“Dear Beauvoir, Charles Dickens was right when he said, ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair’ …”, a young woman was clutching the frail copy of The White Review with trembling hands and wet eyes. She was crying intermittently with soft gasps remembering the day she first met him.
It was a monotonous summer day in Paris when the door to the historic bookshop Shakespeare & Co. opened, a cool breeze swept in and diffused with the smell of lignin from the old books, while the bell at the top of the door rang. As the tall man with curly hair, slightly tanned complexion (”definitely a tourist’, thought Beauvoir), and mellow brown eyes walked in, she greeted him with a smile, “Bonjour! Comment puis-je vous aider?”
He hesitated for a while and hesitantly replied, “Je parle un peu français! As-tu le livre Notre-Dame de Paris?” She laughed inwardly and answered, “ Let me check sir”, and walked across the aisles of the bookshelves with the stranger following her around, watching the bookshelves like a child in a toy store on Christmas. She seemed to shatter his dream-like state when she said, “ Sir, would you please come here for a second. Here’s the book that you wanted”. He laughed looking at her saying, “Sorry, got caught up in the poetry aisle”.
He held the book in his hand and said, “No one describes Parisian culture as beautifully as Victor Hugo.” She was quick to reply with, “That’s debatable sir. I feel Hemingway describes Paris the best.” Interested in her perspective, he asked, “Then could you show me the best Hemingway book according to you?”. She handed over two books ‘The Sun Also Rises’ and ‘A Moveable Feast’. At the counter he exclaimed, “What a shame that the Notre Dame Cathedral was devastated in the fire! Do you know where the cathedral is located, I would love to glimpse it once”, to which she replied, “Sir, the Cathedral is very nearby”. He smiled and asked her with a little nervousness, “ If that’s the case would you mind showing me around?” When she said curiously, “How do I believe a stranger who I met in a bookstore?”, he flirtatiously replied, “Well that’s how Fitzgerald and Hemingway met, accidentally in a bar”. She laughed and said, “You better not be a serial killer! Lunch hour is at 10, I’ll show you around then!”
“I’ll look forward to that, and please, call me Satre. Sir makes me feel so old”, he chuckled and left with books under his arm.
The sun was shining warmly over their heads as they walked along the picturesque streets of Paris walking along Rue du Petit Pont crossing the bridge over the Seine to visit one of the three natural islands over the river to be greeted by the majestic ruins of Notre Dame which was closed for reconstruction. An idea crossed her mind and she asked him to follow her to an interesting place. They walked along the streets; Paris is where you walk along the streets while observing the beauty of Parisian life.
They walked along with Rue Saint Jacques and took a left turn walking along Rue Cujas and Place du Pantheon to visit the beautiful neoclassical white marble mausoleum, The Pantheon with its majestic dome and the beautiful paintings that adorned the ceilings. They then visited the tomb of Victor Hugo and seeing Satre’s face light up with happiness made her smile.
They exited the Pantheon walking along the street until they finally stopped at La Closerie Des Lilas on Boulevard du Montparnasse, sitting on a table street side. She finally asked him, “So why is Victor Hugo your favorite author?” He sheepishly laughed and said, “Victor Hugo is not my favorite author, it’s F.Scott Fitzgerald! No one does a better job than him when it comes to describing New York City, which happens to be where I am from.” “Yeah, I did understand that you are from America from your accent and miserable French,” she said laughingly, “So what does a handsome New Yorker do in Paris?”, she asked with a small smile on her lips as she saw him pink. “The ‘Handsome New Yorker’ is backpacking across Europe before having to join college while trying to write something. What is the beautiful lady doing in Paris?”
This time Beauvoir couldn’t help but feel her cheeks turn warm. “I am from a village near the French Rivera although currently, I’m living in Paris. I work part-time in the shop where the owner is kind enough to let young writers stay free of cost with the only condition to help in the bookstore chores. The shop is quite iconic, visited by many famous authors in the past. Anyways let’s order something, the lunch break in Paris is quite long but not long enough for this conversation”, she said. They ordered lunch and ate it while talking about literature until she finally looked at her watch and realized it was time to go back to the shop. She said to him, “I’ll have to leave now, I have to get back to the shop on time. By the way, this is my favorite café, Hemingway used to visit here very often. This is the one place you can find me sitting every evening”.
