Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Where to Live in Paris, France

Friday, October 31st, 2014


In the Paris apartment, up the long winding staircase on the 5th floor — the 4th floor in Paris, as it were — I shower, or maybe I just bathe, in the cramped tub, taking turns between water and lather because you can’t do both at the same time. Otherwise you’ll drop the shower nozzle — the telephone shower, as we call it — and get water everywhere. I have had more comfortable bathing situations, no exaggeration, in parts of the developing world.

But this is Paris, and all I can remember as this is happening, is the warning at the beginning of Rick Steves Paris 2006 where he says something to the effect of: If you’re ready to travel, you have to accept that showers are not always hot, cups of coffee are not always the size of your big American face, and that beds are not always comfortable.

Well, let me go further. The showers in Paris are not always showers. Sometimes they’re just a faucet and a basin and a hot water tank that’s smaller than a mini-keg of Stella.

I rinse off my jetlag and wash my hair upside-down and the water pools around my ankles, blue-black with the dye from my new jeans. I leave my bracelet on because if I take it off, they may not re-admit me to the festival and that would be hundreds of dollars down the drain. And I would miss St. Vincent.

But for all the bathroom’s hazards, its soup bowl of a sink and slippery tiles, the apartment itself looks like the set of Last Tango in Paris. Plaster ceiling moldings and hardwood floors and fireplaces in two rooms. A brass doorbell. A wrought-iron window grate. Books on a shelf — Paul Auster, the same novel I brought to read on the plane. Collages with flowers. A kitchen smaller than the bathroom, and no trash can, and a view over the street below and the long row of buildings just like it, a march of wrought-iron and blue roof tiles and cream-colored stucco.

The heat is just little electric space heaters that cost a fortune to run and don’t heat the space very well anyway. And there’s no insulation. No soundproofing so the neighbor’s argument is your argument. The crying baby upstairs is your baby, your headache, your sleepless night.

My apartment in Paris, when I lived here, was just like this. Drafty, up a long flight of beautiful stairs, a nest above the city where I turned up the expensive heat as high as it would go and huddled under blankets in January and read news from home using the excellent free wifi. Where I got really good at taking 7-minute showers. It was all love and discomfort. I kept a bowl of clementines on the table and ate mache salads every night with balsamic and kiwi and whatever weird thing I found at the market — maybe the clementines. I don’t think I’ve even seen mache in New York. If I found it, I would buy it.

And the rental apartment of this vacation, this non-living situation, which looked so perfect in the photos, actually is perfect. What I had not realized, before I walked in the door. Before I twisted the complicated double-pronged key in the sticky lock — all Paris apartments of a certain age have a double-pronged key and a sticky lock — is that it would not be such a surprise or such an adventure. It would be perfectly typical — a thing that has not changed. That is what it is — sheltering and imperfect and sure of what it is.

In Paris on a cold autumn day…

Monday, October 13th, 2014

La Grisette

A photo I took. And still kind of like. This is a sculpture called La Grisette and it’s in the 11eme, near the Canal Saint-Martin. It’s meant to depict the working-class French girls of the 19th century who were so named for the gray color of their dresses. They worked as seamstresses, and later, in factories, and there was always a whiff of sexual mystery about them. (Maybe they were prostitutes? Maybe they weren’t? There was work, and work, after all, but in an era when employment opportunities for women were strictly limited, and the idea of women working was somewhat scandalous in and of itself, the lines were blurry.) Mimi and Musetta in La Boheme were both grisettes, as was Fantine in Les Miserables.

I took this on a very gray day in November a few years ago. A day that seemed very appropriate indeed for this very gray girl.

Lights On, Shoreditch

Monday, September 1st, 2014


London, autumn.

I stay at the Ace Hotel Shoreditch on the night after Alex Calderwood, the brains behind the entire hotel chain, dies at the property.

At the time of his death, Calderwood is a young man. Months later, it will quietly come out that he died of a mixture of alcohol and drugs.

