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.
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, breathlessly, who can only stare off in a daze & say rapturously: Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it a beautiful city?
I saw Paris through the eyes of a child, heard the sounds of Anna playing with her friends in the école 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.
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).
& 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?
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.
Days like these
when things don’t matter
when you don’t matter
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
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 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.
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 & Café 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.
Aunt Lisa, or “Ah Yi”, as I call her, has invited me out to lunch.
The more accurate term would be summoned, a word that almost always induces a sense of foreboding & fear. Once every few months, & more often since I’ve been freelancing, I get a phone call from Aunt Lisa telling me that it is time we meet for lunch. Each phone call never lasts more than twenty seconds. The last time I saw her, I had been similarly summoned to her law office at Circular Road & I had walked in on her yelling at one of her two secretaries & throwing down files on the floor… so, you can understand the foreboding feeling a little.
We agree to meet at Wakanui at noon, an upscale steakhouse which is our usual lunch place. Nothing but white tablecloths & an extensive wine list for Aunt Lisa. Once I tried to buy her lunch at a nice Italian cafe & she scoffed before booking a table at Fairmont Hotel’s Prego. A cafe, really…? She says the word “cafe” like one would say “baby vomit”.
So Wakanui it is. She has a permanent reservation on a back table there, & more importantly, the staff simultaneously fears her & understands her. By the time I reach, I see that she has already started on a bottle of white wine. She is wearing a little black dress & with her gamine features & slight build (I am a whole head taller than her), she reminds me of Audrey Hepburn, walking down Fifth Avenue, Manhattan, regarding Tiffany gems with a rarified air on a quiet morning. She is smoking long, slim cigarettes out of the gilded case I’ve seen her carry since I was a child, going through them like candy, the blue smoke rising around her like curling wings. She sees me & her expression loosens into a smile. She reaches her hands out to hug me & tenderly asks:
How are you, dear?
Like always, I order the steak & she orders the fish. When Mario the head waiter has left, the quick-fire questions begin. As all conversations with lawyers go, she doesn’t bother with small talk & immediately starts asking me questions of both a professional & personal nature at bullet speed: How was Europe? Isn’t Wales a bloody hole? Haven’t you gotten a job yet? What trouble are your sisters in nowadays? Thank God I’ve come prepared & shoot back at her like an old pro (or a defence attorney for that matter): Europe was great. Wales isn’t a bloody hole but you wouldn’t have liked it. Yes I have. Well, there’s been some trouble, but nothing for you to worry about. Kapow!
We then talk about movies, music, food. Aunt Lisa eats like a bird but loves food all the same. She is the only person I know in the world who appreciates food like an art form, & who isn’t bored to death when I obsess over culinary trends or fine dining. When I tell her that I was considering going to Alain Passard’s three-star Michelin star restaurant L’Arpège for dinner when I was in Paris, she scoffs & insists that it is “bullshit” (just because you sprinkle black truffles on everything doesn’t mean it’s good food, she says). She likes dining at Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry, Alex Atala’s D.O.M & Gunther Hubrechsen’s Gunther, but detests Scandinavian cooking because she thinks that it’s all smoked fish & potatoes. I tell her about the things that Sweden’s Magnus Nilsson is doing in Fäviken & Denmark’s René Redzepi in Noma but the jury is still out on that… her jury anyway.
This is the part of lunches with Aunt Lisa I love most, when we simply talk about the things we like, when she is out of her “lawyer” mode & we slip into something resembling pleasant conversation. Aunt Lisa is from another time, old-fashioned & classy. She uses the most archaic expressions. Like a character out of a Miller or Lawrence novel, her eyes light up when she talks about a jazz band she saw a few weeks ago: This place was really something, quarried away on Club Street & when we went in, it was perfect – not too crowded but just right, you know? The band was absolutely ripping, & everyone was loving it & responding to them in just the right way… Uncle Richard & I loved it, so fantastic, so bohemian…
I love it when she talks like that.
Aunt Lisa is my mother’s older sister & the eldest amongst the four children. Growing up, my mother was the cheery one who was well-liked among all the relatives because of her sweet tongue & amiable character, while Aunt Lisa disliked noise & had a bad temper & preferred to spend her afternoons holed up somewhere, reading a book. Family is a fickle thing, isn’t it? The way we turn out different from our siblings.
Anyway, it was no doubt that Aunt Lisa was massively intelligent & driven. She breezed through junior college, went to law school & cut her teeth at a top-tier law firm for a few years before setting up her own in the early ’90s. Till today, Lisa Chong & Partners remains a successful, largely one-woman show because – & this is verbatim – she doesn’t like answering to any assholes & likes going where she likes, when she likes. That was a huge feat in the late 1980s, back when female lawyers weren’t common & her male peers weren’t too fond of a woman telling them what to do. Now of course, things are different. People in the law circuit know who she is – that Lisa Chong, she’s a badass.
