Goodbye to Paris.

Through the train window, lines of fleeting details sketch the landscape in the colors of the season. The rushing mountain slopes, fields bordered by pine forests, lakes, and small villages do not have time to leave a permanent impression on my mind. There is only the sensation of moving away from the past and towards an uncertain future filled with expectations.

Occasionally, the train stops at a small station, and a mind on the verge of sleep awakens, curiously observing the travelers boarding and alighting, as if these passing people, through their behavior and clothing, reveal the essential aspects of small-town life. As the train jolts back into motion and the town disappears from view, it is quickly forgotten, as if it never existed.

The cities along the tracks are different, lingering in the memory for a long time. Through the windows of the slowing train, glimpses of dirty migrant suburbs on the edges of endless, ugly rail yards appear. These areas have their own mixed cultures, worries of poverty, and the language of hardened faces, with a rush of restless events that preclude a predictable continuity for building a secure life. Everything must be fought for tooth and nail within the chaotic melee of disturbing events, leaving no room for personal peace.

The train slowed as it approached Paris. With screeching rails, it switched tracks, heading towards a dusty glass canopy supported by bronze pillars. The night train from Copenhagen was badly delayed, and the sun had already reached its peak. Light filtering through the gray-tinted roof and end windows dispersed into a pale glow on the gleaming stone floor, casting blurry shadows behind the nervously loitering platform crowd. On the train, the most impatient passengers reached for their luggage, crowding the narrow aisle and jostling each other as the train still jerked violently, trying to find its designated platform. The throbbing restlessness of the big city and its faceless rush overtook the passengers, as if the recent motion of the train continued within their bodies, urging them forward.

I was just a short walk away from a small hotel, where I had reserved the same sparse attic room where I had lived during my impoverished youth. I wanted to relive with every cell of my being and my whole soul that intense feeling of life I had experienced in the past, a time filled with more questions than answers.

The dingy hotel lobby at the bottom of the staircase, complete with its reception window, was exactly as I remembered. The matron, now grayer and even plumper, sat on a fragile-looking chair that seemed ready to collapse at any moment. Unsurprisingly, she didn't recognize me; after all, it had been years since my last visit, and I was just one among countless others. The service was as indifferent and succinct as before, devoid of any unnecessary friendly chatter, and the nightly rate had shifted from a hundred francs to twenty-five euros, with the entire week needing to be paid upfront. In return, I received a small wrought-iron key attached to a large wooden block. There was no elevator, just steep stairs that creaked loudly with each step. Four floors up to the dusty attic landing, there was only one door. My room.

The room was small and dimly lit, furnished with ancient pieces, exactly as I remembered it. Its colors were dark and its details starkly sensual, like an old painting blackened by smoke. It was nostalgia soaked in the mundane realism of a bygone century, worth every penny. In the band of light streaming through the dim room's window, dust particles danced like remnants of a hungry bohemian spirit from the previous century. The same worn oriental rug still lay on the creaking floorboards, and against the wall was the brass bed with an ornate headboard, piled with pillows covered in tightly woven Moroccan fabric. In front of the window sat a small table and chair, a bare hanging lamp dangled from the ceiling, and in the corner stood a low cabinet. On top of the cabinet was an antique, worn washbasin alongside a lavender-scented soap on a dish and a curvaceous water pitcher. It was easy to guess that inside the cabinet was a porcelain chamber pot, decorated with an image of a blue, rearing horse. There was a slop bucket on the attic side, with a large sign on the wall behind it: "For wash water only" in three different languages.

Evidently, each item had been brought in one by one to meet practical needs, not today, not yesterday, but over the course of many decades, with each resident contributing according to their means. Gathered from flea markets by servants, starving artists, and nude models, the items were often broken and fragile. On a side wall hung a faded painting of a reclining woman on a divan, unsigned—perhaps the artist had paid their rent with this piece. Below the painting sat an armchair, worn and repeatedly mended at the seams, alongside a floor lamp missing its shade, bent over a book.

