Paris: The Thing That Everyone’s Seen

And the Sculptures at Trocadero

On the last night in Paris, I visit the Eiffel Tower, because no one can be cynical about the Eiffel Tower, even in February. I went up once, but not to the top. It was closed because of the wind. But I have never really needed to go up, to get the true bird’s eye. Once you have done it from the Tour Montparnasse or the Sacre Coeur, you don’t need to do it again, to see miniscule Paris. Or maybe I’m just leaving things, setting aside Paris experiences to have later. I never want to run out.

I always do the same thing, on that last night. I get off the Metro at Trocadero and I buy macarons at Carette, and I go see the Eiffel Tower, like paying a visit to an aging Aunt. There is no point in going during the daytime, when it is beautiful but not magical, when the tourists nearly injure themselves, tumbling over the steep wall, to get their thumbs-up photo. They do that at night too, but you can’t see them as well, which helps.

This time, I do what I always do. I snap photos in the cold. I wait the requisite 15 minutes for it to begin its pre-programmed shimmer—the thing that never fails to conjure a surprised gasp from the assembled crowd, like they had no idea it was going to happen. But then, maybe they truly had no idea. The people who gather at Trocadero to stare at the tower are the typical hodgepodge—businessmen in town for a night, weekenders from Italy and Belgium, elderly Japanese women on a tour. Maybe they missed that line in the guidebook. Or maybe they read it and the reality of it is still stunning—that sudden shimmer of sparks on the tower’s surface, the closest it will come to straightening up its bowlegs and doing a little dance, and all for no reason. For amusement. For the sake of being lovely. An iconic monument puts on a show. You can understand why people applaud.

The last time I was in Paris, I observed my little tradition. I got off at Metro Trocadero and crossed the nutty streets that loop around the square where people drive like they’re trying to kill themselves, or you. And I walked between the long wings of the Palais de Chaillot, the collection of museums and government buildings that crown the hill above the Eiffel Tower in grand fashion, all of it done in sleek art deco gold. In the open space between the two sides of the building, this is where people come to view the Eiffel Tower, and where men come to sell their wares. They are the famous, ubiquitous trinkets of Paris—Eiffel Towers on keychains. Eiffel Towers in metal with felt under their feet so you can sit them on a desk or in a cabinet. Light-up plastic Eiffel Towers for children. Eiffel Towers that play “La Vie En Rose” when you touch a button.

The men are mostly from north and west Africa, and they keep the keychains—a hot seller, no doubt—threaded on a big silver ring, which they then loop over an arm. They advertise by shaking the ring so that the whole thing jingles like a Christmas bell. This noise fills the square, and the sellers call out to you as you pass in heavily-accented English. Every once in a while, an ambitious trinket seller will add a new item to his inventory. One I’ve seen a few times is a little light-up helicopter that flies when you wind it up. At Trocadero at night, you are likely to see them before you even arrive from the square, little blinking rainbows dipping down and up in the dark.

This time, I decide to buy something. I approach one of the men. He has not been hassling me or calling out at the top of his lungs like his colleagues, which is probably why I choose him. For an instant, as I approach, his eyes dart around him, terrified. Clearly I am not a cop, but it makes me wonder how many times each week, each month, these men get busted by the French police, how quickly they need to throw their wares into a bundle and run. This man looks like he’s about to.

“How much for the little one?” I ask.

“One Euro,” he says, so quietly I can barely hear him.

I pull out my wallet and fish for a coin, and he unhooks the loop on his arm. He hands me five little Eiffel Towers—two gold and three silver, each molded in chintzy pot metal that will undoubtedly start to turn colors before I get them back on the plane.

“No no,” I say. “Just one.”

“Yes,” he says. “The price is five for one Euro.”

I am taken aback, but it makes sense. Every vendor has the same stuff. There can be no real undercutting or competition. Everything is priced to sell, and at rock bottom. I wonder at a life built on twenty-five cents a trinket, of how many tiny Eiffel Towers it takes to buy dinner, to pay for a room.

While I wait for the real Eiffel Tower to switch on, to shimmer and do her dance, I touch the replicas in my pocket, feel the hard-but-delicate edges of them. Inside and under the fabric, they make a noise like bells, but muffled, as though I have caught the air of the square, and the vendors, and the sparkling tower itself, and put it away, made it ready to transport home.

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2 Responses to “Paris: The Thing That Everyone’s Seen”

  1. Anna Says:

    Laura,

    during your travels to Paris, have you ever been to the Lapin Agile? It’s a cabaret house that opens up late at night with singing and alcoholic beverages and it’s a whole lot of fun. It was my absolute favorite thing when I went there in college.

    Just curious.

  2. lauramotta Says:

    I have not been, but that sounds pretty fabulous! I will add to my list for the next time I’m in Paris.

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