I know none of this when we check in, when the staff can’t find the reservation, then finds it, then loses it again, all within the course of five minutes. A manager hovers behind his employees, watching the work. It’s all a little tense.

In the room, there is a complimentary bottle of champagne — the first of two that that the hotel will leave us over the course of the weekend. Later, a staff member will barge into the room without knocking with an armful of silverware.

I have dinner that evening in the downstairs restaurant with my friend V__, who lives in town. The decor is all wood and gold and geometric. The waiters wear sweatshirts and smile a lot. It’s adorable. Even jetlagged, I feel amazing. I feel that buzzy, far-from-home sense of exhaustion and excitement that only seems to come along with a flight from New York to London. My friend N_____ calls this just-landed, unacclimated space “the dizzy hours.” Plus, it’s autumn and London has that slantways orange side light. The Christmas decorations are up early. The Shard is done. You can’t complain about bad food anymore. Everything cool is British. For me, it’s the second best city in the world, sorry Paris.

Dinner is fine and they burn my steak, but I’ve never had a steak cooked exactly how I wanted anywhere but New York, so I can’t even be mad. It’s part of the traveler’s experience, the thing that makes the place the thing. Like I always say: It’ll go in the blog.

After, we could go out or we could stay, so we stay because the bar is new and the hotel is new and everyone there is noisy and pretty and it’s like a fashion show sliding between a series of small and large rooms — one with bookshelves, one with a DJ setup, one with a bar, maybe two with a bar, all of it painted in this off-blue-avocado-abandoned-mental-hospital color that matches the color of the air, of the entire night. The idea of leaving, of being elsewhere in Shoreditch, is almost silly.

We drink. There is a carafe of wine at dinner, then another drink, then an Old Fashioned, then espresso martinis. The latter have a foamy head and a star anise floating on top of each one, and they take ages to arrive. When they arrive, they arrive twice. The bar has made a mistake and the waitress shrugs. “You might as well drink them, because we made them.”

So we drink them.

Then we start chatting with a bunch of fashion photographers. I don’t remember how this started or how it ended thanks to the martinis, which go down like a double bomb of sedative and stimulant in the same gulp — more treacherous than any tequila shot. One of them tells me about the shoot he has to set up the next morning — McQueen. Another one is hitting on V___, who has told him several times that she’s married.

I think it ends — I think — because it has to. Because I have lost count of how many I drank. I remember V__ getting a cab, the headlights blaring through the homey little plants by the entrance. I remember regarding the size of the bill with a shrug and not being able to make the conversion in my head from pounds to dollars and not caring. Everything seems cheaper that way anyway. Best to worry about it in the morning.

And then I stagger upstairs. At least I don’t have to go far, but then, it’s all a nightmare of drunkennes paired with jittery, espresso-induced insomnia. I watch the ceiling of the room spin for three hours. I shove laptops under blankets in order to block the tiny flashing lights. I try to focus on the fire alarm, pray that it will be the one thing that will stop moving. I cry, only a little, over my own basic stupidity.

Over the rest of the weekend, I will see a Jez Butterworth play. I will eat Italian food. I will visit a book shop. I will walk the Columbia Road Flower Market. All of it with the pall of half-sickness hanging green around my head. I can do anything, anything, but sleep.

Art Street, Milan

Sunday, June 22nd, 2014

The Don Gallery

In Milan, I follow the advice of a slick travel magazine and ring a doorbell in a neighborhood that’s covered in street art. It’s a gamble and the first time I try, I don’t get an answer. I do this just to see if it works, if the press is a liar like everyone says.

After a few minutes, an embarrassed shuffle of my feet, a fleeing thought about a potential language barrier, a little girl with long blond hair comes to the gate. She’s holding a jump rope and and is wearing a pastel t-shirt that’s a staple at grownup stores that have fashionable kids’ lines.

Boungiorno?” I ask. Little kids who speak languages other than English always strike me as freakish alien supergeniuses. Like their eyes could bore holes in concrete, too.

“Hello,” she says back with an accent and a grin. She runs back to the house and shouts “PAPAAAAAAA!”