They split the bill and walked along the same route talking about Paris and New York exchanging information. When they reached the shop, he called for a taxi and told her while the taxi was waiting,“ So what’s next in the Paris tour?”. She narrowed her eyes,“ How are you so sure that I am going to entertain you tomorrow as well?”. For a minute, he looked blank and clueless as to what to reply. After a pause, he said, “ Well I am not sure because I was hoping that you would show me around but it’s okay if you don’t want to”. She laughed and said, “How long have you practiced that cute dejected face? I was just joking. I’ll show you around tomorrow, come back to the shop at the same time. Tomorrow I have to deliver books. That way I can work and show you around at the same time”. He smiled cheekily and said to her, “Au revoir Beauvoir” and she laughed and said, “Au revoir Sartre”.
In the city of love, how could two people not fall in love with Paris and each other?
When they met the next day, she had to drop a package at La Défense, the modern business district in Paris which stands in contrast to the Haussmanian Architecture, named after Baron Haussmann, who remodeled the city under Napoleon III. They took le Velib, the public bicycle sharing system in Paris where one can visit the city in a personal way at their own pace. La Défense is a major business district located three kilometers west of the city located in the Île-de-France region. The modern buildings shadowed by the eccentric La Grande Arche de la Défense and the Yaacov Agam Fountain where a bronze sculpture is erected, La Défense de Paris by Louis-Ernest Barrias, after which La Défense is named. It is a bronze statue by French sculpture Louis-Ernest Barrias. It commemorates the French dead from the Siege of Paris in 1870–71, during the Franco-Prussian War. Beautiful sculptures adorn the premises and are a true testament to the fact that Parisians live their life to the fullest and work with class and style. Beauvoir delivered the package in one of the swanky offices while she saw Satre take a picture. They then cycled along The Axe Historique or Voie Triomphale (in English it can be translated as ‘The Historical Axis’) which is a line of historic monuments and beautiful streets. While they cycled, she asked him, “So what are your plans for the future?” He pondered for a minute and said, “ I have applied to a couple of colleges back in the States, I want to major in English Literature. What about you?”. She dodged a Vespa, sighing and saying, “Parisians and their love for Vespas and rash driving! I have also applied to different colleges here in Paris. I want to spend my time pursuing a literature-based course here. Anyway, let’s focus on the route otherwise your trip might just be cut short!”
They cycled along The Historical Axis, crossing the Seine passing Bois de Boulogne, which is a large public park located along with the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. She tauntingly pointed out to him that it was about two and a half times the area of Central Park in New York. Finally, they visited the majestic The Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile which is one of the most famous monuments in Paris, and at the centre of the étoile or “star” of the juncture formed by the twelve radiating avenues. The Arc de Triomphe was constructed to honour the people who fought and died for France in the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. It is adorned with the names of all French victories and generals inscribed on its surface. Beneath the vault is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I.
They walked along the beautiful The Avenue des Champs-Élysées which is one of the most recognizable avenues in the world-famous for its theatres, cafés, and luxury shops. They both walked endlessly which interestingly has a unique term in Parisian culture, La Flanerie. She asked him where he was staying in Paris to which he replied, “Not far from here, The Ritz.” She was shocked and replied, “Oh the New Yorker is fancy! I believe he wants to shop in the Louis Vuitton store!”. He laughed and replied, “Nothing like that! As they say when in Rome do like Romans, similarly, for a few days I’m just another Parisian.”
She laughed and said, “ Okay New Yorker, here’s the thing about Paris, the river Seine divides it into two parts, the left bank which is the cultural side, and the right bank which is the fun side. Enough of the Left bank, I want to show you the cooler part of Paris”, to which he instantly replied, “Aye aye captain!”
They cycled crossing the Seine and entered the right bank, visiting the world’s largest art museum and a historic monument in Paris, The Louvre Museum. She explained its history; the museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, the remnants of which are still visible in the basement of the museum. Architect I. M. Pei proposed a glass pyramid to stand over a new entrance in the main court, the pyramid and the Pyramide Inversée (Inverted Pyramid) acts as the symbol of a true Parisian culture where the new stands in stark contrast yet in perfect harmony with the old. They visited Louvre in the afternoon when usually the crowd is less, and one can patiently visit every famous art piece like Venus de Milo, an ancient Greek statue dating back to around 100 B.C. depicting the goddess of life and beauty and the mysterious smiling Mona Lisa.
They further cycled a short distance to visit the modern eccentric ‘The Centre Pompidou’, a complex building designed in the style of high-tech architecture. It houses the Bibliothèque Publique d’information (Public Information Library), a vast public library; the Musée National d’Art Moderne, which is the largest museum for modern art in Europe; and IRCAM, a centre for music and acoustic research. She explained that the building was the first major example of an ‘inside-out’ building with its structural system, mechanical systems, and circulation exposed on the exterior of the building. National Geographic also described the reaction to the design as “love at second sight”!