This seemingly haphazard collection of furnishings was magnificently rustic. Not even the best interior designer could replicate it, try as they might. The slanted ceiling featured a small window that creaked open. Below it, a colorful pigeon peered inside from the eaves. The attic smelled of old wood, leather, and the musty scent of aged clothing. In the dim light of the morning sun streaming through the decades-dirty skylight, the dancing dust particles instinctively made me hold my breath.

I emptied my suitcase into the large wardrobe beside the door and then threw myself onto the creaky antique iron bed, sinking through the sea of pillows onto the rock-hard straw mattress beneath. A poorly slept night on the train demanded repayment, and I fell asleep instantly. On the way to the hotel, I had bought a crusty baguette, Camembert cheese, air-dried ham, and a half bottle of Beaujolais Village. It had been my everyday meal decades ago, and it was just as good now. Back then, it was winter, and I used the gutter under the window as a cool food storage at night. The memories came back vividly, and familiar flavors flooded my mouth even before I bit into the baguette.

I spent the first day in the armchair, a blanket over my knees, reading the book I had brought with me and writing a few lines in the digital diary I had started on the train. I had intended to keep a diary back then too, in a wax-covered notebook I had set aside for that purpose, but I never wrote a single line because I had forgotten to buy a pen. As the enthusiasm faded, the intention was overshadowed by other concerns. I regretted my inaction later, wishing I could remember my feelings as they were in the fervor of youth. Those sensations were unlikely to return, even though the stark attic room had the same atmosphere, with almost all the same smells and objects intact.

The room was like a museum, untouched for years, perhaps deliberately left unchanged during the hotel's renovations. The hotelkeeper had been surprised when I specifically requested to stay in this room, but she agreed. She vacuumed, dusted, and removed cobwebs from the ceiling corners after I promised to pay extra for the cleaning. The room was like an old photograph, inviting scrutiny of every detail to evoke long-forgotten memories. I chuckled at the melodramatic thought but liked the sentence and wrote it down because nothing else came to mind. Then I closed my laptop.

As evening turned into night, I stood with the lights off, gazing out of the open window at the pale moon rising above the rounded chimneys of Parisian rooftops. Drinking wine straight from the bottle, I became intoxicated with the vivid flashbacks associated with the room, as if a moment once interrupted was resuming seamlessly, the intervening decades slipping away.

The nights were autumn-chilled, and there was no heating in the room, only several layers of suspiciously stained blankets draped over the armchair's back. At night, going to the chamber pot felt like stepping into the chills of a fever. It had been this way back then too; how could I have forgotten?

In the morning, as I emptied my porcelain chamber pot with its rearing horse design into the chain-pulled, loudly flushing, and finally gurgling toilet downstairs, I complained to the landlady about the cold. She promised to provide a space heater for an additional fee.

I knew that electricity was expensive and would double the room's rent, but at my age, the minimum requirement is not having to shiver through the nights. The increased price for the heater was high enough that I could have rented a suite at a three-star hotel with their autumn promotion. I got angry at the old woman's greed and threatened to leave immediately. To my surprise, I managed to negotiate the price increase down by first half, and then to a quarter when I promised not to use the heater during the day. After the tough bargaining, I noticed a hint of respect in the hotelkeeper's otherwise malicious expression. She fetched the heater from the back room and warned me not to set the curtains on fire. When I went to pay, I gave her an extra ten euros as a tip and requested a key to the front door for nighttime use because the hotel's front door was locked at midnight. I lied, saying I was a writer who often had to stay out late with acquaintances. The woman hesitated, but when I added another twenty euros for her trouble, without asking for a receipt, she found the key quickly.

Everyone has a place where they can be alone and be themselves. For me, it doesn't have to be anywhere special; it could be a park bench, a street café, or any place where my thoughts can weave meaning and content from what I see without disturbance. Aimless, fleeting reflections that live only for the moment and are forgotten afterward.

The morning lingered in the fog as I walked down Boulevard de la Madeleine towards the old Opera House and went to the same café I had visited on previous mornings. I ordered an English breakfast with a café americano, which was essentially a double espresso, a fried egg on toast, and a pat of hard butter. The aloof waiter didn't offer a smile, though I was sure he remembered me. I had been generous with tips, sat at the same table for several days, and always ordered the same thing. The choice of table was influenced by the view of the bustling street.

