By Jagari Mukherjee
A lifetime ago, back in 2005, when I was an exchange student spending the summer semester at Technical University, Dresden, Germany, I decided to put my scholarship money to fruitful use by visiting Paris during the summer holidays.
At the risk of sounding clichéd, I will go ahead and say that I had been intrigued by Paris since my teenage years, when my aunt had gifted me a copy of the short novel, Bonjour Tristesse by Françoise Sagan. The novel, published in 1954, had caused a scandal (even in a city like Paris), more so because it had been penned by a young girl of 16, who had failed her exams at The Sorbonne. The novel gave me glimpses into a world totally alien and perhaps forbidden to me, as it revolved around a young girl and her equation with her father’s new mistress. I was obsessed with Bonjour Tristesse for the enchanted, bohemian, and utterly scandalous lifestyle it portrayed. I followed it up by reading more of Sagan’s other novels, and I had a copy of The Unmade Bed with me when I boarded the plane to Dresden from Mumbai, and carried it with me always.
I was not a very practical young woman. I had no idea of Paris except for what I got from novels and movies and my history course at college. I wanted to see the city which has been immortalized by poets and artists. I wanted to see the city which had formed the backdrop in works like Alexandre Dumas’ Camille, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal, and Sartre’s The Age of Reason, amongst others. I had watched and loved movies like Moulin Rouge (based on Camille) and Gigi (based on Colette’s novelette). As for me, my painting of Paris will be a work of Impressionism rather than Realism as I attempt to recapture its essence mainly through the perfumed mists of memory. I remember feeling very excited and glamorous – I was a near-impoverished student at the mercy of my scholarship, and I was taking the cheapest possible route to Paris.
I did not even bother to perform research on the internet or buy a copy of the Lonely Planet. I knew I longed to behold the Mona Lisa and the Seine River, but more than that, I simply wanted to breathe the very air of the city imbued with literature, art, and romance.
It was an era before Facebook and smartphones. I had bought a digital camera in Germany but did not know how to use it well. I had an old-fashioned Kodak camera (with a new film roll all ready for my trip), so I have to reconstruct the visit from my memory, from a journal I kept where I jotted down a few points, from memorabilia like tickets and brochures as well as from the photographs I took.
And so, on a lovely summer evening in the third week of August 2005, I left for Paris. My friends and I had booked a guided bus tour from Berlin to Paris. The bus left Berlin at 6 PM. I remember dozing off in the bus and, a few hours later, I opened my eyes to the most awe-inspiring sight in the world. It was the Cologne Cathedral drenched in moonlight, its spires lost in the gauzy clouds. Next to the Cathedral was the railway station, which boasted of a McDonald’s outlet from where I bought a burger. The next morning, I was awakened by our guide Simone’s voice bidding us “Guten Tag”. We were instructed to freshen up and have our breakfast. I was sleepy and irritable, and reluctantly got off the bus.
It was 6am, and a cold, rainy August dawn. We shivered our way in the darkness into a welcoming cafeteria. Even at that early hour, it was bustling with life. On display were some of the most scrumptious delicacies I have ever seen – an assortment of pastries, croissants, éclairs, meringues, baguettes, and macaroons in lovely pastel colors. The warm, wonderful aromas made me realize how hungry I was. Since I was the only one in my group who knew a little French, I was obliged to translate the French names of the ingredients into English for the benefit of my friends. I ordered hot toast along with a blueberry pastry and a café crème and stopped cribbing about the early hour we were made to get up.
When we boarded the bus again, it was daylight. The bus then took us around the famous spots of Paris, stopping at a few interesting ones. It was a grey, rainy morning. I could understand that the rain had caught the city by surprise. A man was selling umbrellas on the road, and Parisians were busy buying those. We followed their example and bought umbrellas for two Euros each – the black, broad kinds that one saw in the 1950s English movies. We peered out, from the bus, to see the Bastille memorial, the Louvre, Les Tuileries, the Arc de Triomphe, the Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower and La Place de la Concorde. We stopped for an hour at Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart) Cathedral with its hauntingly beautiful frescoes and rose windows.
The bus then took us to our hotel. Simone explained that we were free to do our own sightseeing till the evening.
The hotel was located at a suburb of Paris, named Clichy-sous-Bois. Our hotel was the Hotel de Clichy. When I saw our clean, comfortable rooms, I understood that “cheap” had a different connotation in France than in India. We had the same facilities that a three or four-star hotel in India would have.
After a light lunch at the hotel, our little group of four Indian students set out to accomplish the impossible task of exploring Paris within a short time. At my insistence, we went to the Louvre. We admired the inverted Pyramid, and then immersed ourselves in art and culture. We went to room after room filled with gorgeous paintings and sculptures done hundreds of years ago. Religious and mythological scenes, historical events, figures and portraits – all came to life within the hallowed portals of the Louvre. My love for the history of Art was apparent to my friends as I showed off my knowledge by identifying names of famous sculptors and painters, and pointing out to them the different historical ages and the styles which were products of those times. Our high point of the day, of course, was La Joconda – the woman whose mysterious smile has captivated the imagination of generations – also known as the Mona Lisa.