Located just next to the Centre Pompidou is La Fontaine Stravinsky or the Stravinsky Fountain, a whimsical public fountain ornamented with sixteen works of sculpture, moving and spraying water, representing the works of composer Igor Stravinsky.
They cycled crossing the Seine to visit Le Dingo Bar for drinks. She ordered two Absinthe, the infamous green beverage which is a favourite drink of the Parisians. She explained to him that the bar was a famous location in Paris in the 20th Century frequently visited by Pablo Picasso, Alister Crowley, Nancy Curnard, and many more. She said to him, “ The other day you told me how Hemingway and Fitzgerald met accidentally in a bar. Well, this is the bar where they both met just two weeks after the publication of The Great Gatsby!” He smiled as his hand touched hers and said nothing. After a few drinks, they cycled back to the bookstore and paid the money for the cycle which was something around 2 pounds for each cycle.
He enthusiastically said to her, “So Beauvoir today the whole day I was planning for a perfect day in Paris and although we covered many of the places, a few are remaining as well. So, if you let me, I would love to show you around Paris!” They both laughed and she finally said, “Okay Sartre, let’s see what the New Yorker can show the Parisian!”. “Okay be ready by tomorrow evening, I’ll pick you up on a Vespa.”
“Okay New Yorker I’ll be ready!”
The next evening he picked her up and they visited the Palace of Versailles which is a historical monument and UNESCO World Heritage site, notable especially for the ceremonial Hall of Mirrors, the jewel-like Royal Opera, and the royal apartments; for the more intimate royal residences, the Grand Trianon and Petit Trianon located within the park; the small rustic Hameau (Hamlet) created for Marie Antoinette; and the vast gardens of Versailles with fountains, canals, and geometric flower beds and groves. The Palace of Versailles has also been a site of historical importance. The Peace of Paris (1783) was signed at Versailles, the Proclamation of the German Empire occurred in the vaunted Hall of Mirrors, and World War I ended in the palace with the Treaty of Versailles.
For the evening tea they visited Café de Flore, where he said to her proudly, “You may or may not know this, but this is the café where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir used to frequently visit.” Beauvoir found herself impressed with his deep interest in Paris.
Next, they went to Pont des Arts and as a practical joke, they attached two padlocks (love lock) interlocked into one another with their first names engraved to the railing on the side of the bridge, and threw the key into the Seine river below, as a quintessential humorous borderline romantic gesture! Although they both laughed, she couldn’t help but notice Satre’s constant gaze on her. They then boarded an evening ferry across Seine with the setting sun reflecting its beautiful golden light on their faces.
Finally, he took her to the most famous spot in Paris where she forgot to take him, the Eiffel Tower. He had organized a special surprise for her, something Beauvoir hadn’t anticipated. He blindfolded her, as they got off the elevator, he removed the blindfold and she was momentarily blinded by the light. As her vision adjusted, she understood that she was at the top of the Eiffel Tower where the whole city of Paris was visible to her. But the night had just started as he took her to the secret apartment at the top of Eiffel Tower where he had arranged for a candlelight dinner. As she kissed Satre at the epicenter of the world’s most romantic place, Beauvoir realized that she had experienced something unforgettable.
Remembering that night and how they both parted at the base of the Eiffel Tower to go their separate paths broke the series of images of reminiscence of their time together and she continued to read the remaining part of his article, “We loved each other very much and we both knew that for this relationship to work we needed to end it now. Before discovering each other, we needed to discover ourselves first. For any relationship to work both people need to be happy and content in what they do. She got accepted in École normale supérieure and I got accepted at Columbia University, both of us pursuing MFA degrees. I always know where to find her and I think she knows me enough to know where I am. We will always remember the time we spent together and sadly the time we spent apart. To my Beauvoir, always remember that across the globe your Sartre will always love you. Love is not about distance nor the time, and it doesn’t happen just once. Whenever you love someone a part of your heart always stays with the other person and no matter what one always has a soft spot for the other in their heart for, they are incomplete without them. When humans love, they create a jigsaw puzzle of their heart and one piece of my puzzle lies with you and one puzzle of your puzzle lies with me. We are not looking for the complete picture but only a part of it. Our story is not only a tale of two cities but also the tale of two people who fell in love with each other and as both these cities continue to stand the test of time, we can hope that our love lasts just as long.