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The City of Lights as Seen Through Rose-Colored Glasses

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Jennifer Hong

La Vie en Rose was the second French song I listened to as a naive but hopeful young adult. Sadly, only two years later did I really understand what the song entails: when we look at the world or people through rose-colored glasses, red flags just look like flags. Since then, I have tried to see people for who they are, but I can never do so with one thing: the City of Lights, Paris.

The song Lady Marmalade from the movie Moulin Rouge was my first exposure to French culture. It was 2001, I was 9, and the Internet was not widely available. The lyrics “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” was stuck in my head. I eventually understood what the lyrics meant at 16. In my early twenties, I graduated from chanting “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi” to smelling Chanel No. 5, Marilyn Monroe’s favorite scent, and adoring Marion Cotillard’s Aphrodite-like beauty. 

Stepping foot on the City of Lights

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15 April 2017 was a gloomy spring day to step foot on French soil, but 24 was definitely a good age to wander and get lost without leaving my heart there (except I actually did). I woke up in a shaky bus to the majestic sight of Arc de Triomphe and let out a sigh. Not even ten minutes had gone by, I realized I had made two mistakes. First, I came alone. Second, instead of coming with a lover, I was nursing a broken heart. And we all know, the City of Lights is far from ideal for the brokenhearted. Even the winds that caressed my cheeks screamed “I am a romantic” as I got off the bus.

Sample of Eiffle tower, Paris

Two hours later, in Trocadéro, I stood on the perfect spot to admire the Eiffel Tower. It did not leave me in awe. Nor did the Louvre. Apparently, it was only breathtaking in the Da Vinci Code.

The City of Lights, I’ve concluded, is full of oxymorons. It was a fine mess, but above all, it was bittersweet. Like a love-hate relationship with a feisty lover, you could have sworn you won’t care an iota about him, but how is it after years passed, you still remember how many steps it takes to get to his apartment and how his aftershave smells of vetiver and pine?

The City of Lights: A Sweet Sorrow

I did not have much luck with French people. As much as I would like to turn a blind eye, I cannot sleep on the fact that some people in the City of Lights can be cold, unfriendly, and detached. I could not forget how my Airbnb host was smiling at me but at the same time, he emanated a thick air of aloofness and detachment. I still shake inside remembering how the officer at the Metro station dismissed me when I asked for directions. The sight of the dimly lit station with an unpleasant urine-like smell came rushing to my mind and sent shivers down my spine. I also could not let slip from memory how some streets were filled with rubbish while on my way to Gare du Nord

But It Is Also Awfully Good

Sample of Man playing harp in Paris

I won’t forget how the warm and fragrant €1 baguette kept me full all afternoon, or how crunchy yet soft Pierre Hermé’s macarons were. The streets of Montmartre were idyllic and full of life. Postcards don’t do them justice. “No wonder Picasso and van Gogh set up studios here,” I mused. 

The 222 steps to get to the top of Sacre Cœur were worth it, and this came from a person who was not a fan of exercising. Have you ever felt that you have been living all these years just to experience that one perfect day? Every breath I took felt crisp and fresh, every step was light. 

That day, I knew what the word “wonder” truly meant. A grandpa was sitting in the middle of Sacre Cœur, playing his harp. As soon as I sat down to watch him play, guess what song he started playing? Yes, La Vie en Rose. Funny how sometimes the Universe conspires to make us blissfully happy. No less than 50 people were surrounding him, singing and humming in unison, marveling at the beauty of life. The grandpa looked content with his life, and the wrinkles on his face are traces of wisdom and proof of the joy and sorrow he experienced through the years. I am usually jaded, nihilistic, and ungrateful, but that day, I thanked God that I was alive.

In the cold of spring night, the Eiffel Tower was glistening with lights. This time, it took my breath away. Paris was my first love when it came to traveling. 

There is one tenet I live by: we write to taste life twice. As I am writing this, the City of Lights remains vivid in my memory. Grey’s Anatomy told me once that we don’t have to like something or someone to love them, I agree. And if people say that first loves are always forgivable, I also agree.

Jennifer Hong

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