The First Time I Saw Paris

Aug 01, 2010
*Special to asia!

Born in Malaysia, a young country with a hodge-podge culture, I naively thought the polished, implacable French capital held all the answers.

Each time I notice different things. The first few times, everything and everyone seems remarkably neat and composed. Then, gradually, you make out the trembling of a hand here, the stumbling of a step there. Through the shiny windowpane of a restaurant, I see a French girl seated at a table, casting shy, longing looks at the aquiline-nosed boy next to her, who does not seem to be aware that she exists. He is clearly enamoured of another, the charming brunette on his other side. The first girl raises fluttering fingers to readjust the barrette in her glossy hair, carefully arranges her pleated skirt. She is wearing defeat and sadness as best she can.

And so the truth stares back at us, bringing with it both disillusionment and relief. All of us, no matter where we live, fear that we will not be accepted, that we do not belong. From the chic cafes of Saint-Germain-des-Prés to the haphazard hawker stalls of Jalan Imbi, humanity is terrified.

A river runs through it: Sunset on the Seine

A river runs through it: Sunset on the Seine

This evening, I sat at a bench on a little bridge, a practically unknown one that lies between its vastly more famous cousins, the Pont de la Concorde and the Pont Royal. I put down my bag, took off my denim jacket. And then, for no reason, while gazing at the sun setting behind the Grand Palais, I started to cry.

Perhaps some dreams have to die before others can be born. Perhaps it’s not about belonging, but about being who we really are. Perhaps insecurities are the grandest, most sublime things that we can ever have, because they make us human. Perhaps blubbering on a bridge in one of the most romantic spots on earth, with tears impeding our vision and snot running down our noses, helps us to see better.

And that is where, in the gentle flickering light, I think I saw her. I think I saw Paris. She is, perhaps, as fragile and as vulnerable a city as you could hope to meet. Beneath the faultless stone façade runs a tremulous river, a river of longing for the perfection that can never be. The world will always feel a need for Paris, not because of her beauty, but because of the yearning her beauty induces.

I smiled at her, and I believe – yes, I do believe – she smiled back at me.

And that, I think, was the first time I really saw Paris. Perhaps because it was the first time I allowed her to see me.


This piece is dedicated to RR, my longtime friend from St Germain.


Read Clarissa's article on London here.



clarissa tanClarissa is a journalist who focuses on travel and the arts. As a desperately hopeful author, she writes short stories and is working on a novel. Clarissa won the Spectator’s final Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing.

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