I’ve been to Paris several times and even lived there for a brief period. Yet, my first trip was the experience I remember most. There’s something about a little drizzle on a cloudy Parisian November day. A slight chill in the air nipping at your warm sweater is made bearable when soaking up the French magic by the cup full.
I was 25 years old, sitting alone in a cafe along the Champs-Élysées after a packed day of playing tourist. With my chair facing toward the street alongside hundreds of others, I noticed the Arch of Triumph silhouetted by the fading light. The sound of raindrops grew louder, pelting the canvas awning above me, and I nestled into a corner. Warm, dry, and satisfied with a freshly brewed French roast.
Paris is a fast-paced city. It’s easy to get trampled, unless you move with the cadence of the crowds. So, it was nice to slow down, take a moment, and replay the day's events from the safety of the sidelines. The artistic culture, cuisine, and canvasses are some of the things that make the City of Light famous the world over.
Breathing in the cool air slowly and exhaling even slower, I resumed my people-watching prowess from my warm dry perch. Women wearing the latest fashions from designers I couldn’t pronounce walked by me without so much as a glance. They moved quickly in their heels, leaving behind a trail of perfume that danced and teased around me. Men with chiseled bodies in silk suits and wristwatches that cost more than I made in a year strutted past with confident strides. Everyone charged forward holding umbrellas to shield their perfect hair from the slanting rain.
Taxi horns blew loudly as drivers whisked busy patrons to places unknown. It was a dazzling display of everyday life in Paris. I had a front row seat at the center of the universe - and it was magnificent! Don’t remember when the rain stopped or how many cups of coffee I had, but do remember being surprised, as I walked along the banks of the Seine back towards my hotel, that somehow I managed to find a bit of sanctuary in even the noisiest of locales.
All this brings me back to that painting and the mystery I might have solved. This sly, unknown Italian aristocrat was smiling because she knew. She knew the greatest of Parisian experiences wasn’t standing in front of her with a camera in one hand and a bucket list in the other. Rather, it was finding an ordinary cafe with a view of a different kind. A simple Parisian vista can lead to a breathtaking experience, if you’re willing to sit, sip, and breathe it all in.
Dan Beckmann is a photographer, writer, and journalist who lives in Orlando Florida. He worked as a cameraman, producer, and editor with the Today Show at NBC News, traveling extensively throughout the Middle East, Europe, and Africa from their Tel Aviv and Jerusalem Bureaus. His work has been featured on the BBC, Sky, Reuters, Discovery Channel and Nat Geo, plus he contributes regular columns to the Orlando Sentinel.