Why Paris?

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View of the Institut de France from the Museé du Louvre

I saw Paris first through lenses, like everyone else.

The first lens was that of literature. In my little library at home, I have arranged my books in the following sections: Contemporary Fiction, Classic Works, Food & Cookery, Music & Movies, Poetry & Plays, & finally… “Books about Paris”. There, you will find Wilde’s Down & Out in Paris & London, Miller’s Tropic of Cancer, Sartre’s L’âge de raison, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Stein’s Paris, France, Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil & perhaps the most definitive novel in my education on Paris, Adam Gopnik’s From Paris to the Moon (sublime, alluring, swelling with fervour & acute observations on the quotidian… but more on that later). That Paris as a subject should merit an entire shelf by itself may be astonishing, but wait – let me explain this peculiar obsession.

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Shakespeare & Company

I read about Paris first in the children’s classic When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr which chronicled the growth of Anna, a young Jewish girl living in Berlin during the Second World War. The story follows her journey across several countries with the rest of her family – Papa, Mama & her older brother Max – as they leave Germany for Switzerland & then France to escape the Nazis. In the book, Papa is a francophile & loves Paris with all his heart, & after the first few days of being in their new home country, he takes everyone out to explore the city & they somehow end up at the top of the Arc de Triomphe. There is a moment where Anna is rendered speechless at the sight before her – the roads glittering with lights, the dim shapes of domes & spires & the twinkling Eiffel tower in the distance – & she turns to Papa in wonderment, who can only stare off in a daze & say breathlessly: Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a beautiful city?

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The Arc de Triomphe

I saw Paris through the eyes of a child, heard the sounds of Anna playing with her friends in the Ă©cole communale, smelt the whiffs of freshly made coffee from the market boulangerie. The words of the book painted scenes that seemed so distant & strange for a young girl who had grown up in a tropical island her whole life, whose experience with coffee was limited to her father’s daily “kopi-c” – hot & sprung up, held, in a little plastic bag. Like Anna, herself so foreign & yet so immediately enamoured by the French capital, I could feel my mind expanding, dreaming, pushing against the boundaries of that stretched plastic to taste a faraway place where children drank espresso in the mornings & sipped wine diluted with sparkling water at night, where they sampled snails & onion soup for supper on the fourteenth of July & danced with their parents by the left bank till dawn. This was my introduction to the city, as were most other things – through literature.

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Then I saw Paris through my second lens – that of film. As a young teenager, I was (still am) besotted by Audrey Hepburn, & besides wanting to be Holly Golightly walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, in her little black dress with a flaky pastry in hand, I watched her in Charade, How to Steal A Million & Funny Face with Cary Grant, Peter O’Toole & Fred Astaire respectively, hand-in-hand with her leading men & clad in Givenchy, finally in a city that seemed worthy of her beauty, something New York City never quite managed to be. I watched Moulin Rouge & Amelie, saw their characters bring colour to an already flamboyant Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement full of night time light & sin. Paris, I believe, is the city most fondly remembered & distinctly portrayed in old cinema, matched only by its equally romantic sister city Rome (Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris, the famous saying goes).

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HĂ´tel de Ville
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Saint-Chapelle

& then there was the last lens, a collection of the more secondary images of the eternal city – the photographs, the stories from first-hand travellers, the music of Edith Piaf & Pink Martini. There is a picture taken by the famous photographer Robert Doisneau that is seared into my memory forever though I can’t recall where I saw it first. It was something that I unconsciously held to my chest as representative of the atmosphere of Paris until the day I finally went.

In this photograph, one can make out the famous Hôtel de Ville in the background, faint but magnificent, which means that this picture was taken right on Rue de Rivoli from a café during rush hour. Everybody in the picture is well-dressed – pea coats & trilbies & silk scarves – on their way to wherever they are going, & right in the thick of it, there is a pair of lovers kissing tenderly yet intensely, the lady beautiful in her fitting sweater & her head thrown back, & the gentleman (which has come to represent all French men for me, unfair as that may be) with his thick waves of hair askew, his arm forming a perfect nook for the lady to lean into. This struck me immensely, that Paris seemed to be a city where one could be right in the middle of this sprawling metropolis, the premier city of the old world, but still be completely abandoned to passion & romance whenever the situation presented itself. Could I one day have that too: structure & spontaneity?

