02 September 2011

Paris By Bike - a Reintroduction

I've never been on a bicycle in Paris, but plenty of other people have. Despite the paucity of bike lanes and awful traffic, this is a city of biking; a new observation, made today as the streets and boulevards reordered themselves in my memory.
A sensory recollection struck me a few days ago in Liechtenstein. Connected somehow to a map of the Paris metro, a ghost scent of the subway seemed to gather in the little gasthaus room. It's a peculiar smell - there's the sweet scent of urine, of course, but also a battery acid note, and an older tinge of dead leaves and autumn. Years ago, I spent parts of a winter and spring in Paris, and my laziness and the cold made the metro seem appealing in a way that's hard to forget.
Arriving here this time, the heat was striking. It's the hottest that the city has ever seemed, and the difference from the remembered weather has made Paris feel new. It's something like cleaning the glass that covers an old photograph and finding the image brighter and less nostalgic than imagined. It may be that Paris is partly imagined anyway, as a set for movies and stories, and as the backdrop to so much that we believe to be French. There is an immediacy in the heat that's less agreeable to one's fantasies.
September is like that too - hotter at first than remembered, not quite possessing the dusky clarity of autumn days. It's still summer for much of the month, we forget, and the sun still climbs nearly straight up into the sky. Maybe it's October that we're really thinking of, when the leaves are done falling and grimness has taken hold. Maybe Paris is more a solid assemblage of paintings and structures than a dreamscape. Of course it is - people go about their lives and buy bread and carry around packages every day. Their existence probably doesn't feel like a fairytale.
But there is something exciting about the city that's hard to pinpoint - the smell of the metro didn't so much bring back memories for me as it conjured up a concept that's bigger than the reality. Every time I come back, that feeling has been there. It has never seemed to grow duller. There is room here for reminiscences and exploration, which is not always the case in a place. Walking around is like wandering through a childhood home; it feels familiar even the first time, perhaps like visiting a home lived in as a toddler. Some things are always a little different than remembered, many things have changed, but there are smells and corners that leap into the consciousness of a stroll and make you remember, immediately, why Paris really is remarkable in some strange way.

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