September 2014


On Breathing In

Posted on Friday, September 5, 2014

Two years ago today, I left behind a pink bedroom in a red house, two grey cats (one fatter than the other), two freckled and redheaded sisters, two wonderful and supportive and loving parents, and a circle of friends that feel as close as family. Two years ago! Time is a funny thing. There are days when it goes so quickly and I can't stand how fast my life is passing by; days that I want to last forever end too quickly and moments I want to savor for ages are gone before I've blinked. On other days, time drags on and on and on and I want to scream and break something or run somewhere or do something, anything, other than waiting for another boring minute to pass by

I haven't decided how it makes me feel to acknowledge that two years have gone by, now. On one hand it sounds so terribly short - what can I possibly have learned in such an insignificant period? How can I possible have evolved? On the other hand, though, the days that have passed between September 5th 2012 and today are an eternity, filled with so much love and beauty that I can never remember them all because there's too much to grasp. There are moments, though, that stick out to me as I look back, and the joy contained in these little moments is reason enough to continue to seek more out.

It's no secret that there are no shortage of beautiful views in Paris. They're everywhere. There are the iconic views - the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame - which are undoubtedly breathtaking, even now. There are clichés that still make me smile - a man in a striped marinière shirt with a baguette under his arm and a cigarette hanging from his lips, or a beautiful slim woman navigating cobblestones succesfully in impossibly tall and thin stilettoes. In Paris, there are Haussmann's buildings and boulevards, there are wooded groves bursting with greenery, there are the looming high rises of La Défénse, there is the Seine, there are the sidewalk cafés...This city is a veritable feast for the eyes at every corner.

The sights are beautiful and I devour them ravenously, happily. The day that I don't feel a thrill in the pit of my stomach watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle late at night is the day that it might be time to go home. I've been thinking lately, though, that Paris offers a whole other dimension beyond what it looks like. As I think about the past two years of my life, this two year relationship that I've been building with this place, I realize that lately, I've been noticing more than how things look. Lately, I've been thinking a whole lot about how Paris smells. Stick with me, here.

It's not surprising, really. I've always felt a particularly strong connection between smell and memory in my own life. There are smells that will stay with me all my days: the smell of my parents' perfumes as they leant to kiss my sleepy forehead goodnight on date nights; the basement of the church we attended, where we practiced for school plays and talent shows and ate donuts after Mass on Sundays; my grandmother's cooking filling her bungalow on a drizzly Dublin afternoon while Grandad watched the TV in the next room; Sunday morning crêpes at our home in Yardley, the Nutella inevitably smeared on mine and my sisters' and fresh lemon for my parents; chlorine from summer after summer at the community pool, a smell that seemed to come from our skin by the end of each season. I'll never forget the smell of my high school hallway, nor the senior lounge where we drank coffee and hid from nuns wondering why we weren't in class, nor of my first boyfriend's car when we drove along the Delaware on weekends. And then, of course, there was Villanova - fresh laundry from the basement of Stanford, illicit smoke rising from the quad to our room in Sheehan; the stairwells of Tolentine on a 90 degree September afternoon; Vladimir vodka/Crystal lite cocktails in the shower; stale beer lingering The Morning After and coffee and sandwiches from Bagel Factory; the Pit on a weekend morning; the third floor of Falvey Memorial Library...

So many moments have been captured just by breathing in - entire experience summoned just by catching a familiar hint of long ago on the air. Just like before, in my childhood and in high school and college, I'm making new connections and discovering new reminders with each turn. I'm cataloguing this Chapter In My Life as I've done with so many others before. For what it's worth, I'm willing to argue that the smells of Paris are a close second to the sights. There is nowhere on earth that smells as heavenly as the outside of a bakery at five a.m., the comfort of butter and sugar and all things forbidden beckoning on a well-timed breeze. And then there's the smell in the cafés, a croque monsieur or an entrecôte at the table next to you making you wonder if maybe you actually are hungry, after all...

There are so many places I've been over the past couple of years, people I've met and laughed with, things I've eaten, so much life has been lived and enjoyed that it's no wonder that it's been such a sensory experience. There's the smell of my first tiny aparment, a bit musty but HOME for the very first time in a new place; the sugary smell of the candy stand near Odéon that I used to pass daily; the crêpes and waffles being made a bit further down the intersection. There was the cheap cologne my students used to douse themselves in, the imitation perfumes that the girls applied while I looked on, not daring to reprimand. There's my office, which is situated juuuust close enough to a bakery to smell the morning baguettes, and then the midi, and the evening, so that every time I'm outside I'm tempted. The smell of Ricard on a sunny afternoon on a beach in the South, playing pétanque, or seeking shade on Chez Prune's terrasse on the Canal Saint Martin. There's smell that hits you if you pass the fromagerie when its door is open, the smell of the saucissons hanging from a vendor's stall at the market. There are the rôtisserie chickens that I pass on my bike past every night after work, spinning lazily over new potatoes and, I'll have you know, inspiring me to roast a chicken for the first time myself. In the parks there's the smell of freshly cut grass, of gravel that's been walked on for centuries, and in the street the damp smell of the street cleaning that Paris is famous for. There's the smell down by the Seine, not pleasant but certainly not forgettable, a mix of stale tallboys of cheap beer, spilled red wine, long-extinguished cigarettes. And of course, then there's the smoke - oh, the smoke! At café tables, at bustops, walking out of the métro, walking into it (and sometimes, late at night, inside it), running behind a commuter on his way to work in the morning. It's outside every restaurant and inside some daring bars, it's outside businesses at ten o'clock, two o'clock, four o'clock, the end of the day. It's in playgrounds and outside churches, on Vespas and in SmartCars. It's incredible, it's unavoidable, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere. If there's one smell for Paris, if I could try to capture the whole city, it would be mainly composed of cigarette smoke.. with hints of freshly baked baguettes and camembert.

It was never a conscious decision to stop looking around so much and start noticing other things, but it happened somewhere along the way. I like to think it's a good sign, a sign of making a real and good life here, more than just enjoying the sights. I'll look forward to the time in five or ten or twenty years when I catch a hint of something that brings me back to this time, to this here and now. Who knows where I'll be by then? 

For now, though, I'm still happy to be here, I've still not had enough. This weekend, to celebrate the past two years and in happy anticipation of the next, I'll take myself out for dinner and raise a little toast to me, to Paris, to the life I'm trying to make for us together. Here's to another year with you, Paris. I really do love you. xx