When you spend a lot of time in a place, people want to talk to you about it. Especially when that place is Paris. People want to talk to me about Paris all the time. I fret about being a one-horse show, but then realize that what are many conversations for me, is just one for someone else. And it so happens that often these conversations illuminate something, get me thinking.
“Paris is timeless,” one person said. Yes, it is. “Everybody thinks they own Paris,” said another. This observation lingered. I scribbled it down to have her exact words. It’s true, everyone does think they own Paris. Why?
Because I am curious, and because it is my business, this is a question I mull over all the time. Sometimes people say, “Oh, I’ve been to Paris.” Been there, done that. Checked it off the ubiquitous bucket list. At this point I try to divert the conversation. We are on parallel tracks that will never merge.
Paris is meant to be savored, not gulped. Otherwise you miss its nuances and complexities. It’s like a favorite book you read and reread, each time seeing something you never noticed before, understanding something a little differently. Paris is ephemeral. Return to something that caught your eye a few days earlier, whether street art, an amusement in a shop window, or sometimes even the shop itself, and it is more than likely to be gone. Paris is like a stage scrim: opaque until back lit, then it transforms into whatever you need it to be. Alive, romantic, beautiful, interesting. All those adjectives that come close but fall short in describing what has to be felt. Paris shimmers, infusing you with that same warm feeling as a conversation in which the other person has asked you about yourself, and then listened. You come away feeling good about everything.
But does this answer the question of why we feel ownership? Paris is so much in the public domain. There are pictures that we recognize instantly as Paris, even if we’ve never been—the Eiffel Tower, Notre-Dame, tiny cobblestone streets filled with cafés, the unmistakable architecture. These sugarplums dance in our heads when we think of Paris. And tease us into thinking we know it. No, that we own it.
I have a relationship with Paris. Even as I struggle to explain it, the relationship defies explanation. Paris whispers to me, revealing itself in the most astonishing ways through experiences and coincidences that I don’t necessarily look for, but that just seem to happen. Again and again, all the time. One writer explains that he came to Paris without expecting anything, with few illusions, and a lot of curiosity. I could say the same. He likens the city to a butterfly difficult to net, one that always seems to fly away. Then admits that he doesn’t want to pin it down after all. Neither do I.