Just behind her, a guy with a mustache is strolling around the driveway behind the gate strumming a guitar. He smiles and waves and doesn’t let me in, but holds up a finger, the universal symbol for, “Hold on a sec.” He’s not Papa.

Papa does show up, though, an instant later. He’s wearing loafers and a blue denim shirt that matches his eyes. He’s tanned like it’s September even though it’s only May and he lets me in when I ask if the gallery is open.

“It’s open,” he says in English. “Only it’s not a gallery right now. It’s a house. It’s my house.”

He introduces his daughters — there’s another tiny blonde alien racing around just inside the door clutching another jump rope — and the guitar guy, whose name is Antonio. He nods, keeps playing.

He escorts me into his living room, and then his office, and the stuff on the walls is outrageous. A Shepard Fairey, a Space Invader, a Banksy, a Ron English sculpture. All of it just sitting there in a house behind a gate in a residential neighborhood in Milan by the crappy train station — not even the good train station.

When I tell him I’m from New York, he says, “Ah, but you have much better street art than this.”

Probably. But not in my living room.

He gives me a tour, points to the Fairey and says, “This is your Shepard Fairey, of course.” Mine, though. Mine meaning American, mine meaning New Yorker, mine meaning I have borne through the door of this house/gallery some idea of authenticity, and that’s a hilarious.

I don’t know anything about anything. I just like to look at pretty things. Cathedrals. Paintings. Italian men with tans and very blue eyes.

I circle the room slowly, trying to get a handle on where I am and what I’m doing, and the little girls watch me the whole time, keeping just enough distance, still holding their jump ropes. Antonio continues his song. After a few minutes, the silence gets awkward and I say goodbye. When I tell him that I heard about the gallery in a magazine, he says, “Yes, well. We did some PR. We had a party.”

So I guess that’s why I’m here. Because at some point there was a party.

I step back out onto the street feeling strangely accomplished. About street art that’s not on the street. That’s curated into the living room of a white-painted Milan apartment — the first private space in this city that I’ve ever seen. Until this moment, for me, Milan is all squares and churches and arches full of visitors, all train stations and expensive hotels. It is men on Vespas in business suits, jetting off to places I’ve never been, and darting behind doorways where I can’t go.

This glimpse behind the gate, I am not so sure about. A gallery or a house, indoors or out, it is maybe the real Milan or maybe not. Maybe it’s a party that happened a long time before I arrived.

Wallace Fountains: Paris, Marseille, New Orleans

Saturday, June 21st, 2014

The Wallace Fountains are everywhere in Paris. Designed to bring water to every citizen of the city, from the richest to the poorest, they’re so much a part of the Parisian landscape that after a few days town, you stop really seeing them. They sort of blend with the boulevards and the green parks, the onion-domed advertising columns that are painted the same color. Take them away, though, and Paris is not Paris. They exist in a number of French cities besides Paris, and in handful around the globe, from Amman to Macau. Here are three that I’ve seen in Paris, Marseille (where the caryatid has been splashed with neon paint), and New Orleans. The latter isn’t painted that same gleaming, bulletproof green that you see in Paris, but has more of a coppery finish.




Budapest: The Baths

Tuesday, March 18th, 2014


I soak to the bone in water so hot that my toes turn purple. The bathtub, along with the rest of the hotel is new — or newly renovated, anyway — so it bleats bright under the bathroom’s covered LED lamps. Every day, they leave me a brand new roll of toilet paper, even though I’ve barely used the original. It’s totally confusing.

I think of boiling myself like a Massachusetts lobster, taking away the chill by any means necessary. I’m always too small for bathtubs, never long enough to rest my head, so I’m always either freezing or drowning. This one holds so much water that I float, almost.


There is no 16 bus that goes to the top of the hill, so the options are to walk or to take the funicular. The funicular is expensive and stupid and in whipping wind and rain, the walk does not seem bearable. Or more, the walk seems like it would push me off the edge, me and my camera phone and my little shoes, which are soaked through, a bad choice.