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“The Kiss” – Robert Doisneau, 1950

You can imagine how these three lenses made my idea of Paris swell to disproportionate sizes. My Paris before I knew Paris was pink & pretty & artistic. I always let sentiment get the better of me (the forlorn poems & endless daydreams speak for themselves) & this is often to my detriment especially when I travel. In From Paris to the Moon, Gopnik encapsulates it perfectly in these sentences:

“There are two kinds of travelers. There is the kind who goes to see what there is to see & sees it, & the kind who has an image in his head & goes out to accomplish it. The first visitor has an easier time, but I think the second visitor sees more. He is constantly comparing what he sees to what he wants, so he sees with his mind, & maybe even with his heart, or tries to.”

I knew before I went to Paris that it would be difficult because I was the said second visitor, rich in expectation, laden with the lenses & the distorted views that they had produced all my life. So when I came to the city for the first time in 2011, I was full of trepidation. It was then when I would be confronted with the truth, see for myself if I would truly love Paris now that I was right there, or if I had only loved the idea of it. I was only eighteen then & my friends & I were backpacking around Europe & had just finished our stint in Rome. As we finally rode into Paris on the ten o’ clock Orlybus, I knew that I couldn’t be wrong about my assumptions because there was a distinct click between the images in my mind & what I saw before my eyes. I felt like I was dreaming for something like five consecutive days. It is a city that inspires words, poems, songs; it flows out of you, like the waters of the Seine.

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Champs-Élyseés on a Sunday afternoon

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Days like these
when things don’t matter
when you don’t matter
when
I only want the smell of rain

of cities & streets
& eyes dreary with sleep
indelible & sublime
swallowed dappled light &
leapt in air, soared

& curled up in love & silk scarves
This is where I belong
in liquid sound
I am going heady with grey
douse me in flowers & sweet tea

(Rue, 2013)

I returned to Paris two years after that, & again in March this year. Paris was the same, no matter how much it had changed. It still elicits the same emotions, perhaps only more intensely each time. In between all these sojourns, I have learnt what it means to truly love a city for all that it is, all the pretty parts but all the ugly, raggedy bits too. Images & nostalgia are all well & good, but you cannot say that you love Paris if you do not know its pain keenly, if you have not seen the gypsies who inhabit the street corners, wearing everything they own, their eyes hungry & searching, or the dark-skinned immigrants selling their wares outside the Louvre with a sense of intimidating urgency, who have come from very far away because they, just like you, believed that Paris was a city of magic, of hope. You must love every dirty cobblestone, every dinghy backstreet, every overcrowded café you dine at, rubbing shoulders with a stranger, your nose itching from the unceasing cigarette smoke. You must not complain at the offhanded Parisien service at the brasserie or at the rising prices of croissants because after all, this is the Paris you fell in love with, & love means to accept something completely.

Time is relentless
it casts long, tremulous shadows
& we, we are always in transit
fleeting & flitting
between light & dark & translucence
always fickle
always whisked away by loftiness
by that crumbling feeling
or the lift away.
We don’t study the minute details
but we take in beauty in spoonfuls, gallons…
What ephemeral creatures we are.
We must tread lightly on this earth.

(2017)

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The Galerie d’Apollon in the Louvre
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Lunch at Benoit – cheese & black pepper puffs, offal salad & champagne
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A café in Montmartre

So there it is, my elaborate answer to the question, Why Paris? – because I love it wholly, the same, through the lenses & without. Nowadays, whenever I read a novel, I can’t help but think of the legion of lost generation writers (Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Eliot, Fitzgerald) who graced the grounds of Les Deux Magots & CafĂ© de Flore in 1920s Paris, who did not know yet that they were one day going to write books about the eternal city – they simply lived. Nowadays, I never stand in the middle of a museum & not see the marble arcs and gold-glided ceilings of the Louvre at the corner of my eye (I still expect the Winged Victory of Samothrace to appear right before me, her pose dauntless & her well-chiselled shoulders carrying the weight of centuries). I see the Tuileries in every garden, the Seine in every river, Shakespeare & Company in every bookshop.