Next to the café on the sidewalk was a bargain-style sales stall, selling home essentials for every need. Feather dusters, bags of all sizes, toys, electrical junk, socks, underwear, or even an old-fashioned table clock. It was like a little flea market.

I notice an old, hunched woman meticulously examining the items on display. Her attire is like a biography, with black as the prominent, beautiful color. She's dressed in a lace-trimmed jacket, a black wide-brimmed hat, a large red leather handbag, patterned shoes, a scarf with long rainbow-colored fringes draped over her arm, and a ruffled collar—the overall tone is dark. I've never seen anything so elegantly dignified in an elderly person. Her clothes date back to the 1950s, perhaps even earlier, and are uniquely tailored. They're likely masterpieces from a top designer of that era, made of the best materials that still retain their form.

The elderly woman seems to have paused time at some moment, living only for that instant, indifferent to the world's changes. Her ensemble resembles mourning attire, adorned over time with colorful streaks of life, yet without losing its sanctified memory. Her body language is not submissive but elegantly aristocratic and intellectually self-assured. What she has allowed in her attire, she has likewise permitted in her memories—the large golden earrings broadcast this to everyone.

As I watch her, I forget about the breakfast the waiter brought. The delicious soft-boiled egg has cooled to a sticky mess, and the cold coffee tastes awful. The waiter, observing my distracted stare from his post by the door, understands the reason. When he approaches, he says quietly,

"She comes every weekday and buys something small—we call her Émilie. She always wears that same old outfit, heavy with black and crowned by that floppy hat."

I reply,

"Probably a former aristocrat who lost her wealth and husband long ago, with a large apartment and a small pension, her children scattered who knows where. Perhaps she once had a prominent career in fashion or the arts, maybe even just as a seamstress. First, a life full of pre-war high society glamour, then the occupation, followed by the scarcity of post-war times."

The waiter, engaging eagerly in my imaginative game, adds,

"The items Émilie buys are the cheapest trinkets intended for the Algerians and other black immigrants living at the top of this street. She's a woman to whom one could attribute many different lives and historical contexts, likely her real story surpasses them all."

The waiter smiles, a hint of melancholy in his expression as if entranced by his own thoughts. He clears away my neglected breakfast and offers to bring a fresh serving if I promise to eat it immediately. Our kindred spirits, poetic with associations, have truly connected.

I ponder how everyday reality isn't as romantic as our imaginations; wars are cruel, and big cities are merciless. I'm certain that if I went up to "Émilie," I would catch the scent of urine from her cotton undergarments.

Wandering aimlessly, my mind reflective, I roam through street corners arbitrarily. I sniff the aromas of cheese shops, the fragrances of passing women, and the musty scent of yellowed paper from the book stalls along the Seine. In the bright light of the Jewish quarter, two female students play cellos, having hauled their heavy instruments from place to place, searching for a fitting audience for Dvořák's cello concerto.

One of the women had the serene beauty of a saint from an altar painting, with downcast, misty eyes. In my imagination, she makes love with her eyes closed, a Dvořák cello concerto playing in her mind, seeking musical patterns to express her sexual ecstasy in a language she understands. I, too, always make love with my eyes closed, to feel the echo of primal desires within my cells. In the climax, there's a taste of metallic hormone surges, with the bluish hue of mercury. 

The cellist glanced in my direction, as if hearing my thoughts. Her bow pressed harder against the strings, and the cello responded with a deepening voice. I was still immersed in a borderline state between reality and dream that had begun that morning, a state from which one can only escape by walking until utter exhaustion. As I walked away, the woman's slender fingers danced up and down the neck of the instrument, pausing to stretch a note, the vibrato rippling the air like gravity in space. 