I skip the recommended cafe. I skip the art museum. I move ahead in the guidebook to the church, which will offer shelter. The Catholic girl notes that a church would, of all places, be the much-needed shelter in an impromptu city storm. The result of an instantly answered prayer.

Please God, give me shelter. Boom, have an ornate Hungarian church on a hill.

I’m so cold that I cannot appreciate the church, its interiors painted in funhouse colors, a blue dome like the sky. On a sunnier day, maybe I could feel more. Could feel the centuries of faith and comforting routine seeping through the walls. Could feel my feet. Instead, I take a pew just to stop moving, to leaf through my guidebook and figure out what I’ve missed.

I wonder, for the thousandth time, why I came to Buda, land across the river, when Pest was treating me so well. To see. To leave no stone unturned. All the usual stupid travel things.

Standing on the corner by the car tunnel, waiting for a bus that I don’t initially realize is not coming, I chatter in the cold. I am on my second umbrella in two hours, the first one a cheap model that disintegrates in my hands, that turns into a flapping flag of fabric and a silver spider with eight broken legs. I’m furious and underdressed for my own life, which makes me even more furious.

I stand under a leafless tree with a British couple who don’t know any more about the bus schedule than I do. When we finally get on a bus, it’s a bit of a crapshoot. We all sigh in relief when it rumbles, smooth on its wheels, across the bridge, toward home.


The hotel is right at the end of the bridge. All I need is to get across the bridge.

By the time I reach the hotel, I cannot feel my fingers either. I wonder if I will freeze to death before I get to the door, while I am running around the long ring road that used to serve as its driveway. If I will be discovered sprawled out on a Budapest sidewalk in front, my snot frozen solid. It would be poetic. Almost literally dying in the gutter.

I make it to the curling wrought-iron gate and slip through, giving the doorman a smile so he thinks I’m staying. He humors me, tosses one back, even though he knows I’m not.

You can always tell a really nice hotel from the carpets, how your feet make no noise. The ones at the Four Seasons Gresham Palace render me silent — one of the few things to do so. I smile again at the woman at the front desk. She doesn’t buy it either.

In the bathroom I use the moisturizer — there’s moisturizer — and realize, when I look in the mirror, why the front desk lady is under no illusion that I’m staying. My hair is frizzed out straight like I have spent the afternoon testing the voracity of the city’s electrical sockets with my fingers. I tame it all down, pretend that I’m civilized, even with my pant legs soaked through, my ankles exposed like I have never seen a weather report before.

On the other side of the carpets of silence, I take a table and order an $8 pot of white blossom tea, which comes with a tiny glass of water, two little vanilla cakes, and — god bless it — a miniature madeline. Two different waiters offer me newspapers, but I refuse, too absorbed in the conversation happening at the next table.

One guy dominates. He has a European-but-educated-in-England accent and a Hitler Youth haircut and the topics of the day meander from the excessive loudness of New York City restaurants to Beyonce to his annoying co-worker who sends incoherent emails in English. A fawning American girl interjects every once in a while. She has a lot to say about New York — none of it good. The two others at a the table, both European, barely get a word in.

I am comforted when they hail a taxi to another hotel. So they’re impostors, too.

I drink two full pots of tea. I am relieved when the waitress asks if I want more water. Because after the first pot, I very much want more water, and I am unsure of the protocol surrounding these things. Asking for something free seems a little gauche, especially after I’ve used the moisturizer. I drink what amounts to eight cups of tea, never letting the white porcelain cup leave my hands the entire time, greedy for the warmth. Out in the lobby, someone plays semi-standard lounge fare on the piano — the themes from Love Story and the Godfather. The room around me is swathed in gauzy orange and green and decorated with “art glass” and chandeliers. For a brief, beautiful instant, I consider staying for dinner, but I can’t. I have drunk enough so that I could float away. Be bloated forever.

I head back out into the cold. It’s dark now. The rain has stopped, but the wind persists.

