Paris has been waiting for me all these years, keeping herself beautiful till my return. Even on this grey and rainy day the freshly applied gold leaf on the monuments and palaces shines brightly. I take a taxi to my hotel on the Rive Gauche. Fountains zoom by, spouting water from elaborately carved fishlike creatures or from jugs held by half-naked maidens. We pass the Jardin des Tuileries, the royal gardens near the Louvre, where in past centuries the gentlemen took their ladies to meet each other and gossip. This royal garden with perfectly manicured trees and bushes became a public park after the French Revolution.
We cross the Seine with its many bridges, each one wide enough for an entire army to march over. We are on the Isle de la Cite and the Notre Dame appears in all its glory, bigger than I remember, towering over the surrounding buildings. Beautiful Paris. She is like a gorgeous woman whose sole purpose in life is to be admired for her looks. And admirers she has, thousands of them. An ocean of tourists fills the streets, wherever you turn, rain or shine. They bob up and down, cameras in hand, pointing, chatting, posing for each other. They have come to admire this vast museum.
The next day, I join the wave of pedestrians on the broad sidewalk on the Quai d'Orsay. An old woman with a scarf pulled far down over her face has stationed herself against the wall of the museum. She is bent over at the waist at a ninety degree angle, her hand holding a little cup. How can she stay in that position without falling over? The people pass her by, admiring the beauty of the architecture behind her as they try not to look at her. She is the first but the most disturbing of many beggars I will see in this beautiful city. They are everywhere, in the metro, on the street corners, around the cafes.. Gypsies with infants strapped around their body, their beautiful dark faces prematurely aged. The proprietors chase them away, first politely, for the sake of their customers, then with a rude gesture when they keep coming back.
Women with expensive sunglasses and fashionable high heels sit in the cafes drinking espresso and smoking cigarettes. They are young, tobacco has not affected their looks yet. Nobody seems to mind the lack of space between the chairs, the tables and each other. The waiters are abrupt, efficient, unaffected by any attempt at friendliness.
The subway stop in front of my hotel has been cordoned off. A policewoman with heavy boots and a gun strapped to her side nods in the direction of the Denfers Rocheraud statue down the street and tells us to take the subway there. I ask her why the station is closed. ‘C’est a cause d’un suicide, Madame’. (There has been a suicide, Mam), she says with a neutral expression.
The smell of the Paris metro is familiar to me, but it is now mixed with a sharp stench of urine in almost every corridor. This is ‘le vrais Paris’, the real Paris. The acoustics are perfect for the talented violinists and old men with hoarse voices singing French songs for some change. Young hoodlums occasionally follow a nervous commuter and try to intimidate him into giving them some money.
At the Montparnasse-Bienvenue exchange a very long moving walkway connects two metro lines. On the tiled wall a sentence reads: 'Quatre millions de passagers passent par le metro chaque jours’ (four million passengers use the metro every day).
That evening I go to a Bach concert in one of the most beautiful churches of Paris, the Sainte Chapelle. It has intricate stained glass windows that seem to reach to heaven and a high vaulted ceiling. As I listen to Bach’s music, which fits this liturgical setting perfectly, my mind keeps going back to the old woman on the Quai d’Orsay. Why am I in here and why is she out there?
My family and I lived in Paris a long time ago. I remember the “City of Light” back then as being full of youthful energy, as the brightest star in the cultural firmament. The streets of the Quartier Latin, where my parents used to work, haven’t changed since then. The city’s beauty has not faded, but maybe it is that very fact that makes me sad. The beauty is there, but so is the rot underneath. Beauty is not enough for a city to nurture such an influx of inhabitants. Paris is cracking at the seams with immigrants. The poverty is visible everywhere.
Are these the rants of a suburban housewife, unaccustomed to large cities? Nostalgia for a past that only exists in my memories? Paris has always been one of the world’s most diverse and turbulent cities, going through ups and downs, wars, revolutions, demonstrations and invasions. Even though there are many signs of stress today in this “eternal" city, I hope that it will once again re-invent itself, as it has done over and over again for the past 2,000 years. Only time will tell.