I decided to continue my journey to the Musée d'Orsay on the other bank of the Seine, as it was far enough to meet my need for walking therapy. Besides, there I could fill my thoughts with something external, where it was acceptable to sink into the depths of my imagination. I passed Notre-Dame and, nearing the Latin Quarter, chose to walk along the monotonous riverside path. Upon reaching the museum, I was in a state of exhausted thoughtlessness. First, I needed a place to rest before exploring the museum. The stair landings between floors featured heated stone benches, and I desperately needed a spot to nap for a moment. It was a surprisingly tranquil place amidst all the hustle.

Nearby, a girl leaned against a broad marble banister, reading a book. A large, ornately decorated golden station clock hung on the museum's end wall. It had stopped after the last train departed, and time was unhurried. The harmonious atmosphere of colors felt like one of the museum's paintings. The girl's spiraled auburn hair cascaded to her waist, and her long, black coat, almost touching the floor, was lifted slightly, revealing a foot resting on its toes, wearing thick-soled shoes. The scene was like a reflective thought, unaware of its surroundings. The filtered daylight through the museum's frosted glass wall added layers to the enchanting ambiance.

Now fully awake, I feverishly adjusted the settings on my camera and knelt down quietly on the stone bench, as if praying she wouldn't move. Everything had to be captured exactly as I saw it. I framed the shot to match my mental image, stabilized the camera as much as possible, and pressed the shutter optimistically. It was a magical moment, free of any doubt. The girl was oblivious to my presence, and I left the scene like a thief.

As I move through the galleries, room by room, I find myself stopping in front of Gustave Courbet's "The Origin of the World." The painting depicts a reclining nude woman with a striking degree of realism. Almost every visitor, once they notice it, quickly turns their head away and moves on, as if it were just an empty frame. Yet, I am convinced that its image lingers in their minds for a long time.

My thoughts begin to flow rapidly again. Sexuality is a heavy burden for all living beings, a weight one can only escape through lobotomy or old age. There is no such thing as sexual freedom, nor is there any associated sin. It's not psychological but biological. An instinctual drive that both compels and demands, it embodies both bliss and madness, love and hate, desire and denial, lies and the deepest truths.

An American middle-aged woman stands very close to me, evaluating me with her pale blue eyes as though I am a sexual object. She, at least, is not afraid. Perhaps she is at an age where desires are constant, and every real or imagined rejection gnaws at her self-esteem. Life is an insatiable quest for truth from one's surroundings, akin to the morning mirror that mercilessly reveals every sign of aging.

I feel a pang of sympathy for the hell of her aging process, yet I am simultaneously repulsed by humanity's endless vanity, disconnected from reality. I wish everyone would first gaze into the cosmos with its billions of stars and then look around themselves. Reflect on the true scale of their problems and learn to be content. That is happiness.

On the fifth floor, in Gallery 31, stands Edgar Degas' "Little Dancer of Fourteen Years." It is a blend of innocent young beauty with the syphilitic sins of artists from a bygone era. I'm not sure why I perceive it this way. The sensuality of the piece captivates me endlessly, as though it contains a profound story that I am compelled to uncover.

Next, I pause in front of Van Gogh's version of Millet's "The Reapers," depicting a relaxed moment at harvest time. It always lifts my spirits because it reminds me of a particularly special moment in my life, evoked in the most original way.

I lie in the sun on the slope of the root cellar at my childhood home, my mind melting into the sunlight. I see cells swimming behind my closed eyelids in a sea of teardrops tinged red by blood vessels.

There's no particular event tied to this memory, yet it holds some inexplicable importance. Such visionary moments are rare in life. Moments, perhaps, that we recall in our dying breaths as answers to what was truly significant in life. These flash-like, precise memories are likely etched into the mind—as though tattooed on the soul—marking significant life changes or inner growth.

Art truly bites into your thoughts sometimes.

I move to the café, but there are no free tables, so I settle for taking a few photos through the large clock face that serves as a window, its hands showing 9:21. Through the number frame, I can see the distant Sacré-Cœur Basilica perched on its hill. In the café, the backlight renders the patrons as black silhouettes, their heads bent together as they converse, perhaps discussing the influence of impressionism on modern art or sharing their personal worries. I am starving.

