A Letter to Paris | Ujwalla Bhandari

Tuesday, 24th January 2012

My darling Paris,

I sit stirring my coffee, miles and miles away from you, and I am thinking of our summer. You are never far from my thoughts. The taste of our first coffee, that first day when we were strangers, its searing liquid heat, perfectly bitter, is imprinted in the memory of my mouth. All coffee now, when I drink it black, tugs at the remembrance of that first day, my first smile in your world, on the street-side bistro on the Champs-Elysees. That first sip of Parisian coffee, and that first smile – that was the morning I fell in love with you, the morning I lost the heart I’d been wearing on my sleeve.

I think often of small moments, the little things about you that make me miss you so. The smell of baking that would waft up at 8 am every morning, the baker (boulanger – oh, French words like these) laying out the first batch of the day, of breads and baguettes, soft loaves and pastry. I would wake, hungry for more of you, heart thrumming with the anticipation of being engulfed by you again, a whole new day together. My little St. Cloude apartment; I loved it, but I couldn’t wait to see you every day. Remember how quickly I’d get ready? I’ll tell you a little secret now: I used to think up my outfits the night before, meticulously planning what I’d wear, how I’d do my hair, which shoes with which bag, which scarves with which coats, which earrings with which blouse. Of course it was all for you. I wanted to be beautiful for you. Did it work? I drew inspiration from your other lovers; Gosh, how impeccably they dress, how surely they carry themselves. They belonged. I wanted to belong to you, too. It was always a little unnerving, knowing that I had only my naïveté to offer. But I learnt a little, didn’t I? I even wore a hat.

The hat. It sits on a little stand on my bedside table now. It reminds me of our afternoon at Montmartre. I loved that day. Walking uphill, up the cobbled streets to the church, there was that grey hat that caught my eye at one of those souvenir shops. It suddenly made me look sophisticated and sure, I wore it sideways to add some nonchalance to the whole effect. Not so naive now; how thrilling! To impress you, I asked the shopkeeper in French, combien pour ce chapeau? (Alright, it was in the phrasebook). He replied, mercifully, in English. I bought it, and put it on right away. I walked the rest of the day feeling like I belonged; a Parisienne. I don’t think I stopped smiling at the thought of being yours.

Montmartre was windy that day. But I had my hat and I had you all around me. So much to know, so much to see together. On the stairs up to the the church, the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the sounds of the man playing the saxophone serenaded us, and made me feel like I was in a movie. The view from the top made me gasp; the Eiffel in the distance, peeking up from the other roofs – who knew roofs could make your heart stop. I remember wondering at the little chimneys atop each house that looked like cigarette butts. The architecture of the buildings that made me wish this were a hundred years ago and I were in a corset dress that flounced around my feet. Inside, the church echoed with quiet footsteps, it flickered with candle-lit prayers. The reverence was palpable, and I remember being wide-eyed and wondrous afterwards. On the way down, in the sudden rain, my hat made me a tiny shelter until the musky merlot I drank with lunch at the little downward-sloping restaurant. Crêpes for dessert, hot off the pan, their smell divine. I am sure heaven smells like baking. Is there anything more wonderful than cinnamon sugar? I think not.

Oh, the memory of Montmartre with you. Saxophones and candles and cinnamon crêpes all whisper to me now, like we’re in on a secret.

The other day, amidst so many memories of you that creep up on me most often, is the Notre Dame Sunday.  All the shops were closed, empty streets and cloudy skies. My love for the cathedral goes all the way back to when I was a little Disney fangirl, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame is still my favorite Disney movie of all time. I half expected to see the courtyard filled with puppet-carts and gypsy tricksters. In my defense, I’m not known for my realistic expectations. Thank you though, for one quirk of a sight, I saw triplets that day, waiting obediently in the line to get in to the cathedral – three identically adorable little girls about four or five years old, holding hands. Another gift from you, a sight to remember.

