When I did end up in Paris, the inevitable happened. I didn’t fall in love.
It would have been impossible, my pace was too fast, I never slowed down to smell the roses, there was always an undiscovered street around the corner. I didn’t want to miss a single cobblestone, so instead, I missed the moments.
I missed reading my book over freshly baked croissants, I missed the endless hours of people watching from that iconic bistro table, wine or coffee in hand (although I, of course, stopped by the infamous Café de Flore – but it became just another thing to tick off my list), I missed smiling, laying in the grass taking in the burning summer sun at the magnificent Jardin de Luxembourg.
But I did spot many Nouvelle Vague moments, moments that took me by surprise. The fact that those iconic movie scenes of the past were still so much a part of the Parisian street life of today, was the only thing that would make me slow down, take a moment to inhale.
It could be so simple as a guy in a trench coat lighting up a cigarette in that special way, but it also included more comic scenes set amongst groups of friends, or actually being the “target” of an innocent scam by the likes of Jules et Jim.
As a first-time visit to Paris requires, I visited the grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre at the Cimetiere Montparnasse; it was like a true pilgrimage for me. A sort of raison d’être for my whole journey.
When I get there I see that two young men are already there, one standing next to the grave, the other sitting on a white bench. While one looks like a bum, the other wears a tailor-made suit. They whiff of the casual ambiance common amongst good friends.
The bum, or the Jim, starts talking to me. Not a hello, but a direct question – why are you here? he asked. I was already thrown. Then he told a tale, for which purpose I didn’t know. And still, don’t understand.
He tells me he is the grandson of Simone de Beauvoir, and that he feels immensely proud that all these people from all over the world come here to visit her grave. Of course, I know Simone de Beauvoir never had any children; existentialism was the lovechild of her and Sartre. A fact he shrugs off, adding what a loving grandmother she was. His friend, or his Jules, still on the bench – laughs a quiet laugh. I decide to play along, but with an irking feeling in my stomach. There and then, I didn’t understand how innocent it was, how comic a scene. There and then, I just felt like an unassuming fool in someone else’s game.
So I walk off, deciding to take a stroll around the cemetery. I visit the grave of Serge Gainsbourg, gaze at all the metro tickets that cover his gravestone. There must be hundreds of them. How many in total since 1991, his death, I wonder. Though I, myself, fail to leave my own behind.
When I have finished my walk around the cemetery, I decided to return to the grave I had originally come to see. By a sigh of relief, I realize the Jules et Jim characters are now gone, and I finally get to have the moment I had been waiting for: closing my eyes, paying my respects to this woman I so admire. And that man I always saw as a second fiddler, but also hold in the highest regard.
Looking back, I am happy to have had that encounter, with these two characters not found in the existentialist novels of his claimed grandmother, but in the films of the same era. I realize that I got to experience more of the real Paris than I thought at the time, when I was too busy on my desperate search for the promise of Parisian magic.
And while I have been back since, and planning a new visit as I write, it all stands as pale in comparison. As now Paris is just a city like any other, then it was the French version of magical realism.