I head outside and take a taxi to the Gare du Nord station and let my hunger make decisions for me. Stopping to glance at the menu outside Brasserie Terminus Nord, a waiter fishing for customers on the street practically shoves me inside. I can't refuse, as if declining would be a personal insult to the waiter. My will in such situations is like a shapeless fog that I can't grasp.

The white tablecloths and harsh lighting in the restaurant add to my irritation. A lone woman sits by the window, keeping an eye on the entrance. She is entirely colorless and gray, glancing nervously in different directions like a wary sparrow. Her pale, wandering eyes shift in color as the light hits them from various angles. They are like a kaleidoscope embedded in her gaze, with changing expressions forming new patterns.

The waiter directs me to a table next to hers, even though the half-empty restaurant has plenty of other seats. The arrangement makes the dining area seem more appealing to hungry passersby since an empty room can make one doubt the quality of the food. I don't complain; the bustling street visible from the window makes me feel more comfortable, giving me something to look at while I wait for my meal. I order the daily special, which includes a small bottle of wine, coffee, and a slice of cheesecake. I fervently hope the main dish doesn't consist of frog legs or snails.

The dish brought to me is a tender beef stew in a thick red wine sauce, spiced with chili and garlic, accompanied by a basket of sliced baguette, and for dessert, a slice of cheesecake made from a San Sebastián recipe, along with an espresso served in a doll-sized cup. The waiter informs me that the cheesecake is a house specialty because the owner is Basque. I don't engage in conversation and simply ask for the bill.

Fortunately, the restaurant is not far from my hotel. The attic room feels like a magical nest in which to incubate my thoughts. Its essential feature is a profound sense of solitude, which it protects almost like a womb. It's a comforting silence filled only with the smell of old wood and the sound of my heartbeat.

It's nice to recall the old woman in a floppy hat, the girl playing the cello, the woman reading a book in the museum. I jot down these memories on my laptop, as these peaceful mental states harbor no anxiety but rather a peculiar, archetypical, universal happiness. The portable heater emits a burnt dust smell, so I turn it off just in case. I wrap myself in layers of blankets and fall asleep in the armchair, waking up in the morning, shivering from the cold.

A new day has dawned, and everything outside is wet. All night long, the rain has washed the streets of Paris, wiping away the pungent trails of urine, dog feces, and rotting food waste, soaking the budding green leaves of the park's trees and the proudly emerging daffodils. Paris is in its springtime bloom, like a teenage girl. Restlessness is evident everywhere, and the pent-up desires in people are once again disrupting life, making the light brighter and the shadows deeper. From early morning, the sound of hammering and stone drilling can be heard in every direction—it seems there isn't a hotel in front of which paint-splattered workers aren't milling around with their tools. It's springtime.

I walk towards the Les Halles, and already in the morning Rue Saint-Denis is flanked by prostitutes loitering at the doorsteps of dingy hotels, some old and greasy, the youngest invariably from Africa or Asia. What they all have in common is their tastelessly revealing attire and garish, smeared makeup. Their overt sexuality ripples like a call, akin to how asphalt molecules vibrate in the heat.

At the lower end of the street, I notice in passing a gracefully aging French woman with gentle eyes and a small dog under her arm. I sense that I could find the contrasts and depths of my sexuality in her touch. I'm certain she has many regular clients, all of them in love for the same reason. I slow down as I approach, wondering if I might muster the courage. She smiles with her eyes as if reading my thoughts and whispers in a voice roughened by smoking, "a hundred euros." The illusion vanishes—love is not a commodity, and the gap in her teeth, likely inflicted by an angry fist, is anything but sexy. She understands my change of heart, sighs, gently brushes my hand, and then turns away. Tomorrow, I would walk a different route.

Carrying the dose of stark realism within me, I pass Shakespeare and Company bookstore on the edge of the Latin Quarter in the dimming afternoon light. I've always wanted to visit, but it's always too crowded, and I don't feel like going inside just to feed the life-stained wannabe writer within me.

