It all really starts the day before. You fly into CDG and, tired and sleepy, lug your overweight suitcase down the stairs, up the stairs, around the stairs and all over the place to the train stop. Then, you find out that the ticket machine only takes change -- not bills -- and that the change machine is broken. Hello, welcome to Paris, you think. The ticket machine also doesn't take your American credit cards (is Visa different in France?) and there is an impatient line behind you giving you dirty looks because out of the 10 ticket machines, only 2 seem to be working. You le sigh and sit on your suitcase, hoping that the noise you hear isn't the sound of your jars of honey from Munich and wine from Vienna breaking into a million little pieces.
You finally get tickets and take four seats on the train between the two of you (because your suitcase is actually heavier than you are and you're pretty sure it deserves its own place, and also, it doesn't fit anywhere else). Then, you get to Gare du Nord, and by Murphy's law, the exit you need to take is the one without an elevator or an escalator. Right, Paris, you think again. You look at your suitcase and at the flight of stairs stretching up and up into the street, and you are hot and sweaty and are being jostled by about a thousand people who are running, running, and you are about to cry because you know what, you've had it today already.
And then, five or six handsome guys in police uniforms -- the sweetest and most wonderful policemen that ever lived -- approach you with smiles and whistles and pick up your person-sized suitcase as it were made of feathers and in a jiffy, you run up those steps into the light, and you are outside in the spring air and the blinding sun. (You wonder if it's okay to tip policemen and then find that you only have a 100 Euro note with you, and decide that a smile of a pretty girl is worth about the same in France -- it's not really true, but the guys seem to agree with your interpretation). Ah, welcome to Paris, you think, your lips curving into an almost involuntary smile.
The next morning, you get up early -- really early, when the light is still blue and hazy and the streets have barely awoken, and you take the subway to the Marais (Marais? the dark woman at the subway ticket counter looks at you perplexedly). You get off the train and walk, eschewing the map, in the general direction of the Place des Vosges. It takes you a while to get there because the streets wind around and there are about a million things to look at, and you see red flowers in the window sills.
The Place des Vosges is almost deserted, but it is more beautiful than you could have imagined, the old buildings standing across from each other in dignified pride. You remember that some king kept his mistresses in the small, elegant palace here, and you want to scoff at kings and mistresses in the good egalitarian tradition, but all you can really do is imagine calling this lovely place home.
You find a cafe and you order, after much deliberation a cafe creme and a croissant au chocolat, because the waiter is cute and who would not want a croissant au chocolat? He doesn't get impatient with you -- he seems used to tourists taking their time. There are four Japanese men ordering omelets, and you ask one to take a picture because you are in Paris and you still can't believe it. The arches make even, slanting shadows across the ground and the fountain bubbles like a brook in the background, and you drink your coffee rather quickly and the delicate flakes of the croissant float around your plate.
There is a monastery with round turrets and red, Gothic windows, and a small, neat park where you meet a man reading a newspaper on a green, sloping bench. He is an American -- really, how do we always find each other abroad -- who has retired in Paris, and he points to a little girl who stumbles around the pebbled path with a click of his tongue. "Paris is the only city left in Europe with children," he says proudly and a little sadly. You talk to him about his life in Vienna, Rome and London and you say with a small sigh, "I am so sorry, but I am only here for one day." He nods kindly, understandingly. He lives here, but you get the impression that maybe every day is really "only one day" for him.
You sit on the cool, stone steps of an old church with stained glass windows, and then you take the streets back up to the Rue de Rosiers and the history is almost oppressive. There is a Star of David on one window, and you touch its worn gilt and you don't know what to feel.
