, I don’t understand why he is not here.”
“Do you have his number? I’ll call him for you.”
He tried the two mobile numbers I had and both rang through to voice mail.
“I’ll let you in so you can wait inside.”
I trundled up the stairs with my laden backpack and violin. The neighbor had guests and did not invite me into their home but offered me water and the shelter of the wooden stairwell. I wasn’t sure which apartment was theirs and knocked on a few doors. “Is Vincent there? Do you know which apartment is his?” No success. Hours passed with no sign of my friends. How could they have forgotten me? We had confirmed by email only days ago? Two hours passed and inevitable tears began to flow.
Another neighbor, Pierre, arrived. “I saw Vincent this morning and Deborah this afternoon,” he reported. The plot thickened. “Go to the top floor of the building. All the people on that floor are out of town.” Finally someone who had taken the trouble to get to know his neighbors. “Here’s a blanket. You can lie there and wait.”
So up I went, unfurled my yoga mat, shawl and the blanket and made a little nest. Pierre arrived a few minutes later with a banana, an apple and a bottle of Perrier. I accepted with gratitude and amazement. I left a note at Vincent’s door saying I was on the 7th floor, ate the fruit and dozed off. I slept poorly dreaming of airports and abandonment.
I awoke startled by Vincent’s voice. “Oh Jena, I am so sorry! Come, let me take your bag.” I packed up my mini encampment and followed him downstairs. It was 1am. “We got the date wrong, we thought you were coming tomorrow. We were out to dinner at my aunt’s place and they had put our bags in a closet so we didn’t hear them ringing. We rushed home when we got the messages. So sorry!”
What a debut to a trip. After that everything was a breeze. Having seen the principal tourist attractions on my previous trip my goal was to simply roam around and soak in the ambiance. The next day my wanderings took me to a café overlooking a square where I sat with a cappuccino and watched the people go by. So often I am on the go, roaming, exploring, groping the world for experiences that light up every sense and leave my body with a tangible impression; it felt like a true novelty to sit passively and consume Paris through a pane of glass.
I sat with my computer and wrote stories for hours, further romanticizing my existence in my imagination with every sip from my froth brimmed cup. Rain that had been hovering like a jealous lover eventually unleashed its wrath and I watched the young Parisians gathered in the square run like mad for shelter. An hour later the wet gleaming square began to dry and I emerged into bohemian paradise.
The next day I met a friend from New York who had moved to Paris to live with a man she had fallen in love with in Thailand. Clearly love knows no borders. Upon her suggestion we set off to Paris Plage.
“Paris Beach” is a public space on the right bank of the Seine provided free of charge by the mayor of Paris for one sweltering mid-summer month for the last 5 years. Heaps of sand and a proportionate number of deck chairs and palm trees are shipped in creating a two-mile long playground for adults and children alike. The idea, to create an urban beach that simulates the delights of the seaside for those unable to escape to the ocean itself, exhibiting that even a right-wing France retains a socialist flair.
The main drawback, the fact that swimming in the Seine is forbidden, was compensated for by the diversity of the beach’s offerings. In between the sandy lounges were surprising attractions—trampolines, rock climbing, games of pétanque, a swimming pool, a rollerblading rink with music and lessons—all free! Giant misters cooled us off as we strolled the bank below the Louvre. Although I revere and worship its masterpieces, it was the fresh interactive art on the beach that captivated me this particular day.
There were water bubblers everywhere, never an opportunity to go thirsty despite all the activities available. There was a pirate ship banked on one of the sandpits, transformed into a playground with live pirates to entertain and supervise the children, allowing their parents to eat ice cream and watch the clouds. Free salsa, tango and other dance classes took place throughout the day and at night concerts representing music from around the globe, as multicultural as Paris’s own streets.
Being the sensualist I am, I was ecstatic to come upon the “relaxation area” where imitation Bedouin tents offered free therapeutic massage. The muscles of my shoulders and back bore the uncomfortable memory of carrying my backpack, computer and violin around Europe for two weeks and I felt I had truly stumbled upon an oasis. I stepped on to the wooden platform with the massage tables and enquired about the details. One of the masseurs answered my question and pointed to the long line. Knowing I would never get to the front of the line in the time I had, I took the opportunity at hand.
Nothing to lose by trying to talk your way to the front of the line, I told myself, and mustered every ounce of my imagination to see what would inspire this man to disregard linear convention. I asked him about his work. He had studied in Cambodia. We shared stories about journeys in Asia, weaving images of our wanderings and instantly establishing a certain intimacy that bonds travelers. In the end it was bribery that worked. “I am also a healer,” I told him. “If you massage me I will work on you too.” He’d been massaging for hours; I’d found his Achilles heel.
“OK, take a seat and I’ll call you next.”
At this point I realized that I had to leave to meet. He had invited me for a tour through the sculpture garden of the Rodin Museum, which is next door to his office, during his afternoon break. I was torn—Massage or Rodin? An internal tug-of-war ensued. You’re in Paris, you should see Rodin, one voice said. Your shoulders are aching, you’ve made it to the front of the line and Rodin is not going anywhere, the other countered. I asked my friend to be referee and she encouraged me to choose, guilt free, whichever option I really wanted. The massage won and I sent a text to Vincent that I couldn’t made it.
“Ahhhh…,” cathartic sighs escaped my throat as I surrendered my back to my adept French masseur. Like the great master Rodin himself carving beauty from bare marble, Maurice’s artistry unearthed bliss from my rock-solid back. His hands like sculpting tools shaving away layers off stress and dissolving pains. Like a potter warming hard clay malleable on his wheel, he melted the tensions out of my flesh on his table. At first my mind tracked his movements up and down my spine, around my sacrum, under the base of my skull and then it too let go and I was adrift in unlabelled sensation, floating as if on a buoyant ocean wave.
Forty-five minutes passed and I hailed Maurice’s grand finale with profuse appreciation, savoring the sweet and invigorating aromas of the oil he used as I rose up, euphoric and revitalized, to meet Paris again. “Come back in an hour,” he said. I set out yo find my friend who was eating ice cream, admiring colorful lamps hanging from the trees, a live Mona Lisa, and the other unpredictable art pieces on the strip, when all of a sudden a man came up behind me.
“Mademoiselle, excusez-moi, I saw you getting a massage and I have to tell you, your beauty has intoxicated me. If there is such a thing as love at first sight this is it. May I walk with you?” I knew French men were renowned for their seductive way, but I was caught off my guard. If my girlfriend hadn’t been waiting for me, and if I hadn’t been leaving Paris the next morning, that may well have been the beginning of another story.