(“After the rain, comes the beauty.”)
“In Paris, one trades comfort for beauty.”
At our pre-departure orientation meeting last June, this statement from our professor stood out. As a group of Orange County students about to embark on a four-week study abroad session in Paris, we were preparing to leave behind the kind of safety and comfort that places like Irvine provide. I was ready to break through the bubble that encases this city in a bland concrete aura of chain stores and expensive housing, ready to discover the hidden cobblestone streets, the amazing bakeries and quaint lives of those who watch the sun rise and fall over the Seine every day.
But maybe it was that bubble-born ignorance that made Paris such a jarring splash of reality. The city of lights didn’t embody the simplistic image I’d dreamed up. Paris is a big, busy city and like any place where millions of people attempt to co-exist in cramped quarters, it has its ugly facets. From the eye-watering air pollution to the heat and stink of the Metro, from the stony faces to the inescapable clouds of cigarette smoke, Paris is a city of Gypsy scams and often urine-perfumed street corners.
Yet, I knew that somewhere between the wafting scent of body odor and cigarettes there had to be something special, something beautiful as our professor had suggested. We’d struggled through the first couple of weeks to deal with the always deathly-hot Metro, the men who leered at us with their hands down the front of their pants, with the rudeness of almost everyone we tried to be nice to. We wanted the real Paris we knew existed, the Paris where the beauty was overwhelming.
Slowly the city revealed itself to us. There were poetry readings at Shakespeare and Company, the famous English-language bookstore where Hemingway browsed. There were the ancient buildings that loomed large over small avenues, ornately decorated and brimming with history. There was the amazing bread from the small bakery near our home, the shine of the streets on a rainy night, the closeness of so many people jammed into one tiny sidewalk café.
And then there was the Club des Poètes. Tucked away on Rue de Bourgogne in the 7th arrondissement, the Club des Poètes seemed like just the right destination for a handful of French-loving English majors. The Web site was friendly, inviting all to come join, and as we walked the Rue de Grenelle on a quiet night we anticipated the loud, jovial place where we could spend a poetry-filled evening.
Walking into a small room, we found a handful of French and American patrons staring at us, three awkward women with a fair but flawed grip on the French language. Unsure of what to do, we sat and ordered coffee and tea, feeling totally uncomfortable under the curious stares and linguistic misunderstandings. Should we leave, perhaps? Should we even stay to hear the poetry?
Before we could make up our minds, a man dimmed the lights, transforming the front of the bar into a dramatic space. I picked up my cup of tea to take a sip and did not put it down again for a long time, sitting rapt as the man recited a long, beautiful poem. Three other men followed with long poems they knew by heart, works by Verlaine and Hugo and poems they had written themselves. Hearing the lovely French lines roll through the dimly lit space made the entire room feel like another world, an entirely surreal experience. Looking at the small bar, the collection of half-empty wine bottles on the front table, at the poetically disheveled looking man reciting antique poetry under the spotlight, and the books that leaned against one another on the bowing shelves, I knew that my camera could not ever truly capture the moment.
After they relit the room and resumed chatting, they began to speak with us, asking where we were from and what we studied. Did we know any poems by heart? Would we recite them? We didn’t, which seemed silly—surely one of us should know a poem or two by heart. The man solved our problem by handing us a book of English poems, from which I chose a poem to read. Without giving me much choice, they dimmed the lights and waited for me to walk to the front and read.
Usually a nerve-wracking experience, speaking in front of a crowd was strangely calming. It felt perfect and right to stand before them, the light blinding my view of the little audience, and carefully read “The Rain in Regents Park” with as much emotion as I could muster.
We left soon after, hopping on the Metro towards home. But the experience stayed with us, too overwhelming to forget. It had been very uncomfortable and painfully awkward, but from it had bloomed something more beautiful than I’d hoped for.
I can safely say that we enjoyed the rest of our time in Paris. I still spent time squished into someone’s armpit during rush hour on the RER B line. I still found crazy people attempting to accost me all over the city. And most everything still smelled pretty bad. But it was normal. Even when an incredibly drunk and odorous old man stumbled around our picnic regaling us with gibberish and what seemed to be a song, I couldn’t help but find its absurdity somewhat charming. There is a palpable feel of culture and beauty that pulses with literary and artistic blood in Paris, despite us unwashed humans swarming over the city like rats. Paris isn’t clean, not everyone is particularly polite, and it’s nowhere near as safe as Irvine, but there is a true luminosity that winds through its streets like the Seine.