Gravestone Rubbings from the City of Light

Maddie Hampton

1- Sarah and Sally: what Sally says about Sarah says more about Sally than it does about Sarah. So if I tell you about Paris, I will tell you, really, about my eyes.

2- I lived in an apartment with five roommates. We each had a room; we each had a cabinet in the kitchen, a shelf in the fridge. Sometimes when I came home, one of them would be cooking dinner. Rarer occasions still, we would talk.

3- My window was open. Someone in the building across the way was listening to Miles Davis on the radio. Children shrieked. I heard the snap of wet laundry tossed in the air and hung out to dry. On the radio, the announcer’s voice cut in, garbled across the reverberations. Outside, it was beginning to get cold.

4- The people who have lived there will tell you that Paris is impenetrable. The people who have not never seem to believe it.

5- Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette shows a group of people in Montmartre dancing through the Belle Époque under dappled light and new spring leaves, translucent with infancy. Chandeliers hang from the trees. The young girl in the foreground with the rosy cheeks wears stripes. It is a masterwork of Impressionism, a perfect example of their groundbreaking tendency to paint en plein air.

6- September: I sat alone, straddling the stonewall that runs along the sidewalk above the Seine. It was late on a Saturday. People were roaming in groups, up and down the river. Below on the bank a group had gathered with a few bottles of wine, drinking in the last of the warm nights.

7- Every day I walked to class; I walked home. I took circuitous routes, telling myself that I walked because I wanted to learn the city.
If I am honest with myself now, I will admit that walked to fill the time.

8- October: the green has drained from the leaves in the park. The roofline disappears into a flat, grey sky. 

9- He had been so proud, the day we went to Sacre Coeur, that none of the street peddlers came up to us selling the small magenta and turquoise Eiffel Towers hanging off of key rings, that no one offered to tie a bracelet around our wrists. That must indicate a certain belonging, he said, that we looked vraiment parisiens.

10- There was a leak in our kitchen ceiling, a trail of some dark liquid running down the white wall in the corner by the window. It was coming from our upstairs neighbors. One morning in November, the ceiling collapsed. Chips of plaster coated the floor, a large chunk of the ceiling lay in pieces on the kitchen table.

11- Google is curious about the why’s of this city. Why is it the City of Love, of Light? It is an immensely popular topic. So beautiful. No one could ever be sad there.

12- So how could I? The sadness brought with it a guilt. Like wearing a jacket, pockets brimming with stones.

13- I thought about Baudelaire and his 19th century flâneur, the man who made leisure his chief concern and spent afternoons wandering through Parisian gardens – watching people.

14- Recent scholarship is investigating the feminine form – proposing the word, flâneuse.

15- Every few days a new piece of the ceiling would fall. In the morning, in the afternoon, I would come into the kitchen and brush off the table, sweep ceiling from the floor.

16- In 1990, Ryoei Saito bought Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette for $78 million at a Sotheby’s auction in New York. A year later people were horrified when he alluded to his plans to have both Renoir’s masterwork and another work in his collection, van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet, cremated with him upon his death.

17- All these searches almost ask: do real people actually live there? We have been told otherwise.

18- Paris is for lovers.

19- Paris is for artists.

20- Paris is for flâneurs.

21- Paris is for ____.

22- He kept a page in his notebook with a list of addresses – addresses of the lit windows we peered into and constructed play lives around. At the top of the page he had written: our favorite dream spots.

23- The upstairs neighbors were concerned. Our lease stipulated that we could not have any structural work done without express consent from our landlady. We took turns calling her daily. We emailed her, attaching images of the ever-widening hole in our kitchen. Her name was Eloïse. She lived in Normandy and was rarely responsive.

24- At the party there was soft pink lighting, balloons. Strangers sipped soda and liquor from plastic cups. I stood in the window talking to a girl who, drunk, was telling me how they ruined Gilmore Girls in the final season. The window was open and outside I could see cars, their taillights glowing red across the wet asphalt. I wondered about the other lit windows. There were a few, but on this street it was mostly dark. These, I presumed, were offices, windows framed by baroque filigree cast in concrete. Now she was talking about Portugal. She had been; oh and yes, she absolutely adored it. It was cheap, had I heard? And so beautiful it had made her eyes hurt, all the bright colors and winding paths. Porto, she tells me, is a city covered in tile.

25- Perhaps this dreaming is predicated on simply not being there, perspective fertilizing the other side’s green grass.

26- December: we had breakfast at a diner on the Left Bank. It was called Breakfast in America and the menu featured pancake stacks and fried eggs with biscuits. Inside, the booths were upholstered in red vinyl and a poster of the cast of Friends hung on the far wall. We sat near the window and ordered eggs with toast. In the corner, a man was explaining to his two friends how Americans ate their pancakes, with maple syrup and butter, that this was the proper, unadulterated key to enjoying Americana.

27- After Christmas, I started looking for a new apartment.

28- I slept. I nursed my head. In January, I took exams.

29- The Academy rejected Impressionism for its insistence on the quotidian. Instead of mythology, these artists wanted to paint real lives led Paris. This was seen as simply blasphemous.

30- I moved into a studio on top of an Italian restaurant called Don Giovanni. The kitchen window faced the courtyard and the chef would open it to let in a breeze. In the evenings, I could smell spice and tomato, garlic and cream, lemon and pasta boiling.

31- February: the sunrise was late; there were no tourists. The city felt like it was ours.

32- Renoir’s piece hangs on its own dusty blue wall in the top-floor galleries of the Musée D’Orsay. A group of school children sit on the floor around it, their backs arched and attentive, while a young woman in a green scarf and lanyard gestures to the painting with her hand. With her finger, she outlines the girl with the rosy cheeks, points to the chandeliers, the couple dancing in the background.

33- I drew up documents for a truce with the city.

34- I held myself gently, feigning reserve as I rushed towards a lightness, a betterment I had not known for months on end.

35- Around me, I watched. What I saw:
      a.   In the restaurant with the red velvet booths people are eating crème brûlée by candlelight, The Beach Boys playing in the background.
      b.   Taped to the doors of line 14 is a note: “Jeune garçon cherche fille amusante et disponible (18-30ans) pour aller au restaurant le 16/04/17.” He has left his number and the request that any soliciting female indicate her age, name, and intentions.
      c.   Standing in front of Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People, a teenage boy in skinny jeans tell his friend he recognizes the painting from the cover of that Coldplay album.
      d.   In Père Lachaise the tourists are looking for Jim Morrison’s grave. They have maps and argue about whether to turn left or right. One of them carries flowers.
      e.   A couple has set up a camp stove by the canal. They sit on the ground together, cooking a steak in a small pan over the blue flame. The woman wears a dress and glittering earrings, the man, a suit jacket. She tosses lettuce in a bowl with oil and vinegar as he flips the steak with a fork.
      f.   Under a sign advertising an office space for rent, someone has spray painted in red script: Mais où sont les poètes?

36- I started taking pride in my knowledge of the streets, seeing it as something I had earned.

37- In April, I ran into one of my old roommates in the park Buttes Chaumont. He was on the phone and I heard him tell his friend that he would need to call back, that he was in the park with his ancienne coloc. We talked for a bit and then left one another there. I learned that the ceiling was under construction; someone had been to see it only a few weeks before.

38- When did we decide dreams and reality were incompatible as oil and water?

39- From the right angle, the lampposts of Pont Alexandre III can still glow – foggy and immutable – as in the Brassaï photograph. It is mostly a question of from where you are looking.

40- May: the cold had broken. The trees budded pink. We spent our evenings drinking wine by the river.

41- Still, when I remember it now I am careful not to exclude the falling ceiling.