The bell above the door signals the beginning, in that moment you step outside the warmth of the café, leaving behind a white porcelain cup glazed with the remains of chocolat chaud à l’ancienne, into the hush of a narrow street on Île Saint-Louis.
The street is near empty, silent, devoid of the earlier rush of pedestrian traffic. And though your impulse is to walk directly and swiftly to your destination, home with its hot mint tea, its humming wall heater, its thick blankets, la flâneuse takes charge, bewitching you with the crystalline air. She entices your feet over the Pont de Sully back to La Rive Droite and then down, down stone steps to the wide pedestrian walkway that runs alongside the Seine, tumbling you into the hush of twilight.
It’s that hour when Paris (for it must be Paris, it can only be Paris) transforms from day to night, slivers of light loitering on the horizon, close-knit buildings seeming to radiate from within, in that moment when the city teeters on the cusp of winter. The last leaves of autumn clutch at their branches, the gaunt limbs exposed in hesitation. The brittle air flirts with your eyelids, and the frozen pavement bores through your soles, like shards of shattered glass piercing your skin, transporting a sting through your bones, but you fasten your coat up around your throat and bury your hands deep in down pockets so that you can linger.
As you christen yourself in the treelined passageway abreast of the river, corralled by an overhang of blackened branches, your senses awaken. For in the still of solitude beside the pulsating water, you begin to perceive shapes in the shadows. Narrow benches in conversation with a water spigot; barrel-like masses that become garbage receptacles, their sea green sacks limp in defeat; a forgotten bicycle collapsed in the mud. You start to discern your fellow roamers. Brave runners in neon shorts. Parents guiding children in puffy parkas. Bicyclists in abbreviated packs. A woman in a red coat and silver boots smoking cigarettes with a man in a brown leather jacket.
In the near distance the bells of Notre Dame chime from Île de la Cité. Can it be five thirty already? The hour, the hour is too quickly passing. Then suddenly a flame, a trumpet of smoke from a fire pit next to the unexpected brightness of a riverboat party. Inside, the partygoers seem of another world, their half-clad figures leaning against steamy windows, fingers clasping stemmed glasses, the women in jewel-toned dresses, the men in crisp white sleeves. Outside, alone in the cold, you try and imagine their lives. You wonder what it would be like to join them, to enter their glow, but the streets, the streets beckon.
You walk through a tunnel that cuts under a bridge, its low arch offering temporary respite from the chill. From the corner of one eye, blue graffiti flashes, a row of illustrated hands swaying in harmony, hallowed artifacts importing memories from yesterday. You place one palm on the wall, its seasoned surface, trying to retrieve this petroglyph of a moment, but it is a message you cannot quite decipher. (Above a siren weeps.) A woman on a bicycle passes, music trailing her like a flittering kite tail. The notes of Edith Piaf erratically ricochet off the stone wall.
Back out in the open, in the still haunting of twilight, you stand at the edge of the river. Ribbons of light like citrine baubles glister on the water. The amber strands tease you in a gilded dance, a seduction, inviting you to stroll in parallel motion, your feet skimming the pavement, now oblivious to the cold.
Above a siren mourns.
You ascend to the road. And just like that, you are swept back into the chaos of Paris, into the roar of car horns and Christmas lights. As if by instinct your pace quickens, and you are soon walking through the wide plaza at l’Hôtel de Ville and then crossing Rue de Rivoli, under the red glow of the BHV department store, merging with the bustle of holiday shoppers layered in scarves and wool caps who clutch reusable totes and orange plastic bags.
Groups of people sit outside at café tables, clustered under overhead heaters, smoking cigarettes and drinking pichets of wine. You walk past the well-lit windows on Rue des Archives, heat escaping in staccato blasts each time a door opens. A woman in a crocheted minidress and a hot pink fur hat and matching knee-high boots bounces by, speaking into a sequined cell phone.
As you turn on your little street, the hour has fully shifted into night, shedding the last remnants of the day, though a cloud mesh camouflages the darkness above the street lights so that the sky morphs into a fuzzy charcoal grey. The only stars tonight are those that float above you on a row of blinking blue garlands that zigzag your street.
The buzz at your apartment door signals the end, the return to a small room illuminated by a dusty table lamp fixed beside a clear glass bowl, a ripened pear, a notebook, a slender pen, the return to your familiar.