As I sat overlooking the Seine, surrounded by the crisp Paris breeze, sipping away on a warm café crème at A Good Café on the Place St.-Michel, I felt a tap on my shoulder. That morning, for no particular reason other than its convenient position toward the top of my suitcase, I was wearing a black U-Store quarter-zip. It’s a non-descript piece of clothing – warm enough – save for the small thumb sized Princeton shield just below my right shoulder.
Apparently, that was enough.
“Excuse me, young man.”
Being called a young man was refreshing. It’s a more generous estimate of my age than I’m accustomed to.
“I noticed your sweatshirt.”
I was just grateful that his follow-up hadn’t involved asking me if I had gotten lost from mom and dad.
“Do you go to Princeton?”
Crisp English with an American accent. As a non-French speaking American myself, I painfully have to admit that the prospect of expressing my thoughts quicker than 10 words a minute was heartening.
“Yes, sir; I do.”
Sir. Habit. It wasn’t that he was particularly old, mind you. I’m just Southern. Even abroad, some things aren’t so easily changed.
“Well, how about that.”
He was Class of 1986. And, just like that, we got to talking. In a land foreign to us both, conversing in a language natural to us and yet so out of place, and united by a singular experience more shared than remembered. Names and families. Lives and careers. Travels and theses. And, of course, eating clubs. Those intangible threads that link every member of this community we get to call home never cease to amaze me. It must be something in the Beast.
We sat there, in that café, for what seemed like hours – chatting and laughing, reminiscing over events I had never seen and he would never witness. Far from disingenuous, it was connection on a fundamental level, an understanding that only time spent traversing the same obstacles – even if years apart – could provide.
And when I left – a smile on my face, a story in my mind, and the obligatory business card in my pocket – I felt slightly more in sync with the past than before. I inhaled, letting the cool Parisian air rush into my lungs. The City of Love was not the ideal locale for one lone traveler, yet, there it was – a distinct feeling that I was not alone.
I opened Google Maps and typed in my next destination: Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. Not far, apparently. Just across the river. Can’t miss it. Très bon.
I made my way across the plaza, through the crowd emerging from the metro station, and past the towering Fontaine Saint-Michel. The Archangel Michael framed that monument, towering above the square. I wondered what those eyes of stone had seen in their 150 years of lifelessness. How many wars, how many occupations, how many celebrations, how many changes had occurred on its ever-silent ever-constant watch?
As my body crossed the street, my mind wandered off without me once again. There’s a philosophy out there that says every person we meet leaves an imprint of themselves upon our souls. That as we flow through life, we become a mosaic of sorts, carrying with us the most salient aspects of those we encounter. A friend’s compassion. A lover’s charm. An idol’s wit. That, at any given moment, we are more than just ourselves – always evolving, far from complete, and never alone. And atop Notre-Dame, as the Eiffel Tower confidently pierced the cerulean sky, it had never felt more true.
I ended the day similar to how I began it – with a drink. Truthfully, I had never been much of a Hemingway fan. But as I sat there at that bar in La Closerie des Lilas, warmed by the cognac with jazz piano twinkling, I dreamt. Of a world temporally removed from our own, where Hemingway and Fitzgerald sat just two seats over, ascending into their own bouts of genius and despair. As much as the world may change, and we along with it, a sense of living history inhabits every stone and every street in that City of Light.
Can’t write it any better than the Laureate himself.
If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
~Jonathan Wu '17
© 2014 Princeton Traveler