I’d been living in Paris for nearly a month, and I was faced with what I knew to be the truth of it, and it could be painful to consider the expectations I had left home with. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy Paris - I adored it, down to the constellations of trodden gum on the sidewalks – but the vision I had constructed in my mind was so impossibly good, that reality, with its accompanying unspectacular moments, felt unfulfilled in comparison. Extraordinary beauty may emerge when you accept that life is a little unsatisfying, but I didn’t know that then.
If the light broke through the clouds when they were ready for rain, the afternoon sunshine appeared gold on the white stone buildings. Rue Férou was flooded with warm light, and requisite shadows. The shadows of the slanted roofs cut neatly across the stone, and their congruent angles before the sun gave the distinct impression that monumental sheets of gold leaf had been pasted over the antique masonry.
I walked through the little rue, tilting my face to the sunshine and thinking about how I’d like to take Morgan here and show her the neighborhood shops and the private gardens that were now dead but would be green and in bloom come springtime.
Walking a rue does not require reverence, but if you take time to plod thoughtfully, history reverberates from the walls like cicadas buzzing in mist. I walked slowly in and out of the shadows, coaxing history with imagination.
My time in the sun ended abruptly, and the cold swept in. The uneven sidewalks became cobbles, and the cobbles became gravel, and before I had fully considered where to step next I had entered Le Jadrin du Luxembourg.
The wind enlivened the few people in the garden with the distinct energy only cold can give to life. Winter grasped firmly to the potential of spring, and the brown, spikey chestnuts hung like macabre decorations for a celebration of dormancy.
The white stone statues of nobles and great citizens that presided over the garden were blotched by residual rain and moss. Gulls perched atop their marble heads and screamed at one another, and it seemed to me that the statues, frustrated by their stone tongues, were willing their once powerful voices through the birds.
I looked at the statues, and back out to the wintry garden and felt lonely in the expanse. Paris was home to brilliant people, but the ones who are remembered are dead, and the dead make for poor company. Rues, parks, squares, metro stations, statues, and door plaques all secure the memorialization of what once was, and who was once, while the present lives on around the remembered like dancers in a graveyard.
Paris is the city of light, but it is also the city of shadows. You stand in the long shadows of those who came before you, and to move into the light you must live as completely as they did, and revel in this light as your true self, until your body becomes your shadow, and your legacy reveals the golden light of present day.
In the Luxembourg I found myself in the shadow of Hemingway, standing as a young man where he once stood.
In A Movable Feast he wrote that when he was hungry – which was often during his early days in Paris – he would avoid the rues with their enticing cafés, and instead walk through this garden. There was nothing to temp him here, and he could focus his sharp hunger into productive thoughts. In more desperate times he would lure the resident pigeons to him, catch them in his hands (pigeons are trusting birds for the promise of food), quiet them in his fingers, and snap their necks. He hid the bodies in his newborn son’s pram, and brought them home to eat.
I squatted down to look at the pigeons scratching in the wet pea gravel and opened my hands. They were as trusting as ever. Death of innocence is possible in any era.
I was not Hemingway, and I did not want to be Hemingway, but the immensity of the past weighed on me. It felt impossible to live in the present in a city like Paris. There were moments when it was possible, but they took incredible focus, and would always conclude in comparison with the past. I cannot admire without competing, and in Paris I was in constant competition with the past for the focus of the present and the admiration of the future.
I walked out of the park, not thinking of where I was headed or why, but only of who walked before me, and the long, formidable shadow they had cast.