Inside the church, again, I was mesmerized. The vaulted ceilings, the stained glass, it felt somewhat familiar to me from the number of times I watched The Hunchback as a girl. I remember, I said many times, how it felt like I had been here before, in my gypsy dreams. The gargoyles watched me, and I thought they might burst into song and dance routines, like Victor, Hugo and LaVerne, Quasimodo’s companions. All those fairy-tale ideas seem to come alive in a place like this. It’s one of the things I love most about you, my darling. Thank you for Notre Dame, and for the rapture you kept giving me reasons for, that day. The bell in the tower tolled just as we walked away, and it was a moment I will remember forever. The sound of the bells, their music, and the image in my mind of Quasimodo pulling the ropes, and the feeling of it being absolutely acceptable to believe such a thing – I love you deeply, je t’aime profondément, for all of these things.

It was cold, and the river was dark and opaque as we left. Walking the bridges back and forth across it, the Seine – I wanted to commit to memory the feeling of your streets beneath my wandering feet, and the way the clouds changed in the reflections on the river. We didn’t have much time left together, and the empty streets made you feel more mine than before. I cherished it, and walked until darkness fell, to remember it forever.

And then, some life. On a corner, a caravan of pictures for sale. The man was getting ready to close, but smiled when he saw a prospective customer. I skimmed over prints of the Eiffel Tower, and found the black and white photograph of Robert Doisneau’s The Kiss by the Hôtel de Ville. The Paris Kiss. Of course, I had to have it. It’s hanging, framed in my room now – I told you, didn’t I, that I think of you every day.

There are many moments that swirl together in my mind. The ferryboat on my second day. The flashing lights that make the Eiffel Tower dance, and how we stood watching, trying to figure out when they’d suddenly start, being taken by surprise every time. Riding the last train, that night, worrying about getting mugged – I’d been warned about tourist muggings on the trains – but finding that the suspicious looking man only held the door open for me. No ulterior motive, only chivalry. Thank you for that, and for reinforcing my silly romanticized notions that have no place in the real world. I walked up from the Porte de St. Cloud station, the short distance to the little rented apartment I called home for those magic days, smiling every night, awaiting every next day. The crêpes, the coffees, the feel of your wind in my hair, the smell of sucre-beurre, the warmth of merlot, the flush of its mild intoxication in the sea of wonderment that those weeks were to me. St. Germain and its countless cafés, me hopping from one to the next, glasses of wine and a sandwich, a steak, a poissons en sauce au citron. Les Misérables in the theatre, the music giving me chills. Endlessly watching, walking, breathing you in.

That summer was not enough, my love. I have left my heart with you, a part of it on every street corner I loved. I long to spend endless moments watching the stones of your buildings change shadows in the shifting sun, to hear the music of your many voices, even to see the beauty of your other lovers. I long for the smell of the patisserie downstairs in St. Cloude, the sight of the street markets, fresh baguettes and strawberries. I long for you, long to be yours again.

Until then, I wake up to my framed Paris Kiss, the hat on my bedside, wake up from dreams of you. Until then, I write to you, mon chere. I watch French movies sometimes, and look at pictures from that summer. The one outside Notre Dame where it looks like I’m in the midst of twirling is my favorite one. I eat cinnamon crêpes for breakfast sometimes, and I always think of the ones in Montmartre. I hope you miss my adoration, and my small presence amidst the many that call themselves yours. Please don’t tire of my love; it is boundless and deep – amour profound. Je taime, mon chere. Remember me.

With all of my heart,

Ujwalla

***

Ujwalla, aged 21¾, is currently a postgraduate student of psychology at Delhi University, and has been long afflicted with a writing habit. She has loved to write for as long as she can remember, and has several journals that are stashed at the back of her closet. She was drawn to psychology as a place to begin addressing the endless questions in her own mind, and about the minds of others – so that she may start to better understand a sense of being. Both these loves for her – psychology and writing – intertwine.

She also wants to travel the world, to see the beauty in all of it. Her roots are in Delhi, where she was born and raised. Though she has lived in the same house forever, she has a wandering spirit, and dreams of being a writer-psychologist-gypsy some day.

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