For 20 years, Georges Peltier worked on making the most remarkable map of Paris. Started in 1920 and finished in 1940, and representing 30,000 man hours of research and sketching, the Plan de Paris au Vol d’Oiseau (Map of Paris from a Bird’s-Eye View) is exactly that. You imagine yourself a bird as your eye swoops into the intricate 3D-perspective of the map. The city comes alive in the map’s depth and detail. You can almost feel your feet on the streets.
In 1997, the Paris library system condensed the map and used it to promote the location of its branches throughout the city. We lived in Paris at the time, for about a year and a half, right out of college. When we returned to the United States at the end of that year, the map came with me. And when we began to plan a move back to Paris in 2002, I wore that map ragged, spending hours retracing my favorite footsteps in the city.
For my birthday in 2003, my wife found the full-size version of the map. It is one of the best gifts I have ever received. A majestic 1.86 meters by 1.40 meters in dimension, it has hung on our living room wall ever since.
But I had a shock the last time I looked at the map. It was very much like the experience people often describe of looking in a mirror, feeling like they are in the prime of their lives, and realizing that, no, they have, in fact, grown old.
For me, studying the map the other day, I realized that I am sick. I knew this, of course. But since the beginning of my illness in 2005, I held the disease at arm’s length. I made it abstract. I did the treatments that were required, and whatever pain or suffering I had was linked primarily to secondary effects and the challenges of recovery. I didn’t really feel the disease. What I felt was an energy in my core, a force of life that made it hard for me to fathom that this could potentially lead to my death.
Now, over the past few months, I have been face-to-face with the disease. I feel it. And when I last looked at the map, I saw what I have become. The streets I once trailblazed in search of the apartment we would buy are still there on the map, eloquently drawn and just as beautiful. But my presence on them has grown ghostly.
I have a lot of mental pins poked in the map. Places I’d like to write about, friends I’d like to visit. I don’t know if I’ll get the chance — I may soon need to leave France to try a new treatment — and my movements over the past month have been primarily limited to hospital and home.
So my map, for now, is my only access to Paris. When I look at it, I always seem to go to the same place: rue Tiquetonne, a tiny vein of a street attached to rue Montorgueil in the 2nd arrondissement. Rue Montorgueil, particularly the stretch between rue Etienne Marcel and rue Reamur, burst through a period of gentrification in the late 1990s and is now a teeming pedestrian street of cafes and markets. A Parisian bastion of shabby-chic.
It’s a busy place, particularly on weekends, but the little tributary streets like rue Tiquetonne offer an instant calm, largely spared the tourist crunch.
I had the most exceptional of days on this street a few years ago; I am smiling now as I think about it. Let me set the scene: It was a Sunday near Easter and my wife, 3-year-old daughter and I had just had brunch at Le Loup Blanc, a bistro on rue Tiquetonne. We emerged into a crystalline midday. Crisp, windless air. Warm rays of sunshine illuminated the cobbled mosaic of the street. A little boy in his Sunday best said, “Papa, elle n’a pas de ballon!” and ran over to our daughter and gave her his balloon. I walked the street slowly, hand-in-hand with my wife as our daughter shrieked and laughed ahead of us, trying to catch the balloon before it touched the ground. I felt the perfection of the moment. Something in my mind told me to remember this. Things might get harder, but be sure to remember this. I have never forgotten.
And when my daughter tossed her balloon in the air and succeeded in catching it firmly in her hands, she turned and ran to me. I can see her now, jumping into my arms, and I have but one desire: To freeze that frame. Please, roll the credits. C’est bon. C’est bon comme ça.