When I went to Rome, I didn’t visit the Sistine Chapel. Instead, I sat in St. Peter’s Square and I watched nuns and priests walk by in their black robes and I read six chapters from Nick Hornby’s “How to Be Good,” and I got a bad sunburn.
In Paris I went to the Louvre because it was free with my student visa, and I schlepped across the marbled halls for as long as I could stand the crowds of American and Japanese tourists wielding cameras like the paintings were about to burst into flames (what did one do with those photos? Create an endless album on Facebook? Take them to Kinko’s and print out life-size replicas of the originals? Or use them as digital tokens to prove that they’d “been” somewhere, that they’d “seen” something that proved they knew what culture really was? I’d never understand). An hour was all I could take. I left the museum, walked down the street and bought a slice of quiche lorraine, and I sat in the park and watched old people get on and off the city buses that stopped at the corner every five minutes. I never saw the Mona Lisa.
But what if I had? What could I say about the Mona Lisa, what could I add that would enrich the world’s understanding of the painting? Something like,
“Yeah, in Paris I saw the Mona Lisa. It was incredible.”
And no one would question me further; no one would ask me about the lighting, about the proportions, about how it felt to be in the shadow of greatness—because what more is there to talk about, really?
The first time I came to Paris, I fell in love with the metro system. There was something so mythic, so transcendental, and so equalizing about it—here we were, all of us, united in those few moments as we careened through dark and putrid spaces at the same speed. On my last night in the city, I had three hours to kill before meeting a friend for dinner. So I rode the metro endlessly, serenely, reverently. I took trains going any direction, some all the way the end of the line, some just a few stops, some back and forth. There were the rare instances when the underground train would suddenly burst into the open air and we would be above ground for a few stops, and then high and low were momentarily reconciled. I started to wonder if the best way to get to know any city was to ride its public transportation.
In the metro, there was the misplaced and nonsensical luxury of seeing a full string quartet playing Bach’s The Art of the Fugue while the air around them stank of decay. Above them were the beautiful things: Notre Dame bathed in golden, flossy light; the white stone steps of Sacré Cœur; the Arc de Triomphe as Napoleon would have wanted it: emblazoned in moonlight, a portal to the rest of the city. But here, the beautiful things were still alive, hadn’t yet been sanitized by notions of what’s “amazing” or “incredible,” hadn’t been photographed a million different ways into oblivion.
When you live your whole life seeing something as iconic as the Mona Lisa or the Eiffel Tower reprinted and re-imagined a billion times, the reality is always a grayer, smaller, more disappointing version of the image in your head. The first time I saw the Eiffel Tower, I said,
“Oh. Is that it?”
Seeing the Eiffel Tower in Paris was surreal. Didn’t it belong on a postcard? Or on a refrigerator magnet? Or on some movie set? Or shrunk down to miniature size as a tiny pendant on a silver necklace?
Maybe it’s a mark of my ingratitude and cultural ignorance, but if I never saw the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre or Sacré Cœur or the Champs Élysées again, I wouldn’t feel a loss. But the concerts and the operas and the open air markets and the croissants and the metro and the tiny espressos and the bise: I would weep if these were gone.