Originally published in The Creative Cafe.
I try to live in the moment. But it keeps leaving me behind.
I blink and it’s gone. I get complacent and a day, a week, a month, slips by unmarked.
I find myself, at moments of strange magic, trying to freeze time and crystalise the memory so I can return to it later. If I don’t, at least once, stop and acknowledge that it’s a beautiful moment that I’ll want to remember, I feel unmoored later, fearful that the memory won’t stick.
The knowledge that this is my one shot at feeling now taints the moment like a faint bad taste in my mouth.
At what point does time start feeling like a prison?
At what point does it fill us with dread to know we can never move backwards? At what point do birthdays become bullets? At what point does remembering become more valued than being?
Time is never a neutral topic. Our thoughts on it, the emotional tendrils that brush against our consciousness are inexplicably wrapped up with: death, money, love, value, decay, religion, loss, growth, confinement, hope, revenge, change, physics, maths, words, sickness, art, progress.
It’s a loaded word. It’s a conundrum that only worsens the more we ponder it. It bookends our most significant and insignificant moments: everything begins and ends with the acknowledgement of time.
At the most beautiful moments, we feel its passage ever more acutely, tumbling grains of sand in an hourglass.
When I find myself losing track of the moment for too long, I go to Paris.
That might seem unrelated, but Paris is where I go to slow time down, to string moments together like pearls on a necklace, to pull back in the unwinding reel of time.
Every time I visit, I fear the old magic will have tarnished and it won’t be how I remember. But that hasn’t happened yet. No matter how jaded I feel about everything else, Paris is a gateway to the a childlike sense of awe, to suspending reality for a few days.
A few weeks ago, on one of the impulsive whims that characterise most of my decisions, I decided it was time to go to Paris again. Things were on a glorious upwards trend throughout July, before a bunch of health and general life issues started pushing me back towards overwhelming anxiety in August.
Things have been moving too fast. As my 21st birthday approaches, I remember how it felt to barely have the courage to step outdoors at 18 and fear that everything I’ve built since then might be more fragile than it seems. Hence the need to step away from normality, sink into the moment, see it all from the outside, then return.
Mostly, I travel alone — out of practicality and necessity.
But solo trips feel less real than shared ones. They’re like a dream you awake from and try to convey through words, only to find them lacking. Words are useless at the times when they matter most. We cheapen the strongest ones through overuse. Sometimes sharing a moment makes it easier to inhabit it.
So I went with someone who means a lot to me and had never been to Paris, and we spent 70 hours in the city, stacking up moments.
Paris is a rare place where it’s possible to just be: to walk the streets, to let the serendipitous occurrences that confront you at each turn unfold, to stand at a bar drinking espresso, to sit in a park compiling a picnic as crowds blur past, to watch, smell, pause, stop, move on.
Within days, most of the best moments burn off.
The fragments remain, to be preserved through writing and rehashed. This is what remains, this is what tumbled out in my notes from the trip:
Drinking what might be the best coffee ever, intense, not sweet, lacking any trace of bitterness, out of thimble sized mugs in a cafe with reclaimed wood tables.
Cobweb fractured light streaming through tiny stained glass inside the tombs at Pere Lachaise cemetery, faded plastic flowers scattered across the ground outside.
Street murals, graffiti and space invaders splashing color on liminal spaces, the intermissions between one place and another. Unexpected tiny art galleries down side streets, the walls sprinkled with delicate wisps of pastel colours.
Impossibly bright displays of fruit and vegetables in the endless array of health stores where I compulsively bought cashews and mulberries and peaches. A ceiling made of owl feathers and rows of ornate antique muskets at the Museum of Hunting. Steak at Chartier.
59 Rue Rivoli, an old building populated by artists who fill every inch of wall with sprawling doodles and words, their canvases and jars of crusted brushes scattered across the hallways, the intimate chaos of the spaces where they construct their own tiny worlds, the strange innocence of unfinished sketches.
Adding notes to the walls in Shakespeare and Company bookstore, perched among piles of books on the tiny benches where some of the greatest writers to ever live once slept, and a tabby cat naps. The hall of extinct taxidermy animals in the Natural History Museum, where tigers and green birds mingle with Chinese war horses and wolves.
A room full of somber clowns, eyes downcast, garish costumes in sharp contrast to the stark white space at Palais de Tokyo — and a tube of glass fragments hanging from the ceiling which I stood beneath and felt like Toru at the bottom of the well in The Wind Up Bird Chronicle.
In Paris, I always try to go to mass at least once.
I’m not religious and despite brief flirtations with christianity, attending CoE schools, and a Jewish upbringing, I can’t recall ever sitting in a church and feeling true conviction. As a child, I felt unqualified to make any decisions about what to believe so I remained agnostic despite my efforts to grasp hold of the comfort of belief. Now it’s too late: the scepticism has solidified.
But, in foreign cities, I go to mass, light candles, meditate in churches in an attempt to tap into the solace of certainty. The beauty of somewhere like Notre Dame, Sacre Coeur, or any of the smaller, quieter churches crowds out scepticism. History leans against the present. You sense that this is a place where the hurried passage of time is forced to slow down.
Moments don’t last long. But the act of cataloguing, preserving and repairing them is an integral part of it all.