Ile St. Louis greets you, glittering like a jewel in the mid-day sun, cheerful and brisk and full of smells. The back of the great cathedral looks at you indulgently as you pass a creperie and a bar with yellow lanterns, and you choose a tiny red restaurant that advertises a three course lunch for 10 euro. The place is full and animated, and the waitress squeezes you into the only empty table after a pleading glance and a smile. Your ears catch short strains of other people's conversations and your stomach rumbles a little from the smell of quiches and galettes. You eat slowly, savoring the moment, and the woman next to you -- one half of an older American couple -- says loudly that "this restaurant must charge for the ambiance." You exchange an amused glance with the waitress and she shakes her head as if to say, but we get these all the time. Only she would say it in French, so you are glad that the two of you understand each other without words. You leave and stand on Pont Saint-Louis for a long time, looking at the dark waters of the Seine.
Then you finally cross to the other side and you find yourself on the wide, tree-lined Boulevard Saint-Germain. Suddenly, everything becomes a little bit more chic and you pull your scarf around yourself smartly (though still not as smartly as the girls whose high heels are clicking on the old, worn stones). You wonder along the streets haphazardly, slightly shell-shocked from the contrast of the ultra-hip shops with the old, ornate balconies and street lamps. The cafes are the same, though, just as you wanted them to be, and this delights you so much that you almost recover from having passed four patisseries and three fromageries, each more enticing that the last one, during the course of two blocks. The park beckons you, however, and you move on, past the Latin Quarter and past the Sorbonne, and past the monastery with velvety purple flowers behind a carved iron gate, until you reach the Jardin du Luxembourg.
The Jardin is busy in the afternoon, and you are a little startled by the return of the noise and traffic, and the quick, sharp jabs of conversations in many languages. There is a hustle for empty chairs, but you snag one anyway, feeling a little like an outsider amidst the groups of students and families who are eating, drinking, playing or just sitting with their arms around each other. There is a statue of a boy above a bright bed of yellow flowers, and there is an old man who sits on a bench, leaning on his cane, and watching the boy with his eyes, but his thoughts are far, far away. The tourists pass him with their cameras and their smiles, and you are among them, carried by the tide, but he remains at peace. Marie de Medici watches over the cool, green waters of the Fountain of the Medicis, and there is beauty everywhere in the afternoon shadows.
On the way back, you take the less busy Rue de Toumon, and on Rue de Seine, you finally succumb to a patisserie, out of which you come out with a shockingly pink box with two pastries -- because you could not decide on one even if someone gave you $100 -- a lemon tart and some fancy raspberry concoction that you are afraid to touch. You don't even go near a fromagerie because, well, you are only human after all and God knows what would happen then. But you do buy, contrary to all your expectations, soap. You pick a bar of almond/honey, one of peach/mint and one lavender, and give the rest a good sniff when the sales-lady has her back turned, and it's glorious.
You wade, with hurting feet and singing senses, through the throngs of people and traffic to the cool, quiet bank of the Seine, and you cross along the Pont Royal (of course), unwilling to leave it all behind but knowing that you must. The Jardin des Tuileries is waiting for you. You sit by the fountain -- because you have to this time -- and a man next to you speaks very quickly in French, pointing to the shockingly pink box you've carried for two hours. You try to give the universal pathetic look of someone who doesn't speak the native language, and he gives up on you and smiles widely, and makes the "ok" sign at your box. You look at the gold, curvy letters and they say Gerard-Mulot. You understand and make the "ok" sign back and murmur, "merci." He smacks his lips, pats you on the shoulder, and continues on his way. You smile to yourself.
You order a dinner at a tiny bistro close to your wildly-expensive-but-I'm-here-for-a-night hotel, and you tell the waiter "to take away" and then laugh with him because he knows that only Americans ask for that. He winks and pops open a cold beer, sliding it across the counter a little to show off his prowess. The light is golden and fading, and you sit on the window seat in your room, eating possibly the best lemon tart in the universe and drinking hot, strong coffee (and picking the raspberries off the thing with Framboise which got a little rumpled, so you are not so afraid to touch it any longer, and thank goodness for that). The sky throws pink reflections on the gargoyles and the traffic beeps and fumes and the Louvre stands tall and proud -- facing the sunset -- and you know, you really know, that you will live the impossible magic of this day over and over and over again, and that there is only one place in this world like Paris.