Beauty in Imperfection
My first day in Paris was a whirlwind of back-to-back stops: Versailles, crowded and hot. The Louvre, fast-paced and overwhelming. The Champs-Elysées, reeking of privilege. Sleep in unfamiliar beds and then repeat it all over again. The elegant women and beret-wearing men of the Paris of my dreams were missing from the Paris I experienced.
Still, I was determined to enjoy dinner that night at the finest restaurant we could afford. I'd chosen my outfit for the evening carefully, a cream shirt and a patterned blue skirt. There was something about walking around Paris in fancy clothes that made me feel grown-up in a way I hadn't before. In spite of my accidental order of braised pig, the dinner was so well-enjoyed that we became late for our reservations to climb the Arc de Triomphe to see the city at night.
We rushed to the station, sprinting down the corridors to catch the train just in time. Throughout our time in Paris, we had been instructed to guard everything important near our bodies while on the metro, so I clutched my camera, purse, and passport close to my chest. I was doing everything right.
Suddenly, I felt a quick rush of pressure down the back of my legs. A swish of fabric as my skirt fluttered back into place. A firm shove to my shoulder as one of my instructors, Alisha, moved in front of the three teenage pickpockets seated behind me. I stumbled, confused, listening.
I slowly put the pieces together: the boys had lifted my skirt and enjoyed the eyeful while I stood unaware.
"Vous me dégoûtez," Alisha spat at the boys in rapid-fire French. She turned to another student behind us: "Lève-toi, s'il te plait." Get up, she was saying. Let Anna sit there. He stood quickly and she pushed me into his seat. I only caught a few words as she fired insult after insult at the boys until the next stop when we exited the train. As a group, we rushed up the steps towards the base of the Arc de Triomphe.
All I could focus on was climbing up, up, up the narrow staircase. Finally we burst onto the roof to see Paris in its glory shimmering before us. I'd dreamt of this moment for years. This was the pinnacle of my time in France.
And I was crying.
I wasn't sure when I'd started crying, but there I was, on top of the world, seeing the City of Light spread out below me. I turned my attention to the Eiffel Tower, knowing I would climb it the next day, realizing a longtime fantasy. But before that, I would have to get through the rest of the night. I knew what awaited me after descending the Arc de Triomphe, and it wasn't elation or even rest after a long day of touring the city. It was a horrible, gut-wrenching meeting to discuss the night's events.
I glanced to my left and caught sight of a group of my friends laughing and taking pictures arm-in-arm with the city as their gorgeous backdrop. These were my closest friends, yet where had they been when I needed them? I felt a flash of white-hot envy. How was it fair that they could simply enjoy this night while I was forced to come to terms with the filth of Paris?
As I stood on the edge of the roof catching my breath from the climb, studying the lights, I knew I was where I'd always wanted to be. But in getting there, I'd lost something that I could never get back. Fuck Paris, I thought. This was the most beautiful way to see the city of my dreams and I had to see it through tears.
I lifted my camera to my eye and took a clichéd shot of the Eiffel Tower. I looked at the picture through blurred eyes. Here I was, living my dream, but only going through the motions. It was so tempting to give in to circumstances that were out of my control, to be the victim. I tried to get angry, to hate the city and the metro and the stupid French boys who'd violated me and who would never be punished. I tried to hate the dream I'd held on to for so long. I was struck by the immense feeling of being an outsider in the country I'd grown to call home.
Despite how tempting it was to give in, I knew then that if I let my entire trip be defined by one shameful moment, I wasn't doing it justice. True, every time I looked at Paris from now on I would see it through a lens of grime. But I could choose how I remembered this night. And standing there, on the roof of the Arc de Triomphe, I chose to remember it all. Every second, every photograph, every experience—they all shaped how I saw Paris. And I refused to let anyone else be in charge of that but me.
That photograph from atop the Arc de Triomphe now sits on my dresser. When I see it, I don't remember the boys on the metro. I remember how it felt to see the Mona Lisa, the taste of my first crêpe, and the fierce goodbye hug from my host sister. I remember the dream I had for so long and how it's no longer a pristine dream, but an imperfect memory.