There is something demoralizing about watching two people get more and more crazy about each other, especially when you are the only extra person in the room. It's like watching Paris from an express caboose heading in the opposite direction—every second the city gets smaller and smaller, only you feel it's really you getting smaller and smaller and lonelier and lonelier, rushing away from all those lights and excitement at about a million miles an hour.
– Sylvia Plath
As I recently visited Paris, I had the opportunity to test this in the interest of SCIENCE. While I had to compromise experimental integrity by watching from a side window rather than a caboose, as the train didn't have a caboose, preliminary results indicate that watching Paris recede from a high-speed train is nowhere near
as devastating as watching friends fall in love.
On the other hand, I got some good photos while I was there!( Bienvenue à Paris )
My first visit to London was about the same length of time as this one to Paris, and I hardly count it as a visit now I've got to know the city better, because what can you see of London in two and a half days, especially when one of them is spent entirely within the British Museum? But I felt like I got a lot more out of this trip, in large part because I was visiting an artist who'd lived there for a while and so had the sort of perspective on the city that resonated with mine.
It was unrelentingly beautiful, and unrelentingly Paris, and that I definitely appreciated, but there was something about it that seemed wanting, somehow. It's entirely possible it's just a permutation of my inherent suspicion of beauty as artifice, something ground into me as a goose amongst swans in high school – being immersed in such perfection made me feel a bit of a troll. It's also possible that a lifetime's exposure to British history, literature, and culture makes London's charms easier to unlock and more thick on the ground, and Paris has just as much to offer those who come prepared. But for me, myself, I couldn't help feeling there was something hollow about it, in the same undefinable way as San Francisco – gorgeous, and intellectual, but ... superficial somehow. It made me wonder about the sort of people who fall in love with Paris. Is it just the beauty? There is an awful lot of that to go around, and to Americans especially it's like living in the ideal which some American cities tried for a while to emulate – I got a lot of 'Oh, so this
is what they were trying to go for,' walking around. But in the end, while I enjoyed it a lot, I was so happy to get back to London, where the eccentric Victorian façdes and ugly 60s buildings jostle together and make room for people who don't fit the plan. I hadn't realised how affectionate I'd grown towards the muddy mean proletarian Thames, but it's a working
river and not Disneyland green, and when I saw it again I wanted to pat it fondly.
So maybe the reason my heart didn't break while watching Paris diminish from the retreating train was because I was heading back to the one I loved, flawed and ugly and falling apart but whose character and soul shone through. There's a comfort for all us trolls.( Epilogue )