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Of Timeless Pieces

January 27, 2013

Probably my favorite thing to do in Paris is to go for a walk. It sounds so simple, and it is. It’s to explore the city naturally and wander, not knowing what will be seen but having the guarantee that it’ll be gorgeous because, come on, it’s Paris.

When I had three hours to kill between a methodology course and lecture about French politics, when the sky was blue* enough to make the below-freezing temperatures feel warm, my obvious decision was to walk along the Seine, not too far away from the school.

Fifteen minutes later, Notre Dame is suddenly in the distance. You know, just chilling, in the distance. I had no clue the exact distance (in addition to navigation, determining distance is also on my list of troubles here).

The moment’s stream of consciousness:

Is that Notre Dame?

That’s totally Notre Dame.

Can I make it to Notre Dame and back in time for the lecture?

More than two hours left.

So, probably?

I’m pretty sure Notre Dame isn’t supposed to be close to the school. Will I have to cross the river? Will I have to cross roads? That always complicates things.

Walk as far as you can, turn back when an hour’s up. Deal?

Deal.

I love this city.

I had been to Notre Dame before, when I visited Paris through a high school trip. I must give a shout-out to Mme Popescu and Mlle Feltman for taking fifteen students to Paris and 1) not losing any of them, and 2) showing us many, many places in only three days.  It was my favorite day of the trip despite it being our last: blue skies, warmth, Easter Sunday, and a relaxed eagerness to see what we could but, more importantly, enjoy our time. Notre Dame was magnificent, and, even as a former Catholic, there was something special about being at the cathedral on Easter, among the fellow tourists and the mass-goers.

I’ve been eager to revisit Notre Dame, but, as Google Maps now tells me, it’s 1.3 miles away from the school. I hadn’t planned to visit it after a class.

The thing about Paris is you never have to plan to see something wonderful.

Tourists surrounded the front of the building, taking pictures of the towers or lining up to go inside on this non-holy Thursday. I was immediately reminded of how utterly magnificent this place is. The architecture is gorgeously intricate, and the history is complexly full.

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I made my way to the right of the cathedral, where small lawns and a children’s play area run along between the building and the river that keeps the building on an island. No one followed me, and I could tell I was following few. It shouldn’t have surprised me; either despite or because of the politics, religion, culture, and literature (and the Disney) that encompass Notre Dame, it’s now primarily a tourist attraction. People take pictures of the front, line up to go inside, and leave. It’s a bit of a pity, I think, because I could have spent all afternoon circling this place, examining the details of the architecture, the wear of 850 years passing, the spiritual figures conceptualized and immortalized in stone.

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There is something immensely humbling about the cathedral. Perhaps it’s the size. Perhaps it’s the age. Perhaps the fact that, even as an attraction, it is still a spiritual place at its roots. It’s humbling, and it’s peaceful.

I made my way around the building, noting the current renovations and decapitated gargoyles and Paris public garden signs and general lack of other people until I finished my circle and was in front of the towers again.

And then, knowing I would have to come back and determining that Notre Dame had become one of my favorite places in the city, I left for the school.

Three minutes later, the Fountain of Saint Michel was immediately to my left.

Again, I’d been there before — again, on that trip in high school. The fountain was our rendez-vous point when we were able to break off into smaller groups to explore the city for an hour or so. It had been another landmark from the trip that I had been hoping to return to. I realized that I was too occupied keeping my eye on Notre Dame while walking that I had completely missed the fountain — and it’s a pretty impressive fountain.

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Fountain of Saint Michel, 2009

I wasn’t too different from the tourists at Notre Dame, I supposed, as we were so fixated on one aspect of Paris to notice the rest.

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Fountain of Saint Michel, 2013

So I took a detour and rediscovered the Fountain of Saint Michel. The water wasn’t flowing, but the statues and columns were just like they were four years ago. And, just like at Notre Dame, I made a circle around the attraction. As I was behind it, I was stopped in my tracks by the sight of a hanging collection of copper pots.

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Yeah, it’s a bunch of pots hanging outside of a restaurant. And I’m standing in the middle of the sidewalk with dozens of people bustling around me, and I’m trying to realize why I think that collection of pots is so damn important.

And I then remember:

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I took that picture on the last day of our high school trip, the same day we went to Notre Dame, because it’s such an odd sight to see, copper pots tied together and hanging from an exterior wall. I had the photo on my wall last year in one of my many photo-collection-posters, so I’ve seen those pots nearly every day for an academic year.

When I was deciding to study abroad, I had two options that would allow me to study journalism for transferable credit: Paris or London. I had been leaning towards London for a while, honestly. I had already been to Paris, I thought, but I’ve never gone to London and have always wanted to. But Paris would be a fuller study abroad experience for me, I determined, with the language and the culture I’ve been learning about for years.

Having been to Paris before, I’ve learned, doesn’t make this semester less special, less meaningful or fascinating or scary or incredible. If anything, it makes it more special. I get the surprise of stumbling upon places I’ve seen, places I’ve made memories and that I’ve encoded in my mind as just a visit.

Only now I live in Paris, a city older than my country with a history richer than any person or book can describe. And when I leave in May, this experience will be encoded in my mind as just a semester.

But Paris, I can already tell I’ll want to visit you again.

*The pictures in this post were not taken on that sunny Thursday, as I didn’t have my camera with me. Except for those taken in 2009, they were taken on a cloudy Friday a week later, which is why the sky is not blue in any of them.

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