From our apartment in Paris, if we walked up half a minute on Avenue Charles Floquet and then turned right into Avenue Octave Gréard, we’d end up on Avenue Gustave Eiffel in just another minute.
On our left rose a massive iron edifice. We stood in front of it and craned our necks. We angled our bodies some more and then some more, and sometimes when we had stared long enough, we’d feel as if the tower might shoot down over our heads us and chop us into bits. But the tower has stood for a long time, since 1889. On our right, ahead of us, all the way until our eyes crashed into Ecole Militaire, lay a carpet of green: Jardin de Champ de Mars.
In summer, the gardens were splattered with flowers and frocks in red, blue, white-the colors of the French flag-and then some green and orange and pink, really, every color of every flag in Europe, and, one might say, of the world. The lawn could have been a garden in the old town they called Babel.
Standing on the wetness, we heard tongues, so many of them, and they weren’t just Greek and Latin and Italian and Hindi. We saw skins. Some, the color of a copper epigraph uncovered in Mohenjodaro. Some were pale, as if they had rarely, if ever, greeted the sun. Others were dark, black almost, as if all they did was fish all day in full sun in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But they all had one thing in common: their smile. It was so hard to not smile under the tower. That’s it. Everyone came to Paris to stand and smile under the tower.
And everyone who alighted at Paris, first paid obeisance at the Tour Eiffel, as if it was this wondrous thing, this Taj Mahal of Paris. It was beautiful in photographs. But, up close, where one could smell nail and rivet and bearing, it was just another structure, simply another monument built by another dreamer in Paris for a show at the height of the industrial revolution.
At the lawns of the Champ de Mars, children played catch. Old women sporting garish lipstick walked near the park, held securely by dark Sri Lankan women. Stylish women sat talking on green iron benches while their pooches yelped at each other. They smoked cigarettes. They wore cigarette pants. In 1998, I remember that people still talked to one another and not into or at something as they do today. Kids played ball. On the lawns, parents set out plates, sandwiches, drinks from picnic baskets. Every few feet, young couples made out. Some of them were glued by lip, by curve. They were about to make babies. They emerged from lip-lock to giggle and laugh aloud. Yes, there was always the sound of laughter and revelry in Paris. It was the sound of life being built, being lived.
Paris is not just a city of light. That’s what the brochures tell us. I heard so much that no one talks about. In April, I heard the splat of bird pee on my head. Round the year, I heard the sound of music: from apartment buildings, churches, parks, metros, and up the bus towards Pigalle. In July, there was the beat. At Trocadero, the drums played into the night. Guys in braids. Guys in nose rings and earrings and Shiva tattoos. And between the drumbeats, young men crashed on their blades, up and down, and again. This was the city of the sound of life and the living. Of metro doors banging. Of people kissing, for so long, that they were oblivious to the trains that came and went. Of chestnuts dropping on craniums. Of leaves falling on walking stilettos. Of kids thudding on ice at the Hotel de Ville. Of first-time skaters wailing. Of artistes finding themselves in Paris, again and again. Of writers finding themselves.
Paris is a place of beginnings. In this city of light and sound and lightheartedness and life, the year 2015 has begun and closed with death.
The tower. It will rise and shine. Again.