— Marcel Proust,
In Search of Lost Time, “The Fugitive”
Images by Aja Toscano
Upon stepping out of the taxi in the Le Marais district of Paris with our suitcases, my head is swiveling. My two eyes aren’t enough to take in the visual splendor all around. How can I worry about the location of our Airbnb if I’m gawking at the streetlamps? The buildings are no higher than three or four stories, with chic cafés on the bottom and balconies along the upper floor furnished with verdure and patio furniture that beckons you to come up for a glass. The district dates back to the 13th century, with many of the buildings having been erected in the 1500s and 1600s, and it is known for having been a favorite of aristocrats.
Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in an essay on history, “Our admiration of the antique is not admiration of the old, but of the natural.” There is a sense of historical richness in the doorknobs you touch, the cobblestones you trip over, in Paris. The businesses occupying the spaces may be modern, but the façades and architecture are testament to a distant era when people handwrote letters and checked their pocket watches; an era when people depended upon craftsmanship, and treasured it enough to construct a city that still captures the wonderment of the world.
The only plans we have cover our lodging and a long list of art museums, leaving us to connect the dots by foot and metro. We walk an average of 10 miles a day, which allows us to absorb and feel a great deal of our surroundings. The more we walk around, the more I begin to realize the animating spirit woven into the fabric of the city. Passersby are supplied a healthy choice of places to ponder their musings: innumerable cafés with beautiful design and ample outdoor seating; rows of stands selling obscure books, magazine cuttings, and vintage scientific prints. Visitors meander with maps, speaking tongues of far-off lands.
Walking along the Seine, we hear an accordion playing, a timeless sound, as if the mortal body was compelled to hear this music by an eternal spirit one era after the next. It is a melody that captures the imagination and transports one into a certain future, where a grand cathedral will sound its bells at the top of the hour, and the pigeons will startle and take flight. Where at night, if it rains, the lights from the street lamps will reflect distorted shapes onto the stones of the sidewalk. Where you will hear a double bass, a guitar, and a violin conversing in fluent Parisian jazz over the crowds, past the outdoor seating and into the street. This is the epicenter of a pulsing, thriving organism.
In Paris, history reveals itself not as the cold, bland artifact I studied in school but as a testament to the power of now. The city is charged with the fantastic richness of times past and the enticing mystery of pressing forward into the unknown. Every sense is attuned with my surroundings: the wind on my skin, the sun making me sweat, and the moon with all its cheese. The skies are blue, the stars are bright, though neither bluer nor brighter than they are at another moment.
The things we make today will be looked at with nostalgia by the reminiscers of tomorrow. They will see what we’ve done and wonder at how beautiful it must have been to be alive in that time.