When my plane landed at Charles de Gaulle, it was past dark in the City of Lights. I had booked our group an AirBnB apartment in the Latin Quarter, just across the street from the Pantheon, with a promised view of Notre Dame. A taxi took us into the city and, as we drove, I pressed my nose up against the glass and watched the streets fly by.
Our apartment was on the fifth floor of a very old building, above a café open all night for drinking. While everyone else indulged in a few hours of much needed sleep, the combination of the noisy bar and jet lag kept me wide awake. I was restless, filled with questions and hopes for this city. Desperate for something to pass the time, I crossed the street to a 24-hour convenience store and, with my very limited French, bought groceries. With a brown paper bag tucked under one arm and my camera over the other, I walked back to the apartment to watch the sun rise.
Overnight, the lightest coating of snow had dusted the city. I curled up on the couch, hot chocolate in hand, and watched the sun paint yellow strokes over the tops of the stone buildings. Paris woke up slowly, and then in a rush; people spilled out of their houses and converged on the metro, dressed impeccably in their suits and work clothes.
I waited as long as I could for everyone else to wake up and, when they did, we hit the streets — it was an excited blur of cameras and maps. We only had a few days in the capital, and our itinerary was chock-full of sights from my bucket list: the Pantheon, the Louvre, the Seine, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Catacombs … I needed to see it all.
As we explored, Paris surprised me. I found light and color in the streets that I hadn’t expected. There was crimson in the flags flying in the breeze, indigo in the shadows of the rooftops, and a surprising, sun-streaked green that lined every avenue.
Although I had never been to France before, my parents considered it their favorite travel destination. They had even given all of their daughters French middle names. Mine is Esprit, which translates to “spirit.” As I wandered the streets, I found that it was the spirit of Paris that struck me: the winsomeness of the flower boxes in the windows, the spontaneity of the scribbled graffiti that lined the metro walls.
I had expected Paris to feel distant and aloof — a city existing in a sociocultural stratosphere far out of my reach. After all, this was the home of the world’s most spectacular fashion, the birthplace of the most magnificent music, food, and artistry. In short, I had come to Paris with the expectation that I would gawk, but not touch. But the city surprised me with its charm. I read once that love is recognizing yourself in someone else. In the City of Love, I was startled to find just that. There was something uniquely, distinctly human about this place.
I came for the architecture of the Pantheon but found myself drawn to gaze at the students lounging on the ancient building’s steps. As they smoked, laughed, and argued, I realized that they could have attended my high school if their rapid French was drawled English.
I came to Notre Dame for the infamous vaulted ceilings, but I couldn’t take my eyes away from a man across the room with his hands pressed together in a fervent prayer. There were rows and rows of wooden chairs in the cathedral and, as I snapped a picture, I found myself thinking of every kind of person that had prayed in those seats. No doubt they had seen travelers from every part of the world, refugees from every kind of human experience, Parisians from every variegated background … the diversity overwhelmed me, but at the end of the day, don’t we all pray for the same things?
At the Louvre, we made our mandatory stop to visit Leonardo’s smirking masterpiece, and again, it was the people-watching that fascinated me most. Some visitors clamored for the front of the line, selfie sticks in hand; others lingered at the back of the room, their eyes trained on the Mona Lisa with taciturn curiosity. In front of Jupiter Hurling Thunderbolts at the Vices, I saw a father whip out his phone and snap a picture of the masterpiece. He turned to his wife, grinning. His son was going to love this.
On the last day of our trip, we caught the sunset from arguably the most spectacular viewpoint in the world — the top of the Eiffel Tower. I stared out at the city, at its thousands of doors and balconies and windows.
There is an obscure word for what I was feeling: sonder. It’s defined as the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own — populated with their own ambitions, friends, routines, and worries. I’d felt it before from my own backyard, staring out at the lights of my hometown. In Paris, the feeling was the same, only amplified. In that moment, the view from the Iron Lady transformed the city for me. Even though the view was a confirmation of its vastness, Paris suddenly felt so much smaller, like I could fit it into the palm of my hand.
At the end of the day, even a city of millions is just a collection of stories
Its citizens are all people like me, with similar wishes, hopes, and dreams. Amid the jumble of foreign languages, cultures, and systems, I found a piece of home in Paris.
When I sat down to write this article, I mulled over how best to encapsulate my experience. A photo essay? An itinerary? A list of my must-see’s? After several attempts and returns to the drawing board, I realized that what I was trying to write was a love letter.
I had fallen for the thousands of little cafes, the uneven stones in the streets, and the smells of chocolate and smoke and oil that drift through the air. I had been taken by the lights of the Eiffel Tower and the sunlight on the Seine. This is a city that will sing my name for the rest of my life. Je t’aime, Paris.