Instead, I walk into a cozy-looking café on the corner to lift my spirits. I order a coffee and a cognac, leaving it to the friendly waiter to choose the brand. When the bill arrives, I find out what four centiliters of the most expensive XO cognac in Paris costs. "Fack you," I think, and leave a five-cent tip on the dish. The waiter is unfazed and laughs heartily. I've been swindled.

I quell my anger by browsing the boxes of ancient magazines along the Seine, breathing in the scent of old paper and the previous century. Perhaps they swindled country folk back then too. Why aren't there any trams here? I'd ride around and let my worries unwind. Buses don't have the same ambiance, but I suppose they'll get me to the corner near the old opera house.

In front of the opera, a Romani woman lies on a dirty blanket with a starving baby crying in front of her, another on the way in her swollen belly. She begs with hands clasped in prayer, a clichéd image of the Virgin Mary beside her. On a nearby bench, her husband watches with a guard dog between his legs, ensuring she doesn't secretly stash away any alms. I'm torn about whether to give a coin or not. I decide to give one; otherwise, I'd spend the rest of the day pondering my hard-hearted stinginess. The need is genuine.

I walked into the grand hall of the old opera house to admire the breathtaking Chagall ceiling painting illuminated by chandeliers. Gazing at it always brings a sense of joy that remains vibrant through all my recollections. Afterwards, with a smile on my face, I made my way back to the Latin Quarter. As I returned, dusk enveloped the Latin alleyways, and the multicolored neon lights began to glow, casting their allure on the crowded streets.

The oldest jazz club in Europe was a smoky, dingy cellar vault packed with a mass of tightly packed bodies, mingling and touching intimately. The saxophone growled and rasped thickly, the drums pounded out an erratic rhythm, the double bass thumped along, and a hefty man of color croaked out Louis Armstrong imitations with a throat full of phlegm. I love jazz, but the thick smoke filled with the sweet scent of marijuana was stifling, and I soon found myself gasping for breath as I climbed back to the street.

In the Latin Quarter of Paris, everything remained the same as the previous day and as it had always been. It's like one of the city's protected trademarks, complete with pickpockets, swindlers, and the loud, arguing touts of Greek restaurants. It offers everything a traveler needs for an adventure, creating stories to take back home.

I decided to spend my day wandering the narrow streets, buying a bottle of red wine, a baguette, and some cheese from a food stall. I found a seat near the base of a nearby statue to observe the bustle of the area on my own terms. The day cooled into a chilly night, and I shivered, eating only the cheese while sipping the wine to warm myself from the inside out. I fed the remaining bread to the pigeons. Afterward, I walked along a long pedestrian street, carefully avoiding the drunks as I headed back to the hotel to gather my strength. I steered clear of the more notorious areas at the end of the street, knowing they were more dangerous for a lonely, intoxicated man than a war zone.

The following chilly morning, I climbed the steep steps of Sacré-Cœur and found a café on the edge of Place du Tertre, with cozy chairs behind small tables on a raised platform and a heater glowing above. I ordered a mini pizza, available in only one variety, and a small bottle of red wine.

In front of me, an old man with a gray beard painted a canvas with a trembling hand using thick oil paints, guided by a photograph clipped to his easel. The emerging painting bore little resemblance to the person in the photo, but I thought the old man did quite well. Despite the absence of curious onlookers, unlike the kitsch painters filling the square, the old man carried on, seemingly painting for his own amusement and to add some fulfillment to his retirement. He caught my gaze and likely guessed my thoughts, which elicited a pang on both sides.

After finishing my pizza, I weaved through the easels, amidst an array of thickly painted scenes of Parisian landmarks, a deliberate misunderstanding of art. One cheerful artist even promoted his work as "the purest kitsch in the world" when I asked for the price. The collective banality of Montmartre felt cynically tuned to the romantic image created by an old Hollywood film. Visitors bought cliché paintings of Sacré-Cœur or the Eiffel Tower, as if to stamp their passport to prove they had been in Paris.

Of course, there are a few good artists among them. I once bought a naivist painting by a Czech philosopher as a wedding gift for my nephew. However, the young couple didn't appreciate it for their new home and ended up donating it to a charity. They might regret their decision if they checked the current value of that artist's paintings, or maybe they'd be more grateful for my generosity.

