A friend once told me that Montmartre sits up just high enough to look down on the rest of the city of Paris. I had no idea he was being more than figurative until I climbed up the endless stairs to Sacre Coeur. Up there, peering down on the city and the hordes of tourists, gypsies and pickpockets sliding through the streets below I felt myself for the first time in that City of Light.
Paris, I had heard, was beautiful. One friend suggested I walk down the Champs Elysee alone one morning and take it all in. Another told me my love of history and art and architecture would cause me to fall deeply in love with the city. I entered with high hopes.
I am still confused about how I feel about the city.
Montmartre seethes with people. The seething starts out slowly. Visit the area before the shops open and you’ll find empty, quiet streets with locals going about their daily lives. Within just a few hours, however, the place throbs with cars and people and even animals. They seem to materialize out of the ether. Perhaps it’s because Montmartre’s streets are narrower than those of Paris proper, or that the area seems much more working class, but there amongst the shopkeepers and immigrants and, yes, the pickpockets, you finally feel as though you are walking in reality. As though here people do more than simply look chic.
Paris, that beautiful place full of wide avenues and perfect white buildings, feels like a fairytale in comparison. Everything seems a little too lovely, a little too manicured. Maybe it comes from having grown up in Appalachia, but I need grit. Grime. Dirt. I need to feel a place is lived in to feel wholly comfortable there. Paris just doesn’t feel lived in to me. Which is strange, given that so many of the people seem like they’ve lived a million lives to my simple one.
There was a waiter, at the Café Esmeralda, who caught my eye. I don’t know his name, but given I visited the café twice I got a good chance to watch him. He had the kind of obvious good looks you expect to find in a Parisian, but unlike the city’s buildings there was nothing shiny about him. He seemed dark and grounded. The tattoos on his forearms and the cigarettes he chain-smoked hinted at a life more troubled than his sunny waiter’s persona would allow.
Or perhaps that’s me creating a fairytale of my own.
Then there was the woman who came upon me as I was examining a metro map. I had left part of my bag unzipped, there was nothing in there except a map and some chapstick, the good stuff was hidden in a deep virtually inaccessible part of my bag. This woman didn’t know that, though. She came up to me, told me to be careful and helped me figure out which metro line would get me where I was going the quickest.
Looking at her, this older woman with gray hair and lined face, I wondered what sort of life she must have lived to reach out to a stranger this way. To be sure, wandering around with an open bag in pickpocket heaven was not the smartest thing for me to do, but she could have simply walked by without saying anything to me. At that moment, more than anything, I wanted to sit down with a cup of good French coffee and hear this woman’s story. But, too soon, she left me and my taste of something real slipped away.
My time in Montmartre, there above Paris, was all too short. The long morning spent sipping coffee and watching people burnt away as the sun moved ever higher.
If I ever return to Paris, and I would like to, I want to spend more time in Montmartre and all those other places outside the pristine downtown. Explore the real city. The one that dreams and, at the same time, watches those dreams die. The city that produces waiters with tattoos and kind old ladies who reach out to strangers. I want to get away from the pristine picture postcard Paris and delve much more deeply into the Paris that lives and breathes.
My time in Paris, the central part of the city, was a bit like one of those pretty Laduree macaroons – sweet and delicious and lovely but in the end, leaving you wanting more.