Ten years ago I fell in love.
It was a very sweet infatuation, with all the naivete and wonder of puppy love, or perhaps the wilful delusion of an Indian summer. For a few brief days I swooned over the object of my attentions, my passion all the sweeter because I knew our time together would be short. Then we parted, but for years afterwards I was firmly committed to her. None other could match her charms, no other name evoked the same wistful smile. This, despite considerable temptation; strange as it may seem, there were others who sought to seduce my stolid middle-aged affections. Some were subtle, some brazen, some endearing in their simplicity.
But none compared to Paris.
When I think back on it, my inexperience was a major reason for my being so utterly besotted. It was my first visit to Europe. My first encounter with the charm of history not just preserved, but kept alive. The first time I strolled down cobbled streets at dawn, or savoured wine and a cigar in a sidewalk cafe as the lights came on in the scented streets. My first experience of a city lit up for beauty alone, or carefully tended flowerbeds lining busy roads. Of a real van Gogh, a real poster by Toulose-Lautrec. It was as if a country bumpkin entered the big city, and the first woman he met was Madame du Barry. No wonder I was lost.
The passion lasted some years. There was a yearning to return. It faded. And I broke the faith.
I rejected the advances of Hong Kong, but I was led astray by the brassy charm of Istanbul, lost in the strange intimacy of Prague, grabbed bodily by the direct approach of Manhattan. Time passed, new booklets were added to my passport. Memories blurred, ran into each other. The lights of Aleppo morphed into the glimmer of Rio from the Pao de Acucar. But nothing could erase the memory of a patch of green by the Champs Elysee, with spring’s first lilacs in bloom.
Last week I visited her again. And the magic was gone.
Perhaps it was because the first time I had visited had been in February, with the streets comparatively deserted, whereas this May I had to share her with a million other admirers. Perhaps it was because I was coming off three months of hard grind, mentally drained and physically exhausted. Perhaps it was age. Or perhaps it was just experience.
In the ten intervening years, I have seen too many cities, savoured too many meals, shared stories with too many friendly strangers. Paris is no longer a realm of wonder. This is not bragging; it is a lament. I have lost the capacity for wonder. I have lost the innocence of the first-time traveller. After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
For two days I walked the streets of Paris, trying in vain to recapture that first fine rapture. But the Ile de la Citie seemed smaller and duller, the alleys on the Left Bank no longer beckoned. The sidewalk cafes were full of tourists, teenagers and cigarette butts. The Centre Pompidou seemed incongruous rather than witty. Even le quarter Marais seemed a little grumpy, as if sulking at the weather on a weekday afternoon.
Then I retreated to my room with a paper sack full of bread and sundry viands, opened a bottle of port and gazed morosely out of the window. The sky darkened into the late late night of northern summer. Lights came on in the house across the street. A snatch of accordion music drifted up from the corner.
I knew the young chap in the apartment opposite would go to sleep early because he left for work at 6 in the morning. That the accordion player was not rubicund and beret-clad, but a fresh-faced single mother who played gigs on the weekends. I knew that later in the evening the boys would congregate at the side door of the “Irish” pub, ten paces round the corner, for a smoke and a bit of a chat. That a little before 7 in the morning the garbage truck would edge cautiously down the street, taking special care not to make a noise around No. 26 or else Monsieur Everet would shout at them from his first-floor window. I realised I knew the pulse of the neighbourhood. Even it was for a very few days, I fitted in. I may no longer have the wonder of the Trocadero under the evening sun, but I could down a pint with an oddity, a Frenchman who preferred Guinness to Bordeaux. And with the epiphany, “peace came dropping slow”.
No, I could no longer feel the keen thrill of novelty. But I had in its place the comfort of familiarity, the pleasures of the everyday. The cement that binds any lasting relationship.