I had heard from people that some actually felt surprised and a little let-down by the fact that the Mona Lisa was small in size. I did not share their feeling – when I saw the Mona Lisa, I could not tear myself away from the spot. There was a quiet, simple beauty in her eyes that gave one a sense of peace. There were many people around me. Some were taking photos, but most were looking at Da Vinci’s masterpiece with reverence and speaking in whispers (reminder: it wasn’t the era of smartphones and selfies yet). I savored the unforgettable moment to the fullest, knowing that it was the memory of a lifetime.
Being on a shoestring budget in a guided tour has a lot of connotations. For example, we were given six hours to see the Louvre museum, a feat I don’t think anybody can accomplish if they really wish to explore the place. The shoestring-budget syndrome stuck us the next day, too, when we went on a trip to the Palace of Versailles. We were given exactly an hour and a half to look at the palace. I honestly thought that our guide, Simone, was joking. When it became apparent that she was not, I sulked, till one of my companions suggested a walk through the magnificent garden around the palace. I did not regret it at all.
Beautiful orchards, groves, fountains, along with Grecian and Roman-style sculptures, dotted the garden. I forgot all my tiredness, and even today, as I visualize the garden in my mind, and just as with Wordsworth’s immortal daffodils, “And then my heart with pleasure fills.”
The boat tour on the River Seine in the evening was another delightful experience. The wind played wantonly with our hair and cheeks as we stood on the deck looking at the historical buildings that the announcer’s voice named. The Notre-Dame Cathedral, several museums, palaces and churches; if you can forget the other tourists, it was as if one had turned back time and was transported to another Romantic era. Paris was shimmering in the moonlight.
We went for an evening bus ride through the glamorous areas of the City of Lights, passing through fashion shops and glitzy hotels. The guide had interesting anecdotes for each place, and sensational trivia for other places. As a sample: “This is the Ritz hotel. This is where Princess Diana stayed with Dodi Al-Fayed the last time before they were killed.” “To your left is Moulin Rouge which was shown in the Baz Luhrmann movie.” And then, while we were passing through the famous tunnels of Paris (I had seen them in one of Peter Sellers’ Pink Panther films), “This is the tunnel where Princess Diana, cornered by the Paparazzi, met with the horrible, fatal accident.” While the rest of the passengers craned their necks out of the bus trying to get a glimpse of the exact spot where her car had crashed, I felt extremely claustrophobic and wanted to get out of there. I have no passion for the macabre, especially in real-life tragedies.
The highlight of the next day was a visit to the Euro Disney. It was divided into theme parks. The ranch-themed park reminded me of the Clint Eastwood movies and other spaghetti westerns, and I liked it immensely, but my favorite was the fairytale section. I was delighted at the fairytale section, perhaps because back then, I still believed in fairytales. The story of Snow White enacted through puppets, gorgeous models dressed as the Disney princesses from my childhood book of fairytales, the make-believe world of the Pirates of the Caribbean, the ‘It’s A Small World’ (ride) of adorably cute singing dolls. However, in the other sections, I forgot to laugh and screamed in terror at the Indiana Jones and Cosmos-themed roller-coaster rides. My friends were cruel enough to laugh at my plight. I had my revenge when we were on a boat-ride through the Gothic tale-presentation of the House of Horrors. It was my friends’ turn to scream. However, the wonderful Disney Parade made up for everything: Mickey and Minnie hand-in-hand, Cinderella in her golden pumpkin carriage, Sleeping Beauty with her prince. All our beloved, colorful cartoon characters came to life before our very eyes.
I must get in a word about Parisians. On our last evening, we were late in returning from the Eiffel tower. We were tired, and all restaurants near our hotel were closed. We walked through the neighborhood, starving, searching desperately for succor, when we noticed a quaint little restaurant in the corner. The glass door was closed, the chairs had been put up, but a small light was on. Seeing us peering, a man came out. My friends tried to communicate with him in English, but he flatly refused to humor them. At their request, I rather self-consciously asked him in my halting French whether the restaurant was open or not. The moment he heard the line in French, his demeanor changed. He welcomed us warmly, put down the chairs (the restaurant had been closed and we were the only ones), and he took our order and made the chef cook a wonderful dinner of chicken and salad for us. We could not thank him enough. This incident is one which I recall with great fondness. It was a wonderful lesson in shattering of stereotypes; we made an effort to respect his language, and he went out of his way to reopen the restaurant just for us and fixed us a dinner.
And so I left Paris with beautiful memories, even though I was only a young scholar on a shoestring budget. The memory of Paris has been immortal and even today, I dream of going back to the city some day so that I can experience it again as a person very different from who I was.
Jagari Mukherjee is a writer from Kolkata, India. She has an MA in English Literature from the University of Pune, and was awarded a gold medal and several prizes by the University for excelling in her discipline. Her writings, both poetry and prose, have appeared in several newspapers, magazines, anthologies, and blogs. Her first book, a collection of poems entitled Blue Rose, was published in May 2017 by Bhashalipi. She has won several prizes in literary contests.
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