It was a brilliant azure morning in early June when I stepped into the Latin Quarter with little more than a name and a metro stop to guide me. I had arrived two days earlier, and Paris still felt like a city of pure, overwhelming sensation. I drank in its sights and sounds with the eagerness of a newly hatched bird.
The morning passed in intense bursts of perception: the pungent smell of urine along the River Seine, the coolness in the shadows of the Hôtel de Ville, the confetti color of crowds before the Notre Dame cathedral. I was relearning, or finally learning, how to see, hear, feel, and taste. The day unfurled with the outstretched arms of an unhurried yawn. As morning became afternoon, the sun heated the air into haze. Out of this ether Shakespeare and Company first shimmered into being before me.
I fell headfirst through the rabbit-hole of this topsy-turvy, jumbled, alternate universe. Downstairs, a curved chandelier, dangling from the main bookstore’s wooden beams, cast an amber glow over the much-visited “Lost” and “Beat” collections. Visitors flocked to the store daily in search of the Lost Generation, tracing the footsteps of the Beats. Wedged in past the main counter, a tiny manned portal itself lined by books, were two narrow passageways. The passage on the left was marked, above, by an old fashioned clock and, on the raised step below, by a hand-painted sign, “Live for Humanity”—a memento mori and the meaning of life, together.
Weeks, months in Paris progressed in a waking sleep. As I wandered through the city, insensible to street names and landmarks, my imagination created a fertile dreamscape of sensory detail. My mind was hungry for these details and fed on everything around me—the gothic beauty of the nearby buildings, the caramel richness of sidewalk cafes, the beeps and screeches of pressed cars. I wriggled my way into streams of people, bursting at the seams of allies like rabbits out of a magician’s hat. Detaching myself from their flood, I would dive into side alleys and meander into further forking paths. A painted robot on the side of a building, a glint of glass and gold in a storefront window, a particularly beguiling trailing plant from a balcony—these peripheral flashes of treasure beckoned to me and I followed their call. To me they were talismans, amulets strung into a charm to delay the crumbling of the summer’s spell.
In this directionless wandering, I pictured myself walking right off the charted map, shrugging off the clutch of cartographer’s grids. I rarely knew where I was, or where I was going. I rejoiced in the stretch of the interstitial no man’s land between origin and eventual destination, breathing in suspended reality. I could float outside of time itself by cleaving to the flux of sight and sound. Each new piece of stimuli replaced another quickly. There were always new streets, new shops, new un-walked paths. There were crooked walkways to peer into, keyholes to brush curious hands over. The straight arrow of direction fractured into wavering luminescent threads that forged an imagined topography. To be lost is to invite possibility. Paris by day was constant newness, constant discovery, and novelty from every angle. Those were intoxicating days, generous in their fertile soil that would spark a thousand more dreams.