as Jason and I sat at the cafe in the Marais, stuffing ourselves with bread, food and (real) hot chocolate, clouds of smoke billowing around us, we both commented that (a) the French know how to do hot chocolate right, and (b) we are lucky bastards. not only were we lucky enough to experience hot chocolate that doesn’t involve processed powdered mixes, but we were lucky enough to do it in Paris. it’s too easy to forget that few people get to have these kind of simple experiences, ones outside of their own cultural cubby holes.
we walked around the Marais for the afternoon, and then floated back to the apartment where i was staying. the fugue of jet lag had descended on us, and sleep was unavoidable. he went back to his hotel, i passed out where i was, incapable of moving. i woke up in the evening to the sounds of screaming. not good screaming – bad screaming. the kind of screaming that makes you think of calling the police. after listening for a few seconds, i realized it wasn’t murderous rage, ‘just’ a domestic disturbance. a father yelling at his wife and children, things being thrown and broken, children screaming in confused protest at the actions of the people who are supposed to love and protect them and their world. after a pleasant afternoon and a nap, this was not the best way to wake up. i imagined the absurd – myself walking downstairs, knocking on the door, and asking politely if everything was all right; city dwellers don’t do this. it made me remember the time a woman was murdered in a courtyard within full sight of her neighbors, screaming for help; no one did anything, even though it went on for something like 10 minutes. we don’t like to get involved, we don’t want to intrude on the messiness of other people’s lives. our own lives are messy enough.
there was no way i could go back to sleep to the soothing backdrop of domestic violence, so i took a walk through the Marais, down to the Ile St. Louis, over towards Notre Dame, and back up. the bone-chilling northern european winter air was seeping into my soul, but it still felt good to walk, to experience this place. the whole domestic disturbance had rattled my cage. i felt odd about the fact that so many of us lead lives of relative happiness, filled with cafes, friends, hot chocolate, and only a smattering of comparatively minor problems (where should i work? what will i do next in my life? do i like my shoes?); at the same time, in the apartments beneath us or the houses next door, people may be leading out desperate, angry, discontent lives. all of this goes on around us all the time; sometimes we see it, sometimes we don’t.
if big cities are places where people go to be alone together, as T.S. Eliot thought, maybe they are also places we go to commune with the collective joy and sadness of others. even though the mix may not include hot chocolate all the time, it’s the way of things. life is full spectrum.
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