On Searching for Franz Liszt in Budapest and Not Finding Him

Friday, March 14th, 2014

At the Liszt Museum, in the music academy, they don’t have anything I want. Well, anything except the pianos, which sit in the middle of finely-wallpapered rooms, silent and with their keys covered.

Even like this, they radiate magic, all warm grainy wood and faintly yellow keys. There’s one, tiny and in the corner and sized for a child, with hammers that strike lengths of glass instead of strings, so it makes a kind of sparkling noise, fit for a winter ballet. Another is bigger than my bed and made by an American craftsman in Boston. Liszt played it late in life and it still works, but I can hear it only on the audio guide, a solo so beautiful that it stops my slow transverse around the room. I stare out a window, watch people bustle on the street below, toward Oktogon, toward the House of Terror. I listen to the whole song.

They put a whole song, a sonata, on an audioguide. That’s the kind of museum this is.

There are portraits, and he was handsome, so I appreciate this, too. The ones of him as a young man show him to be ravishing and long-nosed, his hair grown long and shaggy as befits a rockstar of any generation. But he was first. Women fought over locks of his hair and flew into hysterics when he played. There’s one story of a girl at the stage door who picked up the discarded stump of his cigar and wore it in a locket.

There is none of this in the room. Nothing about the affairs. With George Sand and the married Comtesse, with whom he had three illegitimate children. There is a whole corner dedicated what this museum declares as his actual primary devotion — Catholicism. There are prayer books, his small alter, an embroidered bleeding heart that he wore inside his coat. That the latter thing, smaller than my palm and made with great care, was given to him by a female admirer is mentioned only in passing.

For romance, to find the romantic inside this actual king of the romantics, I will retreat elsewhere. To recordings. To Google searches. To somewhere other than a second-floor apartment on Budapest’s main street, an apartment inside an academy. The heart of Franz Liszt, it seems, cannot be contained by that.

Ours and Theirs

Friday, September 13th, 2013


In Cordoba, Spain, away from the tourist clog around the Mesquita and the rambling alleyways of the whitewashed Juderia, there is a residential neighborhood that falls mostly silent after 10:00 pm, where the paint is a little cracked and the busses whoosh by a little faster, ambivalent to the cowering pedestrians on the street corners.

This is where we find the rock bar.

We are guided here by a pamphlet that D___ finds in the train station, a low-budget, hand-scrawled affair with a decent map and recommendations written in only passable English. It touts itself as the guide for the cool kids, and we are entranced.

We find it on the map, but also by following the thumping music, and the cigarette smoke of a few slumping locals outside. Inside, the mostly empty room shudders to the sound of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’til You Get Enough,” which is broadcast over a couple of enormous TV monitors. Pastel-hued prints of the Beatles, Aerosmith, and Zepplin cover the walls. Above the bar on a shelf sits a drum set, and above that, the words ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE lined up in block letters.

The beer is cheap. The wifi password is “IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE.” When D___ asks the bartender for it, he replies in English, “Imagine all de people,” and D___ isn’t sure which language, or which spelling to use. Our technology-obsessed, internet-parched minds compel us to figure it out, and we do, determined that those few minutes of flowing email, of Instagram that is truly instant, have made it worth the trip.

By our second beer, the bar starts to fill and the music changes. Baby-boomers in sundresses and loafers dance with their arms around each other. A girl saunters by wearing a t-shirt with an enormous jeweled butterfly on the front. Michael Jackson has disappeared from the monitor and gives way to bands we don’t recognize. One is shown in a video clip from the 80s, the lead singer dressed up as a mock version of an American teenager — letterman jacket, pleated jeans — and sitting in front of an enormous keyboard. The song is a play on 1950s doo-wop, sung in Spanish. Another band is called Tennessee, and they play in a Manfred Men-ish style, all of them wearing sunglasses.

“I think we should go,” says D___, finishing his second beer.

I check my email for another minute, not wanting to let go of that moment of precious connection.

