The night before I left Paris, a warm spring rain started to fall. I could feel the sidewalks become slick as I walked toward my favorite courtyard, tucked away in the center of the city.
It is an enclosure set back from the street. It has a cobbled stone floor partially covered with tufts of grass and patches of moss. In the courtyard's center, there is a tall, old tree, which is surrounded by bunches of ivy, tulip blooms, and azalea bushes. On its far side, there is a brown statue that looks like an enormous antler — or a heron that had turned its beak toward the sky.
In front of the tree, there is another statue, a cherub that has been carved out of white stone and is perched on top of a column. The little guy has his finger raised to his lips and his head turned downward, so that he is looking out from under his lashes on to the street. The imp has the wings of an angel and the smirk of a sinner. He's nothing like the art I usually love, but I can't help it. He's my patron saint of mischief and reliably up to no good.
That last night in Paris, I paused in the rain to say goodbye to the wicked little statue before making my way into the night looking for my own sort of trouble. I found the metro and raced down the stairs. My heel slipped over a wet patch and I tumbled down, clutching a bottle of red wine and hitting each concrete lip until I landed hard at the bottom.
Getting to my feet, I remembered something a gray-eyed boy said to me when I first arrived.
You don't choose Paris, he said, Paris chooses you.
In 1917, E.E. Cummings arrived in Paris. It was the height of the First World War and he had come to volunteer for the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corps. "Neither being warrior nor conscientiousobjector, saint nor hero, I embarked for France as an ambulancedriver," Cummings wrote in one of his six "non-lectures" for Harvard University.
Cummings somehow became separated from his unit. The others left for the front, while he was left behind. It took five weeks for the home office to sort out the situation and get him to his regiment, and, in the meantime, the 23-year-old Cummings spent his weeks wandering through museums and paging through books he found in the stalls along the river. He hooked up with a prostitute, or two, and cheerfully paid for the privilege. He fell in in love with Paris.
"Now, I participated in an actual marriage of material with immaterial things," he wrote of these early days; "I celebrated an immediate reconciling of spirit and flesh, forever and now, heaven and earth." To be in Paris, he wrote was to accept "transcendence; this living and dying more than death or life." He continued:
Paris (in each shape and gesture and avenue and cranny of her being) was continuously expressing the humanness of humanity. Everywhere I sensed a miraculous presence, not of mere children and women and men, but of living human beings; and the fact that I could scarcely understand their language seemed irrelevant, since the truth of our momentarily mutual aliveness created an imperishable communion. While (at the hating touch of some madness called La Guerre) a once rising and striving world toppled into withering hideously smithereens, love rose in my heart like a sun and beauty blossomed in my life like a star. Now, finally and first, I was myself: a temporal citizen of eternity; one with all human beings born and unborn.
Eventually, however, Cummings and his regiment were reunited and he left the city. He spent three months at the front before he was arrested on suspicion of anti-war sentiment and sent to a French prison camp. On January 1, 1918, Cummings was shipped back to the United States. Before the year was over, however, he was back in Paris sketching scenes and scratching out poems, letters, plays, and essays from Notre-Dame to Les Halles, from le Marais to Quartier Latin, from Montparnasse to Champs-Elysees, from Grand Boulevards and Pigalle to the Bastille, Nation, and Charonne.
During this period, he wrote The Enormous Room, a novel about his time in the French prison camp. Early in the story, the narrator describes the scene as a train he is on enters the station.
It is Paris. Some permissionnaires said "Paris." The woman across from me said "Paris, Paris." A great shout came up from every insane drowsy brain that had traveled with us — a fierce and beautiful cry, which went the length of the train... Paris where one forgets, Paris which is Pleasure, Paris in whom our souls live, Paris the beautiful, Paris enfin.
The Englishman woke up and said heavily to me: "I say, where are we?"
"Paris," I answered, walking carefully on his feet as I made my baggage-laden way out of the compartment. It was Paris.
Cummings had chosen Paris. And Paris, in turn, had chosen him.
It has been nearly a week since I left Paris. The city has already started to fade. My work has begun to stiffen. Words are coming just one at — a — long pause — time, instead of all in a rush. Most likely this is, more or less, just jet lag and uncertainty. I don't quite know what's coming next.
But it is also true that place matters. I knew this before. Now I know this even more.
Read Neda Semnani's entire Paris project here: