Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Monumental Moments

Paris is known for many things, everybody comes up with similar ideas in mind but perhaps nobody really knows what they are saying unless they have experienced it for themselves. And the first time will always be the best, no matter how crazy those circumstances may be. That wow moment provides an indescribable feeling that really bursts through your entire entity, hitting every single nerve in your body and it overpowers you with adrenaline and awe. I must confess, I did not know all that much about the beautiful attractions around the city, not the history nor the inspiring stories behind them, but only that they have the power to really open your eyes to a world that is more colourful and breathtaking than I could have ever imagined. By now, I have visited these monuments several times over, and I can truthfully say that each glimpse has been more stunning than before. Presented here is a collection of photos taken over the different times I have visited but I cannot emphasise enough that they are just a shade of the real beauty you would see with the naked eye. But while I will never get tired of making my way into the city, just to sit down on a park bench with a coffee or stand in the middle of the busiest roads when the traffic lights turn red, I don't think I can ever forget the thrill of seeing it for the first time.

Exploring the city and leisure time would be a real luxury, that is what I had initially thought. It goes without saying that having such a beautiful home to stay in and eating both satisfying and delicious meals would require my absolute dedication to work hard for all these advantages. And while that is yet another topic of discussion for another time, I never thought that work would propel me into having my first educative tour of the city. It was a hectic first day of work that Thursday as I was thrust into classrooms to manage and teach by myself even though it was my first work day and only my third day in France, and it ended with the information that I would be leading a group of nineteen students into central Paris to meet with the art history teacher José. Not only have I never been into the city, but to make sure nineteen others got there all intact in the midst of the morning city rush? That had to be the craziest thing in the world.

But after conquering the complicated system of trains and trams and metros, dragging up some deeply buried bravery to make quick decisions and using my French ability to comprehend exactly what we were doing, it was all worth it to finally arrive at the escalator that would bring me onto the infamous Avenue des Champs-Elysées. Yes, it was cliché Paris but as far as I know, people don't really understand what that means. In winter, cliché Paris is simply feathered rain with moments of strong breezes, ruffling the perfect line of bare trees wrapped in fairy lights all the way down the avenue. It would have been gloomy, but all I could think of was the illumination of soft light that bounced off the walls to highlight the world class architecture of the buildings themselves. Right there on my left, the glowing brilliance of Louis Vitton stood there in all its glory, the windows filled with shapes and colours that were so imperfect, they just worked together. Around me, the stores and restaurants on one of the most famous avenues in the world had started to wake up from its hibernating state, slowly turning the soft hazy background into the golden gem that it is, much like the first but slow, oozing scents of a freshly brewed latte filling a café with its warm breath. I could not bring myself to hold up my camera and take the photos that I wanted and needed to share because its sights just struck me into stupor. What have I done? I had allowed myself the opportunity to experience one of those moments that you would tell your friends and family about endlessly, eventually your husband and children and undoubtedly will try to reenact it again in the future. But of course, it would never be the same.

It took me minutes to comprehend that we had stumbled to the middle of the road, standing there on that concrete island while traffic whizzed past us left and right in its haughty, busy fashion. My jaw almost fell to the ground when I realised we could not have been more than 30m away from the l'Arc de Triomphe, with the most perfect dead on angle that you see in all the guides that you devour with your eyes at home. It was majestic and gorgeous, standing there so profoundly that you can feel the pride of the Frenchmen who built it themselves in its embodiment. As a symbolic emblem of unparalleled victory, I couldn't help but feel that same sort of triumph for myself - for conquering my absolute fears to get to this point and create something for myself that shifts my world into a completely different shape. And after I took it all in and realised that I needed this memory forever, I turned on my camera. And it never stopped snapping.

From all my previous travels, it has always been a repetitive situation when visiting attractions and beautiful monuments, the process of which I hated and despised. You view. You admire. You get back on that damn bus ready for another sickly journey to go to the next one. So to my absolute surprise and pure joy, I fell in love with Paris even more upon learning that all the significant buildings and landmarks are simply in one line, within walking distance and surrounded by the same, never-ending ambiance that draws me in with its irresistable charm and elegance. Our brief walking and exploring of Champs-Elysée was nothing short of fancy, but arriving in front of the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais was like reaching the pinnacle of French architectural brilliance. The Grand Palais with its mighty size and sheer grandness, this ornate structure hosts the crème de la crème of art in all forms. Chanel and Dior runway shows, Japanese contemporary artwork, the classic Christmas ice-rinks with beautiful light displays all take place in its interior while its exterior mimics the robustness and strength of the strange mélange of Greek inspiration and iron. Just across the street, the Petit Palais stood just as boldly as its companion but with a unique delicacy that makes it stand out perhaps more so despite its comparatively tiny size. The glass lined with both slim and thick frames of stone accentuated its fragile strength, as if one touch could both shatter it and break your finger simultaneously.

