Dark days in the city of light

Chapter 5 of my Paris Project

The sun had abandoned Paris completely. It had been gone a week at least, and maybe much longer, because who could remember the last time they saw the sun anyhow.

In place of the sun had come rain. Rain and rain for days. It spit in my eye, rolled down my neck, and poured in through a small hole on the sole of my boot. With the rain came relentless gray. Dark clouds smothered the city whole. In the time between showers and storms, the clouds raced back and forth, chasing each other across the sky. Except in the middle of the night when, for an hour or so, the weather cleared long enough to let a waxing moon shine through.

Since I'd arrived in Paris this winter, every morning around 5 a.m., I'd crawl out of bed, put on a pot of coffee, and turn on my laptop, ready to work. But then the rain came, and for a week of mornings, I found I could not write. I was at a loss for words, it seemed. I had misplaced them somewhere and, with a monsoon of deadlines on the horizon, I felt an exhausted panic begin to gather.

The first Saturday in April, I gave up. It was after 8 p.m. when I stuffed a bottle of emergency champagne into my green canvas messenger bag. I stepped out into the cold and wet and began to walk towards the river. I had heard that every month a group would gather in the middle of the Pont des Arts to watch the full moon rise over the Seine. Anyone could join them, so long as they brought food or drink to share, so I went.

As I walked through the narrow streets of the Left Bank, the wind pushed past my face. My fingers turned red and froze into claws. I stuffed my hands into my coat's pockets and looked up at the sky still thick with cloud cover.

As I walked, I muttered under my breath: Come on, Paris. Come on now. Break it up.

If you know anything about Patti Smith, you know the cover art of her 1975 album, Horses. It is a black-and-white Robert Mapplethorpe photograph. She is standing up, long and lean, and is dressed in a white button-down shirt with a skinny tie around her neck, the ends of the tie are tucked into the top of her dark denim jeans. She has a jacket slung over her shoulder. She looks out at you. She isn't smiling. She isn't posturing. Her gaze is confident and vulnerable. She is the American punk poet. She is exquisite. Take her or leave her, she is Patti Smith. And, in a thousand ways, she is a product of her Parisian dream.

At 16, Smith discovered an old volume of poetry by the French poet Arthur Rimbaud. In her memoir, she writes about looking at the book's jacket.

[Rimbaud's] haughty gaze reached mine from the cover of Illuminations. He possessed an irreverent intelligence that ignited me, and I embraced him as a compatriot, kin, even a secret love. Not having ninety-nine cents to buy the book I pocketed it.

Sometime later, while picking over the titles of the same bookstall, she came upon a book of photographs called Love on the Left Bank. This time, she says, she didn't steal the book, but she never forgot the picture of Parisian nightlife she glimpsed on the cover.

It would be another five years or so, but, in 1969, Patti Smith and her sister, Linda, would land in "the city of their dreams." Patti was on a quest. She was going to Paris to chase her heroes through the streets. After the two sisters landed, they found a scummy sort of hotel on the same street, and perhaps the same room, where Rimbaud had lived. They dropped their bags and ran out the door.

[We] combed the city in search of where Piaf had sung, Gerard de Nerval had slept, and Baudelaire was buried. I found some graffiti on the rue des Innocents that inspired me to draw. … With one leg crossed, the other dangling over the side, I drew confidently. I dragged my portfolio from gallery to gallery. We joined a troupe of street musicians and busked for change. I worked on my drawings and wrote and Linda took photographs. We ate bread and cheese, drank Algerian wine, contracted lice, wore boatneck shirts, and shuffled happily through the back streets of Paris.

It wasn't all bohemian daydreams. There were times, she said, when she felt the great "material burden" of her art. It wasn't just the physical weight of the heavy portfolio, but her work was imbued with all her hope, ambition, and love. Art pulled at her and demanded of her.

"There were times, even in Paris, when I wanted to leave the lot of it in an alley and be free," she writes.

After three months, Smith returned to New York "filled words and rhythm." Her work quickly matured. It incorporated an amalgam of media: poetry, music, drawing, and photography. All of it woven together.

After Paris, because of Paris, Patti Smith found herself. The song "Break it Up," the sixth track on Horses, perfectly encapsulates Smith's relationship with the city.

I could feel my heart, it was melting.I tore off my clothes, I danced on my shoes.I ripped my skin open and then I broke through.I cried, 'Break it up, oh, now I understand.Break it up, and I want to go.Break it up, oh please take me with you.Break it up, I can feel it breaking,I can feel it breaking, I can feel it breaking,I can feel, I can feel, I can feel, I can feel.'

The song, written for Jim Morrison, was inspired by a dream she had about the singer, but the imagery came from the day when she first visited his Parisian grave and stood in the freezing rain.

I found the full moon picnic easily. There was a group of 20 people standing together shivering in the middle of the bridge. Someone had set up a card table where people had unloaded bags of potato chips, a quiche or two, cookies, biscuits, chocolate eggs, and bottles of wine. A friendly man with white hair handed people small plastic cups and then filled them with hot apple cider. The drink was spicy and warmed my cold, cold fingers.

A young Chinese woman was standing next to me. We sipped from our cups and glanced at the sky. The clouds were impenetrable.

We won't see the moon tonight, she said.

Maybe it will clear, I replied, though I thought she was probably right. I won't see a full moon rise over Paris, I thought regretfully and stupidly. I was, after all, standing on a bridge in the city of my dreams.

Sophie, a nervous sort of woman, asked me what I do here. I write, I told her.

Oh? she asked. For fun?

I thought about the past week. No, I said, not for fun, for work, on deadline.

Her brows came together. What do you do if you can't think of something to write? she asked.

I laughed. What can you do? It's a job. You show up.

But, she insisted, What if you have to get something in and you can't?

I don't know, I said. The only thing I know is that you show up, even on the bad days, you show up.

An hour later, I said my goodbyes and started walking home. The wind had settled down and, at the crest of the rue Saint Jacques, I realized that the sky had cleared. The moon was siting, fat and comfortable, above the tin roofs, a bright light against an ink black sky.

Read Neda Semnani's entire Paris project here:

* The quiet thrill of writing as a foreigner in Paris

* How to not write about love in Paris

* Between the bookstore and the gun: Life in a rattled Paris

* The poetry brothel in Paris

* Dark days in the city of light

* The kick of rejection

* Adieu, Paris


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