Paris, France. February 2006.
We’ve woken before the sun, which should be just fine as this is the City of Light. That must be Paris proper, though, nearer the city center. Here in the outskirts, the far-flung reaches near Disneyland where hotels pander to cheap tourists like us, there’s no sign of “romantic twinkle.” The world is just a sort of seamless gray.
There are six of us including myself. We’re American college students studying abroad in England, who escaped for a long weekend adventure in France’s famed capitol. Now we are standing on the platform of this open-air train station, waiting for the first train of the day to whisk us into Gare du Nord so we can catch our Eurostar departure to London and arrive back in time to finish our homework before classes tomorrow.
The early hour would usually be unbearable enough, but today there is added misery: my friends all decided to order that appetizer before dinner last night, the one with the funky-looking cheese, and now food poisoning has turned them into zombies. They stand scattered a few feet apart from one another all up and down the platform, green-faced and moaning softly, each lost in a private world of pain.
So far this morning has been about as far from beautiful as you can get: awful digestive betrayals, and this smoggy grayish half-light draped over empty city streets that don’t really look at all like the Paris I’d imagined. Things seem so flavorless and mundane, sidewalks and storefronts that could belong to any city if not for the language splashed across their signs and billboards.
That’s not to say the whole trip was terrible. We did the tourist thing and had our fun — visiting monuments and museums, lingering in cathedrals and cafes, doing silly reenactments from Phantom of the Opera while touring through the Paris Opera House — but it all went by so fast, and now we’re leaving, and our time feels… incomplete, somehow. This whole weekend, I kept secretly thinking that I’d encounter some of the glamour I’d read about in books or seen in films. Where’s the Paris of Van Gogh, or Hemingway? Where’s the magic? The unutterable, ineffable something that makes this city thrum with life and possibility? But I never found it and it seems I won’t, for here we are waiting for the train that will bring our time here to an end.
Ahead of us, the tracks. Behind us, the platform’s outer wall arcs up and angles overhead as a sort of protective “roof.” Directly above it towers a huge multi-storey apartment block, as plain and painfully ordinary as everything else we’ve passed on the walk here from our hotel. And this is it. I stand here resigned to the fact that this is going to be my morning. This is how we are saying goodbye to one of the most remarkable cities in the world: my friends each lost to their individual agonies, all of us surrounded by this haze of gloom and drear.
Then the music starts.
It’s a little tinny through the overhead sound system of the train station, but that doesn’t matter. If you have ever heard Debussy’s Clair de Lune you know exactly what I’m talking about. In fact, if you’re willing, press the button on the video below and allow it to play as you read on. Only then will you truly understand.
The song begins, and even that might be enough to turn things around, as the sun is slowly creeping in. The day finally beginning. The gray becoming a thinner, paler sheen. But then I hear another noise. It takes me a moment to place it. I turn and crane my neck, peering up at the apartment building behind us, and there I see that someone about five or six storeys up has opened a window overlooking the station. It is a man. His elbows on the windowsill, he leans out.
With a pang I realize he is listening.
The song swells through the station’s loudspeakers and soars up and all around. It’s a sound he must be used to, one he must hear every day around this hour. I don’t know if he sees us down here, or if that really matters. We’re both of us caught up entirely, as if under a spell.
As I watch, a woman’s head appears, her chin resting on his shoulder. She drapes one arm around him to hand him a mug full of something hot and steaming. He raises it to his lips. They stay like that for a temporary infinity.
And the thing is, there will be gray days.
There will always be pain.
“Magic” isn’t real.
Disappointment and defeat are inevitable side effects of being alive.
But there is a man in an apartment in Paris who opens his window each morning to greet the day with song.
It is perhaps the most perfect moment I’ve ever beheld.
I want to grab at the sleeves of my friends and point up and shout, “Look! Look!” but one glance at their faces and I remember, and know it wouldn’t matter. They are in too much distress right now to care. This sight belongs to me alone, and all too soon it’s over.
The song finishes. Our train arrives and we board, my friends groaning as we heave our suitcases over the gap between the train and the platform, all of us collapsing in our seats. We head back to London, and a few months later we fly home again to the States, and from there we all go our separate ways, moving on with the rest of our lives.
But I’ve saved that moment. I’ve carried it around with me over these past ten years like one of those matches the Little Match Girl strikes in Hans Christian Andersen’s classic fairy tale. Have you heard the story? Out on the streets on a freezing winter’s night, a little girl selling matches begins to strike them one by one to try to stave off the cold. Each match flares up with a glorious vision of light and beauty, transporting her for the moment from her harsh reality.
I’ve held onto these memories for just such a purpose, and now I offer this one to you. A brief glimpse of light for when you feel darkest. A bit of warmth for when life is cold. A reminder that when the world seems gray and you’re surrounded by pain, sometimes you just need to remember to look up.