Today’s post comes to you from the City of Lights on the banks of the Seine. This city entranced me from the very first, brief visit. It got under my skin right away and let me know that this was going to be a lifelong relationship, even though I had no hope then of ever seeing it again.
I was a 16-year-old girl who came from behind the Iron Curtain with a group of equally wide-eyed schoolmates to get our first look at life in the free world. As far as any of us knew, it was the first and quite possibly the last time we would ever have such an opportunity, because traveling to anywhere in the West from Czechoslovakia was nearly impossible at that time. But we were lucky enough to be chosen for a two-week exchange with our high school’s “sister school” – a lycée in Le Mans. The exchange program included a day trip to Paris.
You can’t do much in Paris in just one day – ride a boat down the Seine, walk up the Eiffel Tower, through the Tuileries and around the Louvre… To tell you the truth, I don’t actually remember much of what we did that day. But Paris was a feast for the senses. Everything in my country was grey and shabby, but here they had colors, lights, and such wonderful smells. It wasn’t just in the shops, where we looked with wonder and a tinge of sadness at all the goods we could only dream of at home. The smell was part of the city itself – the fragrance of a spring day, of endless delights, of the vibrant atmosphere, of French charm. And the hesitant dreams of a young girl who did not belong in this world.
Our scheduled activities ended that evening in Montmartre, and then we were free to wander. After a long day I didn’t feel like more walking through the winding streets and window shopping (our spending money was quite limited anyway), so I sat down with a friend on the steps in front of Sacré-Cœur. The sun was setting, and Paris lay at my feet. I saw it spread out in front of me, shining and beautiful, proudly displaying its greatest treasures like diamonds in a tiara. And I heard it whisper: You are mine, mine forever. I’ll never let you go. Two Japanese guys with guitars stood on the stairs playing Beatles songs my father had taught me. A powerful impression that I’ve never forgotten.
Two years later the borders opened, and since then I have visited Paris many times. I often find myself ‘homesick’ for Paris, and from time to time I visit again, just to touch base. Each time it is different, yet the same, and never have I left disappointed. That initial, striking contrast with my home is fading away, though, as my country is also now free to delight the senses with bright colors and enticing smells.
Two years ago I watched my daughter standing on the Eiffel Tower and gazing off into the distance, and I realized that Paris had won another conquest. And so I am here with her again, as a gift for her 15th birthday. She travels often and cannot imagine anyone trying to stop her. Now she will write her own story about Paris, and I can be happy knowing that I had the privilege of introducing her to this magical city.