I sometimes think that what is really, truly beautiful is fleeting: indeed, it is this very transience that makes it so achingly lovely.
That cannot be held true for Paris. Its great architectures of stone are not transient: countless eyes have gazed upon them over countless years; men and women and children from all walks of life have stood here, where we stand now. Above us, the sky is animated with stone-grey and pearly-white clouds that sweep across, indifferent to the city below and its multitudes of people. One moment we find ourselves blinking in bright sunlight; the next running for cover as the heavens open. Now, after the rain, Paris shimmers at our feet, too, reflected in the luminous streets, intangible.
On the first evening, walking along the river embankment with Saul, I tried to reconcile the city that surrounded me with the city I thought I knew, the city I had encountered already in words and pictures. Nothing is quite like the real thing, however. Already, the reality of Paris is fragmented by the imperfection of memory – and even that reality wasn’t (quite) perfect.
The stranger stopped in front of me. His French was broken and he had a limp, which he tried to mask by leaning on the table at which I was sitting outside a café (Saul had gone inside for a moment). The sun was setting and was casting its last, golden rays on the roofs across from me; but this man was already in dusty shadow. I regarded him cautiously.
‘Excusez-moi, mademoiselle,’ he said. ‘I have lost a… What is the word? When you have to do something because you lose. A bet, yes, I have lost a bet. And now I must kiss you.’
Paris, the city of romance.
‘You don’t find me attractive?’ he asked, astonished, when I refused his kiss. ‘But I lost the bet, you see…’ He leant towards me, evidently determined to keep his word, and I had to push him away. Shaking his head, he limped on: ‘It was just a joke, mademoiselle, just a joke.’
Later, on the metro, as we return from the opera (we went to see The Lighthouse, a chamber opera inspired by a true story, written by English composer and conductor Peter Maxwell Davies), we are met with a request of a different kind.
‘Un euro… pour manger… Je suis désolée… de vous déranger…’
It is a monotonous chant, the same words repeated over and over as the speaker walks up and down the carriage. She is tall, and would be a strong woman, but her clothes hang loosely from her and her eyes are glazed, looking over the heads of the people she is addressing. Hoping? It is hard to tell.
And then we emerge from the metro, and are met once again with the beauty for which Paris is so well known.