Earlier, we’d eaten cheap tapas on the wide, square Plaza de la Corredera with a half-moon hanging over us in an empty, black sky. A passle of little girls raced around us, shrieking over a game with rules we didn’t understand, their parents nearby at metal tables, smoking and finishing their beers. Someone’s little dog, off the leash for a few minutes, panted for our leftovers. The houses along the Plaza were mostly shuttered, their owners on their late-summer vacations in France or Italy or New York, but the conversation hummed below anyway, for everyone left behind. In the rock bar, we wished we were back there. Or maybe we wished we could duplicate the feeling of that place and bring it everywhere, to the rock bar and back, and home again — a sense of the familiar and easy in uneasy places.

Barcelona in Six Square Meals

Wednesday, February 15th, 2012

Tiny Little Clams or Some Such

There was the tortilla in La Boqueria, jetlagged and with an empty belly. And how I pointed because I was afraid to say things in Spanish or in Catalan or in anything that wasn’t English. And I ate it standing up amidst the stalls of hanging pork legs and lanyards of chiles and wide-eyed staring fish. I thought it was the best market I’d ever seen — no small feat after Provence, after the strawberry sellers in Paris and the guys with tables of mangoes and coconuts halfway across the Pacific. But I liked this better, the colored glass and the narrow lanes and the candy sellers and the intricate sea creatures with spiny, spindly shells.


There was a baked piece of brie encrusted with pistachio nuts and a raspberry dipping sauce, and a sliver of pork loin on a little piece of toast with a chile pepper and a toothpick, and a salty piece of seared cod with chutney and there was beer. And endless little pieces of bread rubbed with tomatoes and olive oil and garlic. And outside the restaurant beforehand, C______ passed out cold on the sidewalk and I ran next door and got her the Spanish equivalent of Gatorade, which was predictably bright yellow in a bright orange bottle. When she felt better, she said, “How did you know that would help?” I said things about electrolytes and then our table was ready.


On the flight over, my foodstuffs are divided by a solid wall of mashed potatoes made from potato flakes. It stops the river of gravy from spreading across the little aluminum plate. The potatoes feel solid and inevitable. The vegetables can be counted on a single hand, and they’re incomplete, the shaved-down insinuations of carrots. Something shaved off a bigger carrot. A dismembered carrot.

Peppers in Long Strands

I go to McDonalds. Fuck everything, I go to McDonalds. Because it’s predictable and because the results are consistent, the whole world over. Because I am too tired from stomping around the city in flat shoes, from staring agog at Gaudi’s creations, to fish through a guidebook for something recommended. I don’t want a meal. I want fuel to keep seeing things. I order in English and sit on the bottom floor amidst noisy families and write in my notebook. The McDonalds is on the Passeig de Garcia, one of the most fashionable streets in Barcelona, near the Casa Batllo with its arched dragon back, its bones and scales. I sit in brown and orange familiarity in the basement with the kids, and I write in my notebook. A full third of the bun on each of my cheeseburgers is fully, undeniably stale.


At the restaurant that everyone recommends, we get a heap of slivered, fried baby artichokes, which are like French fries only made of artichokes. Their flavor is so delicate that it’s like eating fried air. We share plates of sliced meat and more brie with nuts and patatas bravas and when the bill comes, our only thought is that we should have ordered more.

The Beach

Me and C______ sit in a seafood restaurant by the port on a Sunday afternoon in winter and in the sun, it feels like summer. Or like some strange version of summer where people get sunburned in their heavy coats, where the breeze soothes and chills all at once. We get paella, which comes in huge metal pans with huge spoons. The yellow rice glistens. We chug sparkling water and talk about men, and after, we walk down to the beach. And over to the W hotel, which is shaped like a giant post-apocalyptic taco. In the lobby, we ask to see a room but the guy isn’t there, so we wander past the LEDs, past the mod fountain and the dumpling-shaped chairs and we walk on the boardwalk around the outside of the taco, which overhangs the ocean. What must it be like in summer, with full-strengh sun and everyone tanned and dazed from a day on the sand. Instead, it’s just us taking pictures, trying to imagine it, watching the sun set and pretending that it was June.

Paris: The Thing That Everyone’s Seen

Sunday, November 27th, 2011

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.