Dépaysement: Light, Love and Tragedy

Photos by Tyler Breen
Text by Tyler Breen

I was standing atop the roof deck of the Eiffel Tower, waiting for the split second when both of the spotlights, which encircled out across the city, would meet. There was something special about that brief moment; two beams of blue light entwining over the Seine, over the Notre Dame; the accompanied drones and clicks of the heavy beacons above me; neither resting for a brief moment in the endless cycle of their nocturnal duty. They seemed to me to be out of place: a pair of burning pearls anchored down to the wrought iron lattice beams. The beams were glowing, canary-colored, from the many lights meant to illuminate the arc in the absence of the sun.

Earlier in the summer, when I lived in a small windowless closet in Beacon Hill, after work when the sun had set, I had taken many mindless walks across the Longfellow Bridge towards Cambridge, savoring the fresh air. The bridge was under construction, and from the central towers the same type of orange metallic glow gleamed from sodium-vapor lanterns that hung over the scaffolding.

I remember the feeling of that comparison crawling out from behind my eyes in one or two small moist drops that perished in the wind as I looked down upon France, a tingling current running up my arms and down my legs as my body screamed to my mind that it was truly alive. My girlfriend, Cassandra, stood beside me, her head pressed up against the protective wire. She was having her own private moment of wonder. The angular muscles of her face rested passively, but I caught now and again in her eyes a fire that made me believe unquestionably that she and I were sharing the same feeling; this temporary experience of grand, romantic triumph. We stood together, looking out over the Champ De Mars, towards the Ile de la Cité. Streaks of horizontal bronze and cobalt light gleamed over the Seine, percolating down, as if bowing in respect to the great pillar from atop which we gazed.  Our bodies did not touch, but our spirits did, wrapping themselves in partnership, tighter and tighter, by the might of the Parisian panorama.

From where I watched, the Seine appeared to be an elongated, narrow snake stretching out towards the southeast, it’s shadow outlined in small stripes of light, cut open by brightly lit bridges. I was in love, a twenty year old collegiate from New England, helplessly lost to Paris. I knew that no matter what should ever happen to me, throughout life, that that moment would be one of the greatest.


In the mornings that would follow, we would eat crepes jambon fromage in small cafes, stare at each other in the comfortable silences, look into our swirling cappuccinos as if they were microscopes holding the hidden answers to what we would make of our day. Talking of the language barrier and of the excitement would make us laugh and feel close. Sharing appreciation for the architecture and the culture, for the overwhelming amount of beauty that could be found anywhere, and everywhere, made time unknowable, frozen, fleeting.  Occasionally, though, one of us would venture forth in conversation a thought that stretched out beyond the temporary get-together we had arranged, when I would be back home, across the Atlantic, and we would be struck away from the magic, from each other. It happened far too often.  On our second to last night, after we had left the American hospital, after our fears had been confirmed that the apartment we had rented was also hosting punaises, we journeyed over to Esmeralda, a brasserie adjacent to the Notre Dame where we had tried our first crepe, and had fallen in love with French cuisine.


I had ordered fish and she an appetizer, and we sat there, the only guests in an open room, fixated on each other, oblivious to the small staff that waited only on us, watching from afar. Cassandra went to the bathroom, and I beckoned for the waiter, ordered us a bottle of chardonnay, nervously, for us to have when she returned. I hadn’t touched alcohol yet that week, and this would be my first legal purchase. A blatantly chauvinistic couple eating escargot and croque madame had sat nearby, and snickered at me with the amusement that alcohol-seeking American youth probably encounter. I didn’t care. We drank lightly for a time and I asked to take the bottle with me. The waiter gave me a look that I could not understand and went to go retrieve the cork, possibly, from the trash. We walked out and down stairs towards the river’s edge, wrapped around each other, until we came across a boat that offered tours of the Seine.

I slipped the bottle of wine up my sleeve and we crawled aboard. Soon, we were speeding past the ornate stone buildings on either side, the many lights of the streets melding together into a bright streak of yellow and red. I leaned in to kiss Cassandra, and we became lost for a time, until suddenly I opened my eyes to her hand on my mouth. Turning to the side of the boat, I realized that we had been resting, floating lazily in the middle of the river, directly below the Eiffel Tower. From where we sat it seemed somehow impossibly larger, grander, more magnificent. I looked up to the peak, where we had been a few days before, and smiled, marveling at that moment of magic, of when I had felt true electricity course through my body.

Today, as I continue to read about the aftermath of the terrorist attack, I find myself recalling again that moment on the Eiffel’s top deck, when I thought of the Longfellow bridge of Boston, of the magnitude of difference between those two experiences that shared the same colored gleam of metal. Today I find myself forgetting everything – the cafes and long walks, the Seine, Versailles, the wonder of standing within the Notre Dame, the feeling of sharing it all with Cassandra – except for that arresting moment of knowing that I had been in a place before that moment that I would never know again, and that I stood in a place I would never be again, and that it was okay.

I cannot pretend to know how the Parisians are feeling, cannot offer anything but my sympathy for their loss, my thoughts for their grief. I will not pretend to know their pain, or rationalize their situation. Instead, I’m thinking of the other tourists I had shared that magical night with. Citizens of the world, among them Americans, suddenly alive, in love, after so many accumulated days of mindlessly working and waiting, wading through life. I’m thinking about how they feel about that moment now, as if the events that came immediately after it had changed the meaning of it, somehow. The hollowed strangeness of experiencing joy right before terror. I’m thinking about the Parisians, about their moments of joy, the one’s they now have to share with a new layer of fear, and I can’t imagine how powerfully emotional it must be, how overwhelmingly painful. In a moment of joy I looked into the past, and felt the loss of pain. I wonder how it must feel, in the wake of tragedy, to look into the past, and remember the joy. I hope the pain and the fear, the anger and the loss, does not cause them forget for too long to look upon France, as I so luckily had the opportunity, with the same magical wonder.