I did not come to Paris for love; I came here for a TEFL certificate.
When I realized that Valentine’s Day coincided with my course, it hit me in the same way water droplets from air conditioners do when you walk down a busy urban street in the hottest of summer — gentle, and sordid. How nice, to be in this romantic city on this romantic day with Nat King Cole cooing “I Love Paris” in your head…but doing it alone is kind of like realizing that cool, refreshing splash of water is filled with bacteria.
“What makes you think you’ll spend Valentine’s Day alone?” My friend said, with part Sagittarian optimism and part annoyance with my routine self-deprecation.
I didn’t think — I just knew. I have nothing political against the $14.7 billion industry (in the US alone). In fact, I find a security and comfort in the principles of capitalism that I cannot find in love. I don’t even have anything personal against cute couples. Good for you, and please use protection. I just have a conviction, or more of a suspicion, that I will spend this Valentine’s Day and the subsequent ones in my life alone, or with a TV marathon and a bag of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos. I cannot tell you what this insecurity is based on — I am not a complete ogre, and I can sustain a conversation with some degree of poise.
I’m just cynical.
The dread that I brought over the Atlantic with me primed me to notice Valentine-isms with crude frequency. As I admired a picturesque basilica near the Latin Quarter, a canvasser poked me in the arm to hand me a flier for a couples deal at the nearby gym. Valentine’s Day prix fixe menus grace the tables of almost every bistro, brasserie, or café, weeks in advance. Not understanding the French, I once tried to order fois gras on a buckwheat crepe from one of these menus, which elicited a chuckle from the waiter. Macaron mogul Ladurée offers a special robin’s egg blue Valentine’s Day box, which I think looks childish, but would not mind receiving — I would eat the macarons in minutes and use the box to store business cards or keys or nail polish back home in New Jersey. I would justify holding on to it under the guise of utilitarianism, but would actually consider it a relic (of that Valentine I’ll never have).
It makes sense that one would want to spend Valentine’s Day in Paris, even pay for a tacky Valentine’s Day boat cruise on the Seine. What better way to pass the time you’ll spend on long museum lines than french kissing your valentine? Especially in a place where PDA is as de rigueur as a good pair of leather shoes. Oh, and it’s Paris. You don’t need to watch Paris Je T’aime a hundred times to know that romance is kind of a big deal here. And no matter how many times I refer to this culture of romance as sensationalist garbage — that real Parisians are quite shrewd — a part of me is waiting for my pessimism to be disproved.
Because isn’t cynicism nothing but fear with fancy armor? It’s a fear that you decorate with smart-ass comments, intelligent-sounding words, and judgmental looks. In a way, my cynicism has made me even more romantic — by believing that my odds are low, if something does happen, it’s more of a miracle and less of an occurrence. It’s a better story. But the price you pay for this better story is a weight that sits in your heart like an overburdened suitcase. Do you really need all that stuff, all that negativity, in order to be realistic? Maybe real life isn’t so dismal.
The other day, I had to go to the Apple Store to buy a new charger. I couldn’t use an adaptor because one of the prongs on my plug was too big for the hole (which was not at all awkward to explain in broken French). I walked past the old bookstores of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, staring into windows at people reading old texts through magnifying glasses. The Haussman buildings in the wider streets looked regal, albeit decrepit, behind the multitude of naked winter trees. Google Maps told me I had arrived at the Apple Store, but what I saw in front of me when I looked up from my phone was the dazzling Louvre Pyramid. All this was part and parcel of running such a mundane errand. (I say part and parcel because I want to acknowledge that February 14th is also the anniversary of UPS, which, though not as cute, is something both optimists and cynics can nod to.)
I crossed the Pont-des-Arts (“the lover’s bridge”) last evening, with the intention of getting to the other side as quickly as possible, to avoid being asked to take a photo of some posing couple. But I stopped in my tracks when I noticed the color that the Seine had taken on at that time, right after the last yellows of sunset. It was a precarious blue, the kind you would only find in a Monet. The blue softened the reflections of the city’s lights, making them look not like reflections but like living things just under the water’s surface. I thought, how nice it would be if someone (preferably attractive, with teeth and a clean mental health record) were to stand next to me and share this vista.
But if not, then that’s OK too.
This post was originally published on February 14, 2013.