I cannot help it. Because of these innumerable, tiny pinpricks on my psyche, I sometimes dream a million dreams in a span of a day. Edith Piaf knew what she was talking about when she sang that famous tune, seeing life coloured in a rose tint, full of spirit & song. Quand il me prend dans ses bras / Il me parle tout bas / Je vois la vie en rose… Six years on, like that black & white photograph, so do I, or so I would like to believe. Because of Paris, I now see the world through a different lens – Paris itself.

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Red Doors – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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Wilderness

…O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else: it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is a father and mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo: I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the world: I came from the wilderness.

(Carl Sandburg)

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The Flower

I think I grow tensions
like flowers
in a wood where
nobody goes.

Each wound is perfect,
encloses itself in a tiny
imperceptible blossom,
making pain.

Pain is a flower like that one,
like this one,
like that one,
like this one.

(Robert Creeley)

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yes is a pleasant country

yes is a pleasant country
if’s wintry
(my lovely)
let’s open the year

both is the very weather
(not either)
my treasure
when violets appear

love is a deeper season
than reason;
my sweet one
(and April’s where we’re)

(ee cummings)

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Red Doors

Most days I am in love with the world. The sharp syrupiness of strawberry jam, the bitter kick of my morning espresso. Walking down the little lane that cuts through fields of wild grass, drifting through the mist that rises from it like steam. The red doors I see on the way to town —

one, two, three, four, five, six

I collect them & before the afternoon is over, I have half a dozen or so sitting in my mind’s eye. They are so out of place in the quotidian — so stark is the scream of colour that it lifts me out of daydream. I love it all, I am basking in the pleasure of being present; I am treading lightly on this beautiful earth. On days like these, there is always a quickening of heart, a deep appreciation for the little things, an unspeakable gratitude.

Most days I am love with the world, but then some days, I’m not. They are unsuspecting & they come like a suffocating wave, those sunken mornings & heavy nights. On days like these, I pray for strength, strength to remember all of it: the strawberries, the grass fields, the six little red doors, all of these bright beacons of hope in bleakness… I rub the memory on my chest like soothing balm. I breathe in, say again & again:

I’m still here

I’m still here

I’m still

Here

I

…till I remember the rhythm. Till I remember it well. How could I forget it? It is sweetness; it is hope. It is within. It is there, has always been, will remain until the very end of age.

Selah my soul, selah.


Bits of poetry I’ve been collecting & enjoying lately. Red Doors originally appeared in a recent SELAH article. Our stories are art forms & at best, testimonies, & the good people at SELAH are just doing a brilliant job curating each & every one of them that comes their way. I’m terribly grateful for the opportunity to  contribute to such a wonderful online publication that is doing heaps for the Christian community.

In other news, work has started & it’s like the cogs in my head need a good oiling. How did I wake up at 545am every weekday to go to school in the recent past? & do math & PE & go for band practice & all that? Where did all that energy come from?! It boggles my mind. Anyway, no complaining – just gratefulness, for the new season that is to come.

(mumbles)

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(mumbles)

Beautiful, the drifting,
my tendency is to fall off the face
of the earth & never return
but hey, wait, a hair’s breadth
red, I’m coming round the bend

where thistles grow from thistles
& lilies from lilies, & I’m struggling
to remember what the painted
wallpaper looked like behind you
that afternoon speckled with salt

& I know here on this pier, the twist
is final – I straddle the dark thought
if you want to scream, let it out
the irrefutable rock tightened from
unhurried steps will absorb it well.

mumbles – the name of the place –
as lovely as the words “freckles”, “dappled”
it’s leaning into your ear & yawning
you have already happened.
slight as the next inflection of tongue

you have already happened.
so through the thicket, you missed it
thistle, whistle, missed it
oh, & then you found it
& well, God knows you’re trying.

We Cut Our Teeth on Iron – A Photo & Poetry Essay

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At Sea

It is not through weeping,
but all evening the pale blue eye
on your most photogenic side has kept
its own unfathomable tide. Like the boy
at the dyke I have been there:

held out a huge finger,
lifted atoms of dust with the point
of a tissue and imagined slivers of hair
in the oil on the cornea. We are both
in the dark, but I go on

drawing the eyelid up by its lashes
folding it almost inside-out, then finding
and hiding every mirror in the house
as the iris, besieged with the ink
of blood rolls back

into its own orbit. Nothing
will help it. Through until dawn
you dream the true story of the boy
who hooked out his eye and ate it,
so by six in the morning

I am steadying the ointment
that will bite like an onion, piping
a line of cream while avoiding the pupil
and in no time it is glued shut
like a bad mussel.