I like Montmartre and its chaos in the same way I enjoy reality TV filled with intentional foolishness. I couldn't imagine a trip to Paris without visiting Montmartre, even though the most interesting art galleries and exhibitions are elsewhere. I wander around the square, displaying my affected disdain, and then return to my comfortable spot, which the waiter has kept reserved for me with a generous tip. I order another half bottle of red wine.

To my surprise, the old man I had been watching has found a customer—a woman who seems to be the one in the photograph. The elderly artist is just finishing the painting, which, even completed, honors its subject more through its style than its likeness. It is a depiction of an aged woman with personality, and in my opinion, it is very good. The woman standing next to the artist has her back to me, so I can't compare her to the painting.

The old man says something, and the woman turns to look in my direction. Strangely, I immediately recognize her as the model from the painting rather than from the photograph. The painting captures her entire persona, including her posture and expression. The woman feels familiar in another way as well. She gazes at the canvas for a long time, her head tilted, and I fear she will reject the painting. I am ready to buy it myself if she does. However, she searches her purse for a wad of dollars and hands it to the old man without counting, placing it in his trembling, paint-stained hand.

I am now certain she is an American film star whose name escapes me, though I have seen her in several lead roles. Others seem to recognize her too, and soon a crowd forms around her, seeking the perfect angle for a selfie. Easier than autographs, I think. Behind the commotion, the old man carefully packs the damp painting into a box to avoid smudging it. A bodyguard, who has emerged from nowhere, cautiously takes the painting and then rescues the actress from the aggressive mob into the restaurant where I am sitting. She smiles at me as she passes by, likely in response to something the old man said about me. The restaurant doors are locked behind her, and the crowd disperses as soon as their subject is gone. The show is over.

The lucky artist hides his newly acquired dollars in his coat and glances at me with a smug expression on his wrinkled face. I nod in acknowledgment, like giving him a thumbs-up. He then packs up his gear and leaves with his head held high, ignoring the envious muttering of his colleagues. This incident will be talked about for a long time, and I am sure he won't be seen on this square again for a while.

I suspect the whole thing is a concoction by a tabloid or a reality TV production, where a known elderly artist is placed in a clichéd setting to paint a famous film star from a photograph. Then, as if by chance, the film star appears as any tourist would, sees the painting of herself, and, in awe of the surprise, buys it with all the money she has on her. The subsequent excitement of the admiring crowd might also be staged. I find confirmation for my overly romantic script when I notice a film crew packing up their equipment behind the tangle of paintings.

My wine bottle was empty, so I paid the bill and left. For a moment, I lingered at the Sacré-Cœur viewpoint, selecting a destination for my stroll as if I were using a map. Paris stretched out in all directions as far as the eye could see, making it difficult to identify more than a few recognizable landmarks. However, it didn't matter much as I already had a route in mind and was planning to replace my camera, which had been stolen while I waited in line at the Louvre. The loss no longer bothered me. It was a lousy camera anyway, and I trusted my travel insurance to cover the replacement cost.

To claim the travel insurance, I needed a police report for the theft, so I headed to the police station near Les Halles. In the waiting room, I met two Finnish girls who had been mugged earlier that morning near Les Halles. The muggers had pressed a knife to one of the girls' throats and emptied their backpacks of all valuables, cutting off their money pouches that hung around their necks. All their cash, phones, watches, jewelry, and credit cards were gone, though fortunately, their passports were safely stored in the hotel's safe and the hotel was prepaid. They were also able to call home from the police station, and their families would be sending money urgently to the bank. They both had travel insurance and, as one of the girls said, they were grateful to be alive. They looked at each other for a long moment and then burst into hysterical laughter.

To console them, I mentioned my stolen camera and how I ended up at the police station instead of visiting the art museum. I received a stamped theft report without the officers even asking many questions; they just added the camera's details and price to a pre-stamped form. I signed the paper, and the matter was considered closed. "Next," they called.

