A Bridge to the Sun
By any reasonable estimate, my life was half over by the time I finally went to Europe. Hitherto, I’d watched legions of American college graduates throw their mortarboards to the skies and set forth for the patisseries of Paris and the ruins of Rome. From my waitress station, I’d imagine these pilgrims, Eurail passes in hand, traversing the continent from the great cathedrals of Cologne to the bierhauses of Bavaria. I could see them counting out British pound sterlings and Italian lire and French francs for their tea, cannoli, and baguettes. I could see their dewy eyes turning toward an Alpine sunrise, squinting under bright afternoons on the fjords, shining into the western gloaming as the sun slid over the Atlantic toward the faraway American continent, where I’d still be yoked like a draft horse to my blue-collar work ethic. I’d chew on my envy until I convinced myself that I, too, would one day walk in the golden light of the worldly and international. That day would come, I told myself, when I’d paid off my student loans, saved enough to put my stuff in storage, summoned the nerve to leave my cat.
But long after I’d sent in the last payment and the cat had died of old age, that day still had not come. What did come, momentously, was the specter of a pivotal birthday and the urgent realization that my common little dream would break my heart if that’s where I left it. So that summer I cashed in four months of retirement savings, found a sitter for the current cat, and booked a ticket to Heathrow.
“I’m so glad you’re touring London before you see Paris,” Shi said one morning over Earl Grey tea and toast from his breakfast table in Bromley, a historic market town on the outskirts of the British capital. A native Londoner who’d returned home after a 20-year sojourn in California, where we’d met and become fast friends, Shi had visited Paris. He knew what awaited us the following week, when we’d base our adventures from the tiny flat we’d rented in the Montmartre neighborhood. “You think you love this town: Just wait.”
I shrugged as I pored over my tattered map of London, plotting the day’s assault on the National Gallery. I’d spent the better part of two uncharacteristically warm and bright weeks basking in the cosmopolitan thrum of the capital, trundling around on the Tube, visiting castles, churches, museums, and parks, trolling the alleys and lanes of Covent Garden and Soho. I’d touched the cold stones lining the corridors of Hampton Court and felt the reverberations of Vespers at St. Paul’s Cathedral. I’d even been to the Globe Theatre and watched Macbeth come undone yet again. But it was in my ambling up and down the River Thames, crossing and recrossing the bridges—London, Tower, Millennium, Blackfriars—that I sensed a change dawning inside me. Every afternoon, as I’d lean on the railing of some river crossing or other and feel the daylight stretch and shift, I sensed the wide world grow smaller, more familiar, more personal. No longer were views of Big Ben and the Palace of Westminster or even the red buses on Waterloo Bridge lovely images on other people’s postcards: They, like the other memories I was amassing, were now part of my own story.
Traveling 186 miles per hour, the Eurostar high-speed rail carried us from London’s St. Pancras Station to the Gare du Nord in Paris in just over two hours. After staring for some time at the map of tangled colors denoting the Métro de Paris subway we eventually found our way to the 18th arrondissement, just a few hilly blocks from the white shadow of the famed Basilique du Sacré-Coeur. We found our sparsely furnished little flat, and, with a light thud, Shi dropped his bag on the slanted wooden floor and turned to make haste for the nearest éclair au chocolat.
Like millions of other tourists, we spent full days getting lost in the Louvre and the Palais de Versailles, climbing the stairs of the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, walking through the Jardin des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg. It was all as wonderful as it sounds. But once again it was the simple business of standing on a bridge at eventide that touched a je ne sais quoi that made me feel at one with a world I’d always felt I was missing.
I can’t remember whether it was the Pont Neuf or the Pont des Arts or the Pont au Change or the Pont Alexandre III or which bridge we found that first night in Paris. Whichever it was, the moment was so gorgeous and profound that we wound up spending every twilight of our stay loitering, rapt, upon one of these spans.
Each evening, suspended over the River Seine, we would watch the summer sun play its languorous last rays upon the sparkly Lutetian limestone that fronted so many of the capital’s stately façades. How the city glowed! Bathed in long, lazy beams of late sun-fire, the ochre towers of Notre Dame Cathedral, the gilded dome of Les Invalides, the ornate frontages of the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre, even the arches of neighboring bridges reflected back to the sun a golden radiance that made the atmosphere hum with vibrant, electric life. I felt at home, alive. If I’d had my ancient mortarboard with me, I would have tossed it over the moon.
It was perhaps no surprise that the epicenter of the solar system would assert itself so forthrightly just because I’d finally found this well-worn corner of the planet. Yet I did savor a sly satisfaction that it wasn’t the Venus de Milo or an unpronounceable soufflé that filled my heart in Paris. Instead, in the grand, egalitarian public space of a city designed to be adored, it was the same old sun I knew from home.
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