She then moved out of the family home, met & married Uncle Richard (a good-natured, American oil engineer from southern California who claims to have moved to Asia because he loved noodles & stuck around because he met Aunt Lisa. He is an amazing jazz drummer who introduced me to artistes like Dave Weckl & Buddy Rich & The Yellowjackets, but that’s another story for another day.). She turns 55 this year & even though that’s seven years to official retirement, she is by no means letting her age slow her down.
I didn’t always like her. I used to find her mean & condescending & prideful. As a sensitive child, I watched her carefully from a young age, despising it whenever she used cutting words to speak to her siblings or her own mother. She always lost her temper with service staff, was curt with her peers, & impatient with children. I would never have gotten close if we did not share a mutual love: books.
Aunt Lisa had an impressive library, a proper one – wall-to-wall oak shelves, thousands of books & that rolling wooden ladder that helped you reach the ones stacked on top – in her old house & whenever she hosted our weekly Sunday night family meal, I would run to the reading nook straight after dinner & spend two hours rifling through her collection while my two sisters spent their time in her walk-in wardrobe, trying on her clothes & pieces of costume jewelry. I was such a different child back then from my sisters, so quiet & timid & always sick & crying but I remember how those books would make me feel as hours passed in that magical place. In the sweet solitude of the library, I went on adventures with writers like Rudyard Kipling, Jules Verne & Alexander McCall Smith who had travelled to faraway places like Africa & India & ate exotic foods with the locals & danced with them till the night dwindled away. I read true crime stories like In Cold Blood & had nightmares for weeks afterward. I delved into the landscape of the American south when I read To Kill A Mockingbird & I was Scout, the brazen tomboy who unwittingly saved Tom Robinson’s life, who loved Calpurnia’s crackling bread & who managed to encapsulate all I felt about books as a young child when she said: Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing.
Often, Aunt Lisa would join me & take out a hefty, square book on Greek Mythology & tell me all about the ancient gods – Chaos, Gaia, Uranus, Cronos, Zeus, Heracles, the whole lot of them – & their stories. She named one of her seven cats Calypso, after the nymph who kept the Homeric hero Odysseus captive on her own island for several years until Athena & Zeus intervened, always wishing that he would one day love her the same way she loved him. Aunt Lisa loved that story. From there, she would slip into this state of dreaminess, talking about her travels to Greece & South America & Italy with Uncle Richard, visiting everything from ancient ruins to elephant jungles, touching the worn stones of history & walking on the hearths of our ancestors, where there was once eating & drinking & sleeping & breathing… & I, I so young & inexperienced, with nothing but the waxy pages & their glorious illustrations laid out before me, all those Gods with bodies cut from white marble, fiery chariots, & of course the mere mortals themselves, often so beautiful that they could sometimes bewitch those whom they were supposed to worship. I breathed in whole worlds like that on that library floor. When I think about it now, it was a gift, all that time amongst books & my Aunt Lisa, pure & unappreciated.
My reverie is broken when Aunt Lisa calls over Mario & snaps at him for more ice. That’s her for you, able to switch between complete cordiality to a cantankerous, Anna Wintour-ish nightmare in a matter of seconds. It’s something I’ve gotten used to & I let it slide. She decides that we’ll be taking dessert & the rest of the wine outside so she can have a good smoke. Mario materialises like a ghost & whispers, yes, madame, & soon we are seated outside with fresh glasses & our chocolate soufflés.
Stories shift into ideas. We talk about philosophy, faith, religion. I know this is when things can go either way. She doesn’t deny that there is a God but she doesn’t like the Christians that she has met (she is quick to tell me that this group excludes me & that this faith I have seems to have served me well, unlike many others). I don’t know what it is – the thumping pace of the conversation we seem to be having, or the three glasses of wine I’ve had so far – but then somehow in a burst of courage, I ask her for the very first time in my life, what then, do you believe in?
She gets very quiet. Two long puffs of her slim cigarette. She doesn’t answer immediately, but then when she finally speaks, she tells me something she’s never told anyone before.
Fifteen over years ago, when she shifted her office to a little street in Boat Quay, she started a ritual of buying her daily newspaper every morning from a little old man from across the road. The old man had sat behind a desk with glossy tabloids & copies of The Straits Times fanned out before him – one of those old-fashioned vendors you don’t see anymore. They didn’t talk very much for a long time but one day after purchasing the paper, Aunty Lisa noticed that the old man had a bloody patch on his head. She asked him what had happened in Cantonese & he told her that he had fallen & his leg was all swollen up as well. Where are your kids? Who takes care of you? It became clear after a few exchanges that there was no one. Immediately, Aunt Lisa took him to the hospital.
