Tourism. That sweet honey trap.
And, at the centre of the touristic world, glowing in its pre-imagined beauty: Paris.
The centre of Paris? Two small islands.
It is on one of these islands that we shall start our Parisian adventure, in three acts...
ACT 1 - MEMORIES
A girl is sitting on a stony ledge beside the Seine, under a willow tree on the edge of a small verdant garden. The garden looks like the prow of a boat, slicing through the river with its pointed edge. She holds a notebook and a pencil, her feet and her gaze aimed at the barge opposite her. A scrawl of marks begins to form on the page - tufts of willow wands dancing in the breeze, and the lapping water at the edge of the barge. She shares a slice of coconut with a nearby duck, before putting away her drawing tools in a small rucksack with a broken strap, tied back on itself to hold it. She takes off through the garden gate.
Almost one hundred years before this scene...
Ernest Hemingway had sat in that same "small park at the water's edge with fine chestnut trees huge and spreading." There he read and drank wine and mused over the fisherman.
They always caught some fish, and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavour than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.
- Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
ACT 2 - THOUGHTS
I have spent a lot of time watching tourists.
They are the ones who make a beeline to each and every famous site that is known to all the world, knowing exactly what to expect from their encounter but wanting to have their moment in front of it anyway, preferably caught on camera.
They are the ones who make lists with checkmarks, wanting to see only those places they have heard of, or read about. They walk with purpose to each destination: a to b. They keep time, they get a little mad when the weather does not cooperate.
They spend more time with their nose in the map, in the guidebook, up against the plaque with the small script on the wall of the museum, that they sometimes forget to look, look, look! at the world in front of them.
They are a little afraid of the world, and opt to take a tour with a certified guide, who can reveal 'secrets' to them in a neat and safe form. They will peer into a beautiful alley courtyard, but will not take one step inside.
They are looking in at the world, as if it were behind a glass screen.
ACT 3 - THE NOW
Everyone wants to come to Paris and have their own Woody Allen Midnight in Paris moment, yet they are so caught up in major sites and to-do lists, that they never take the time to actually experience the place and just BE in it!
Don't look in from the outside, instead become a part of those places you visit.
So, when you do visit that postcard-perfect-cultural-disneyland that is the Îles de la Seine, maybe take your time, let the day unfold as it will, focus on that very moment, luxuriate in it. Spend some time just sitting by the quais in the Parc Vert Galant watching the world go by.
BEAUTIFUL MOMENTS ON LES ÎLES:
Cooing at the twittering birds and gazing at purple orchids at the ancient Sunday markets on the Île de la Cité.
Walking to Berthillon, fingers crossed that it will be open, and finding that sign out the front detailing the specialty ice creams of the day. Then taking your prune flavoured ice cream and languidly walking it down to the small park at the end of Île St Louis where it will be enjoyed best.
Side-skipping the hoards of tourists to walk down the smaller side streets, and discovering each plaque, in French, dedicated to a moment in history. The best being the medieval house of Héloïse d'Abelard, of course.
Hanging about Notre Dame at night when the day trippers have left, and talking with the fire eating performers there.
Walking everywhere with no actual purpose.
Spending far too long browsing the Bouquinistes for 19th century books on flower illustrations.
Running your fingers through the evergreen hedges on the Île St Louis.
Drinking yet another coffee at a tiny wicker table set on the footpath where every passer by can trip over the dog at the table next to yours.
Grabbing a bottle of wine and a morsel of food to take to the Parc Vert Galant at dusk, to sit with the other Parisians who are more than a little drunk.
Or stopping by one of the free Summer dance lessons on the quai-side, to learn the tango.