Continuing onward, we found yet another unforgettable place, one that catches even José's breath every time even though he has lived in Paris his entire life. My first steps on the most extravagant and decadent bridge in the city, Pont Alexandre III, brought me to a point that showcased Paris at one of its finest. The four statues that stood on the sturdy anchors of the bridge gleamed with gold, and its gilded statues had been crafted with so much detail that looking that each of them would have made your eyeballs roll. Leaning over the edge, the elaborate twisting and turning of stone created the ornate pattern that wove the bridge together. Both sides symmetrical, it danced over the Seine to meet up at the Nymphs of the Seine which sat on the edge like dark angels against the creamy white of the structure. Running my hand across them brought a chill to my body that had nothing to do with the cold. I looked over where José was pointing just to see a beautiful palace with a golden top and let myself marvel at the grace of l'Hotel des Invalides. Being not a hotel but a hospital despite its name, you would never be able to understand how a place so beautiful could once have harboured signs of death and illness at all. For those who fought bravely in the war, it was a splendid place to be and of course they deserved nothing short of this. And when you would think that after standing in that one spot, I have almost seen the world, the cobbled road had lead me to my first real life sighting of la Tour Eiffel, its strong framework standing out even against its grey background. Across the Seine with its flowing morning water, it just stood there waiting in the shadows. I can't say it was magical or stunning or exceptional. It didn't rain with sparkles, or reflect the light of whatever sun was present, or make unicorns and rainbows appear in the distance. But it was real. And its realness, the indisputable authenticity of it, was enough for me.

Making our way back over the bridge, we continued along with l'Arc de Triomphe just behind our backs to find a perfect square with French lamposts and textural groundwork. In front of us stood the pointy and slick l'Obélisque de Luxor, the gift from Egypt that took five years to sail across the seas to France. It was straight out of a storybook, with cryptic markings in archaic symbolism across the granite surface stretching 20m above the ground. Of course, you could not miss what was directly behind, framing the small pointy structure with its round shape and slow movement. The Concorde spun around with a speed that put everybody in a trance as we admired the clean whiteness that moved ever so slightly but smoothly like gliding butter. Underneath it, stalls would sell crepes and waffles and churros that would permeate through your nose. That satisfaction of holding a chocolate crepe and nibbling on it whilst craning my head to see the top of the cycle was immense, and there would be seconds where the hot steam would rise up and disturb that image before the winds, which were building up, would carry them away.

We approached a large pool with a fountain and those classic little green chairs when I finally came to realise that we were in one of the most iconic gardens of France, Les Jardins des Tuileries. Here on a bright and warm day, you would find tens upon hundreds of Parisians sitting back on these chair with their newpapers and their morning coffees. The classic design and distinctive quality of French gardens that I learnt that day was its measurable perfection, its accurate and planned design with statues equally distanced and trees lined all the way to the very end where it met the small arch. Walking around the fountain with tile dust crunching under our feet to live up to its name of 'the garden of roof tiles', José and I talked about life in Europe and I got a real feel of what it would be like to live in a place like this. For all its beauty and its elegance, there is a price to pay. No Parisian is ever completely relaxed and chilled out like New Zealanders would view as the norm, they are worn out and worked to the ground every single day without fail. It is only their pride in the beautiful place they have created and the assurances that they are living in the arguably the most yearned for destination on the planet that gets them out of bed in the darkness of the early mornings. His Spanish background screamed for him to go back to Spain, to his roots but he just cannot leave this place with his family. If you love it here, you must risk everything and make the choice, establish it all before your life really begins. Once it starts somewhere else, it will be difficult to move and how would you feel knowing that it wasn't right here. It was one piece of advice as we walked through the gardens that will haunt my mind in the future, either as relief or regret but I'm not sure which yet.

And if it wasn't enough to do all that in a few short hours, we ended our journey in front of the Louvre. Even the weather held off for a little while to let us view the very object that changed the definition of art and architecture. We were there for a few minutes only and it was ominous to know there were things that lay beyond there on that golden line, more to discover and much more to see. But in an almost poetic way, it summed up what my adventure would be like in Paris and provided a metaphorical depiction of my soul searching. It would be a never-ending discovery of things that would be etched into what defines me, but will require constant curiosity and depth to reach the very end.

I would do this tenfold, a hundred fold and never quite explore it all to the detail of my heart's content. I would never tire of trying to though, and I would come back every chance that I get. And to the day I write this, I still do.

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