Thursday, July 15, 2010

Le Pont des Arts: An Intersection of Love Stories (un premier contact)

Paris a mon coeur dès mon enfance.” -Montaigne

“Paris has had my heart since I was a child.”

As a seventeen-year-old, I sat in a cramped classroom pasted with the Johnny Hallyday-laden pages of Paris Match, Petit Prince posters reminding me that the essential was invisible to the eyes, and wondered if one day I would glimpse the Eiffel Tower in any form other than its cardboard incarnation on Madame Furr’s wall. Even though most of my world could be condensed into the rural radius of the one-stoplight town where I grew up, everything I loved seemed to be French.

So, I practiced my pirouettes in ballet, perused Camus in translation, trekked hours to see Rodin’s sculptures in museums, tried to reproduce the intricate grandeur of puff pastries, and exhausted the French film section at the local library.

I did see the Eiffel Tower, a year after I began taking French. After that, just as Gertrude Stein claimed that America was her country, and Paris, her hometown, I had two countries. The first time I saw the tower was at night. It is still my favorite way to see her, twinkling on the hour, a coquette of a clock.

This is probably my tenth time in Paris, but the first thing I wanted to do in my adopted hometown was run, see as much as I could, as fast. It is the way I discover a new place, or return to an old one.

Scenery slid by as I pounded pavé . . . Notre Dame’s spire, slender and coal-colored, emerging from among the marble. The glossy glass Pyramide juxstaposed against the Louvre, so stern, so enduring. The dusty stretches along the Tuilleries lined with garden-sitters paging through newspapers and paperbacks. The green-boxed bouquinistes, equipped with vintage cartes postales, posters, yellowed books. The cluster of cars and cycles weaving wildly around Place de la Concorde.

More bridges, more near-misses with motos.

I cross to the left bank. Arrive. En fer et forte, 1665 steps surging skyward. I touch the west leg, move under it, look up. Mouth merci. No one is trying to sell me a postcard or keychain. I live here, even if only for two months.

On the way home, I crossed back over to the left bank on one of the pedestrian bridges near the Louvre, le Pont des Arts. I slow to see a man, crouched, taking a close-up photo of something on the railing. I pause, curious. Glints of gold and silver sparkle from all over the bridge. Locks. Hundreds of locks hooked onto grated side railings.

He leaves. I approach. Every lock was marked with a combination of lovers’ names. Some scrawled in Sharpie, perhaps purchased also in haste from a hardware store on the Quai. Some engraved, the product of planning, perhaps packed with the couple on a honeymoon voyage. Others, more discreet, had initials. Some, no names at all. Most were key locks, others dial locks, still others with combinations, numbers lining up in a vertical stripe down the middle.

There was a kind of beauty in it that ached a little, all those people loving each other, wanting to offer proof of it to the passersby.

Thinking of the people I have loved, je me lève, realize I’m dizzy from standing still for a moment after running so long. I had been to Paris with each of my long-term loves. Each once. But have come many more times alone than attached. The backdrop of each story outlasted all of the characters.

Who were these lovers? Where were they? Fanny et Jérémy. Tim and Laura. Ana Luisa y Robert.

I want to get away. I want to fly awaaaaaaay. Yeah, yeah, yeah . . . a guitarist croons, mid-bridge as I jog off. What did Lenny love? Oh, right. He loved falafel. I know this because we’re rumored to live in the same neighborhood. There’s a big picture of him, Rue des Rosiers, falafel in hand, his arm around the owner whose restaurant he endorsed. “Best falafel in the world,” he had said, according to my Let’s Go guidebook.

I won’t mention the name of the place, out of respect for the other falafel joints, but you’ll be able to recognize it, if you visit. It’s the one with the line, preceded and followed by other desolate vendors pleading, “We have good falafel, too.” They don’t want to beg but they feel compelled to. It is the position of the lover who is left: “Don’t pass me by . . . I have something worth your time. I know you’re not convinced, but please stop walking away.”

How many of these couples were still together? It was a question I asked my friend Scott, a few weeks afterwards, once we and some other friends had become habitués of the bridge, frequenting it in the evenings when youngish people gather for improvised picnics, drinks, rencontres. “Doesn’t matter,” he said adamantly. “It only matters what they felt at the time.”

Who are they, these couples?

Are we not predictable in this? Loving the sunset, the kiss at the airport, the Eiffel Tower, the easy and obvious cliché? Was me being enamored with Paris, the most frequented tourist destination in the world, or the people I’d loved, each so charming, each beyond beautiful, another example of loving the obvious? Was I like all of those people on Rue des Rosiers lining up for falafel at Lenny’s favorite place, not looking past what might seem like the clear first choice?

Each couple had lived a love story, each unique. Yet, they had chosen to symbolize their love similarly. Was love always more alike than different? I must think more on this, or perhaps not think. I remember the words from one of my favorite love stories. It is the story of two kinds of love: a friendship and an unrequited adoration. It too, is obvious. As I leave the bridge, it stays with me: Adieu . . . Voici mon secret. Il est très simple: on ne voit bien qu'avec le coeur. L'essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.

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