At the emergency room, she then finds out that not only does the old man have no money or insurance, but that he has no form of identification. He had come from China to make a living in Singapore a long time ago, has no family & didn’t even know his own birthday. Thus, even though he had a fractured hip & several other injuries, the system prevented him from receiving any form of government help. The bill came up to several thousand dollars & Aunt Lisa paid it off without a second glance. She then started the excruciatingly long process of helping this old man get registered & recognised by the state, putting together papers & going to government offices to yell at poor administrative assistants & their terrified bosses. She succeeded, of course. The old man started to receive medical subsidies & monthly welfare from the government.
After his leg was properly healed, he went back to selling his papers every morning & Aunt Lisa went back to buying them, except that things were a little different. One evening, she went out for dinner with her bunch of rich girlfriends & announced that she was taking up a collection for this old man that none of them even knew. Come on, I know how much you’re spending on these salads & martinis in just one meal. Cough up! & they all did, whether it was from shock or fear or reverence. For many months, she used that little fund as a type of allowance for the old man, giving him fifty dollars every week to make sure he had money to get food, to get medicine. When that fund dried up, she started to give him money out of her own pocket. A hundred dollars a week. Two hundred sometimes. She gave him her name card so he could get in touch with her if he was in any trouble, & gave instructions to her assistant to continue giving him the usual weekly amount whenever she was on vacation. That cheeky bastard, Aunt Lisa says at this point. He was so happy, he sat behind his little stand like a big towkay ever since I started to give him money, as if saying to all of his friends, see I have a benefactor!
A few years ago, Aunt Lisa got a call from a policeman out of the blue. The old man had passed away in his one-room flat & the officer had found her name card on his person. Does he have family, he asked. No, Aunt Lisa replied. Just me. She didn’t feel like explaining their complicated relationship to the officer, so she just asked what he wanted her to do & he told her that if no one claimed the body within thirty days, the state would “take care of it”. So she did, of course she did; paid for his cremation & all. & that was the end of a very long, bizarre, sad, beautiful relationship between the unlikeliest of parties.
So what do I believe in? I’m not sure. But I do believe in universal goodness. We encounter situations in life & well… it’s up to you what you choose to do with them. & if you choose right, you choose goodness. It’s the weirdest thing isn’t it… Life.
She trails off, looks away, takes a long drag of her cigarette. It is a long story & I’m filled with a confluence of emotions. The strange thing is that I know this about my aunt; that beyond the prickly demeanour & no-nonsense attitude, she is someone who secretly gives & loves generously but who hates talking about it. This is one of the rare instances that she does & I am astounded by how simple the decision was for her, to help a man she barely knew for so many years. I ask her what his name was, & she says it immediately without thinking. The two syllables, the two Chinese characters carry so much weight & it sits between us on the table, like an unsaid prayer.
After an extended silence, I tell Aunt Lisa that she reminds me of Audrey Hepburn. She breaks out in laughter & says, what the fuck, I’m trying to tell you an important story here & all you can think about is a New York prostitute. I correct her – I didn’t say Holly Golightly, but Audrey Hepburn. I tell her that what I admire most about Hepburn isn’t her repertoire of wonderful movies & the memorial characters she played, or her beauty & timeless fashion sense, but her unabashed grace & her love for humanity. Audrey Hepburn wasn’t religious, but she was kinder than most religious people. & that’s kind of like who you are, Ah Yi, I whisper.
She shakes her head & then smiles, & then does a little shrug. She pushes her cigarette stub into the nearly-full ashtray & stands up abruptly, breaking the spell. Mario comes over & she pays the bill & we walk out onto the street, squinting in the jarring, midday sun. It’s nearly four in the afternoon & that’s how the lunch meeting ends, as sharply as it began. She holds her palm to my cheek as a goodbye like she always does & quite suddenly, I realise that I love my Aunt Lisa very much.
I tell her that the next time she “summons” me for lunch, I will have read The Man Who Ate Everything & I will bring her Jonathan Safran Foer’s latest novel & that I will be paying the bill & treating her instead. She rolls her eyes, slaps me on the arm & waves me off.
“Recommendations? Oh dear. I’m afraid I don’t do those. I think if you wandered into this little shop by yourself, you’d have the curiosity & capacity to explore & know what you’d want to read. I’m a 58 year old man, so for anyone to come in & ask me what I think they should be reading, well, I don’t think I’m in any position to do that. Just read a little bit of everything… I certainly try to do that. See, the thing I love about poetry is that very few people are reading something that someone obviously spent a lot of effort writing years & years ago. There’s something special about that, don’t you think? Anyway, so what would you recommend?”
I’ll be writing more about my trip (or more aptly, my “pilgrimage”) to the magical kingdom of Hay-on-Wye soon but meanwhile, here’s a quote from a conversation I had with Chris Prince from The Poetry Bookshop. I agree with you Chris – there’s something very special about that indeed.