I gave the girls the few bills I had in my wallet to help them get through the day. They hesitated but accepted when I recounted how, on my first trip to Paris, I had to write home asking for help to avoid starving and freezing to death, ending on a gothic note about black crows squawking atop tombstones. The girls smiled and hugged me.

Their situation was much more serious and traumatic, likely to haunt them with nightmares for a long time. The police took detailed descriptions of the muggers, witness statements, and showed them photos of suspects. However, they could not identify anyone; all the criminals in the pictures looked too similar, and the girls didn't have the patience to look through the photos for hours. They just wanted to leave and try to forget the ordeal.

The police mentioned it was nearly impossible to track the thieves unless they were caught in the act or found immediately nearby. They might turn up in other cases or get caught with stolen items, but the truth was the police considered the case too minor and common to warrant further investigation. They apologized for the cut on the girl's hand, which was not serious, and assured it was just an unfortunate accident. They said they would notify the girls if anything new came up.

The doors opened and closed as the line at the counter grew, people from all over the world represented, bringing an array of scents and multilingual chatter. Complaints had their own angry international tone, whether it was pleading tears or cursing rage. The girls nudged me towards the door, telling me to go ahead; they would manage. They still had some paperwork left to sign.

Dusk is falling once again, and I plan to test my new camera amidst the colorful neon lights of sinful Pigalle. The place remains the same—a tourist trap with a tawdry allure that paradoxically offers a sense of official safety. Genuine danger and sin reside elsewhere. A heavyset woman in a bar window beckons passersby to come inside, shaking her ample bosom like a scene from a bad porn film.

Her performance doesn't convince me to go in; the burlesque vulgarity of the tourist hotspot only brings a sense of disgust to the surface. A few men have stopped to watch, their faces contorted with a strange excitement, reflecting primal instincts that have been part of humanity since the beginning, like fossils embedded in limestone layers. I snap a photo of the glowing red Moulin Rouge from across the street and decide to end my evening amusement there.

The rest of my week in Paris passes as I wander from one district to another. Everywhere I go, bustling crowds move hurriedly in their own directions. For someone wandering aimlessly, each intersection feels like choosing a direction for life—between virtue and vice, pleasure and utility. Unexpected events unfold continuously, guided by an internal compass that points me in random directions. Yet, my heart always feels the tug of home, the north marked by longing.

The city is filled with colors, flavors, scents, and a constant clash of events wherever one goes. In Paris, the extraordinary becomes ordinary. Each district has its unique character with residents, homes, shops, restaurants, and meeting places to match. Some squares are famous for their churches, others for their museums, and some neighborhoods for their entertainment or vices—often for all of these things. Everywhere, there are traces left by history, landmarks bearing witness to past events. Some districts have remained almost unchanged for centuries, with only their residents and the wanderers of the narrow streets having changed faces.

Near a picturesque bridge, a photographer directs a model into various poses, and I play at being a fashion photographer, covertly snapping photos as if part of a magazine team. In front of a nearby church, a long line of homeless people in rags waits for a meal. In the park, a noisy protest is underway, filled with slogans. Overhead, an air squadron roars by, trailing the colors of France in bright streaks. Suddenly, as if startled, the formation breaks apart, with planes veering off wildly in different directions, leaving behind a colorful, cloud-like trail of intermingled smoke.

An Arabian princess takes a selfie in front of a fountain, and I can't resist capturing the vibrant scene with my camera—without any ulterior motive. Those might come later. The crested soldier stands expressionless at attention, guarding his president.

For me, Paris is an endless blend of colors and contrasts. The grit of the park's coarse pathways crunches pleasantly underfoot, and on a sunny spring day, it feels good to sit on a park bench and simply watch the world go by.

My last night in the attic is over, and the nostalgia trip has come to an end. "Until next time," I said to the woman sitting in the lobby as I left. She nodded and smiled for the first time, and we both knew that we would never see each other again. As I made my way towards the train station, the wheels of my suitcase bounced noisily over the seams in the cobblestones, creating a rhythm like a metronome slicing time into pieces.