Friends call round
and mean well. They wait
and whisper in the air-lock of the lobby
with patches, eyewash, the truth
about mascara.

Even the cats are on to it;
they bring in starlings, and because their feathers
are the colours of oil on water in sunlight
they are a sign of something.
In the long hours

beyond us, irritations heal
into arguments. For the eighteenth time
it comes to this: the length of your leg sliding out
from the covers, the ball of your foot
like a fist on the carpet

while downstairs
I cannot bring myself to hear it.
Words have been spoken; things that were bottled
have burst open and to walk in now
would be to walk in

on the ocean.

(Simon Armitage)

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Blackberrying

The only thing to come now is the sea.
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt.
I follow the sheep path between them. A last hook brings me
To the hills’ northern face, and the face is orange rock
That looks out on nothing, nothing but a great space
Of white and pewter lights, and a din like silversmiths
Beating and beating at an intractable metal.

(Sylvia Plath)

 

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Atlantis

..Early spring,

too cold yet for green, too early
for the tumble and wrack of last season

to be anything but promise,
but there in the air was white tulip,

marvel, triumph of all flowering, the soul
lifted up, if we could still believe

in the soul, after so much diminishment…

(Mark Doty)

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& now, perhaps too boldly (after all of my favourite poets & their beautiful pieces), one of my own.

The Speechless Villanelle

i taste the salt cloying on my face
lay down continents before it’s too late
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

watch the moons while they go out to play
& quell the part that dwells for far too long
it’s all part of the story anyway

so i’m reaching out for heaven’s gates
& my tendency towards love & song
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

i climb the edge of your craggy face
lay waste to a situation unexplained
it’s all part of the story anyway

the daughters that fall away again
& the sons that cut their teeth on iron
i ask myself: what do you want to say?

perhaps it was all worth the wait
the ocean’s striations are now mine to take
i ask myself: what do you want to say?
it’s all part of the story anyway.

Twelve Square Meters

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Like life, I am unhinged, as large,
In an apartment high above
with streaked windows like doors
This dream becomes
solid as the ground I stand on
Lick my fingers clean from an unconscious song

I have been thinking a lot about my time in Sweden lately. Of course, here & there I think about Stockholm, abbreviated & embroidered on every facade of the city – train stations, street signs, guidebooks – as STHLM, chic & straightforward, not unlike its people. I see the city as surely as I see water in all its forms; the numerous islands & bridges & river inlets that make up the city & create an openness that is rare in European capitals.

‘Water is the nerve of Stockholm. It opens up the sky & lends a glow to this incredible fairytale city of the north, not far from the Arctic Circle. Stockholm is the city, it is always the same, everything changes, people come & go…’

But although STHLM is immediately identifiable to the cosmopolitan traveler, it is my humble town of Linköping that I miss the most. It is the fifth largest city in Sweden but the city name & its pronunciation (lin-sher-pin) is usually unheard of. & I too, did not hear of it till it became part of me.

I remember arriving in my tiny square space & spending that night on a threadbare & musky IKEA mattress, the room startlingly dark & all my possessions contained in two luggage cases, that feeling of lightness of being (but also an acute emptiness) unfurling in my chest. I had arrived at Linköping after applying for an exchange program on a whim with my then-boyfriend, picking the place only because it seemed like a whimsical, faraway town to runaway to if only to escape the sticky Singaporean heat. In that moment though, it did not seem at all appealing. I missed my own room, my home.

After a night of crying, I refused to stay in the stagnant & decrepit state of not belonging & thus unpacked, sparse as the shelves looked under my five or six possessions. At least I tried. & I tried the next day, & the next day, & the next. & as the weeks passed, I began to develop a routine & I slowly felt the previously hostile walls of the room begin to mould around my daily activities, or perhaps I was changing myself to fit the contours of the room itself. Every day after art history or political science class, I would park my pink bike outside my dorm, unlock my door & hang my coat & scarf on the rack next to my bathroom (coat, left; scarf, right). I would shake the snow off my boats & leave them to dry between the radiator & the front door. Then finally, I would stumble into my tiny bedroom & collapse onto the sheets to thaw from the minus five-degree weather.

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I began to decorate, dragging a white table & chairs & boxes of abandoned books from the college residential halls into my room. Piles of research papers & discarded poetry collections began to form little towers on my study table. I grew accustomed. Every morning I would wake up, turn my body to the right & gaze at the blue-grey shafts of light that slid between the blinds & made their way into my room. It was almost winter then & the sun would climb up lazily into the sky at ten in the morning & then melt away again into the horizon at four in the afternoon. I liked that counter flux of dark & light; it suited my introverted tastes.

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Linköping, Sweden

But when did this room become “home”, exactly? I can’t remember which weekend trip I was coming back from, perhaps Oslo or London, but I do know that it was in the dead of the night & we were exhausted from lugging our bags from train to bus, bus to plane, plane to bus again. & I remember this moment so clearly as we approached the Ryd intersection & went separate ways to our own student apartments & I turned to whoever I was traveling with then & said, okay well, see you later, I’m going home. Home.

The four-letter word hung in the dark intersection, crystallised in sleepy breath. & for me, that inherent moment of the sense of home shifting within my mind’s eye was monumental & I felt a rush of yes, the other-home sweetness & warmth, the belonging, like when a person fits her arm into the crook of her lover’s & it sits there snug… like when there’s a catch between bolt & key, like when you’re no longer suspended in air. & almost immediately I felt a little guilty, as if I was cheating on my own room in Singapore, but then I reassured myself with the thought that my old room would understand. There, there. It wouldn’t mind one bit. It would want me to feel at home in another place, at least for a certain period of time.

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I took many pictures of the European cities that year, stunning sights & historical monuments. I took pictures of the celestial lights in the midnight Scandinavian sky, of the deep velvet forests I hiked in, of the people I had met. I took many pictures at an attempt to remember, but now when the names of towns & municipalities & street names are slipping off the edges of my mind, all I have to do is close my eyes & think about my room, my little twelve square meters of home. It is the one thing I can’t forget.

I guess the thing that I’m getting at is this: you only have one birthplace but you can have more than one home. Even though I’m back in Singapore right now, I am always wondering what my next destination will be & whether it is a place where I could one day reside & make my own. & as I recollect memories about my time in Sweden, I also find myself feeling fluid – like water, like the rivers of Stockholm, like that sense of home.

Happenstance;

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My contemporaries like small objects,
dried starfish that have forgotten the sea,
melancholy stopped clocks, postcards 
sent from vanished cities,
& blackened with illegible scripts,
in which they discern words
like “yearning,”, “illness”, or “the end.”
They marvel at dormant volcanoes.
They don’t desire light.
Adam Zagajewski

A typewritten copy of this poem hangs forlornly on one of my bookshelves, held down in place by some candles & foreign coins. It caught my eye yesterday as I cleaned out my tiny library. As I skimmed through the poem, it took on new meaning for me because whilst I had always enjoyed it before, I think I finally understood what Zagajewski meant when he talked about his contemporaries liking small objects & not desiring light. It invokes a kind of sadness, when you let the collecting of small objects replace the joy of finding these small objects in person on a journey, picked up by pure happenstance.

Happenstance (adj.)
: a circumstance especially that is due to chance

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Incidentally, my shelves are filled with “small objects”: trinkets, curios, gifts from friends, souvenirs from faraway. Sketches. Leather bound notebooks from Melbourne. A ceramic turtle from Kyrgyzstan that produces a high-pitched whistle when you blow through its mouth… Ah, you get the picture. A hundred little things. & as I looked at Zagajewski’s poem & all the dusty tchotchkes scattered around me, I was filled with the sudden desire to return back to the things that once brought true joy – travel, photography, writing, sketching, eating – instead of being reduced to The Collector.

You are The Collector
bringing together
the hidden places in people
collarbones, forearms, ears…
you’re storing them up
in the city that is your mind
O, that deep, swirling darkness
Won’t you let me in?
But do I want to go in? I don’t think so; not anymore. It comes down to this: I don’t want to be reduced to a forgotten thing on a shelf. It’s time to open up, let the light in.