There are certain nights that will always live with you, when everything comes together in a magical kaleidoscope of events that are unplanned and therefore much more special in their happening. For me, Paris Nuit Blanche 2012 was one such night. Nuit Blanche literally translate to the white night – an annual celebration of art and culture on the first Saturday of October when galleries, museums, town halls, even building terraces are open to the public all night. I’d penciled in the date in my calendar a month ahead, but it did not have an auspicious beginning. The weather forecast showed that it would be raining all night, and a friend who had promised to accompany me canceled at the last minute. (He claims sickness, I say hangover.) I left the warmth of my house reluctantly only to have to return 10 minutes later because I’d forgotten my metro pass. As I said, not an auspicious start.
The first thing that lifted my spirits was the fountain near my apartment where the street meets the bustling avenue de l’Opéra. Called Fontaine du Théâtre Français, I have hurried by it everyday on my way to school or work barely giving it a glance. But that night, you had to notice it as it shimmered and danced under the lights, playfully announcing that even it knew that this was going to be a special night.
I crossed over to the Comédie-Française and into the courtyard that tourists so often miss in their rush to get to the Louvre. Sure enough, the courtyard was almost empty, the contemporary columns standing silently in wait for the next theater rush.
I walked out to a scene that seemed straight out of Midnight in Paris – the rain drizzling down softening the warm lights spilling out of the cafes, reflected in the soaked sidewalks, as couples walked by lost in the universe under their shared umbrellas. I have had images of a romantic Paris fed to me all my life through movies, books, pictures but here was the cliché coming to life in front of my eyes. This was a lovers’ Paris meant for sweet nothings and first kisses and practiced seductions.
I have a confession to make – as Google Maps informs me, I stay at exactly 6 minutes walking distance from the Louvre and yet, I have not been inside in the last 10 months. But I also know that the best time to visit the courtyard is late at night when the tourists have gone home and the pyramids are lit up and if you look up at the stately palace, you can picture a time when it was a royal residence and kings and queens strolled down its halls.
Today the courtyard was ablaze with lights and art installations by Hervé Di Rosa. There were multiple caravans, one filled with futuristic toys, another (rather pretentiously) called “archaeology of childhood” and they were interesting enough.
But the image that stays with me was through the big windows of the closed museum – a solitary worker in blue surrounded by mighty sculptures and the grandeur of the hall itself cleaning up for the night.
My next stop was the Centre Georges Pompidou, boasting a futuristic architecture that could not have been more different from the dignified elegance of the Louvre. While the Louvre stands by watching solemnly as the millions scurry by, the Pompidou screams “Look at me”.
The complex was a flurry of activity with people dancing, swaying, head-banging as the DJs churned out pulsing rhythms. The vibrations traveled up my feet and set them tapping on their own accord. The people living in the apartment building right across had the best deal as they threw open their windows and joined the huge party happening below.
They say the best things come when you least expect them. As I reluctantly left the happy crowd of people to go looking for some food, I passed the Musée des Archives in the Marais. I hadn’t known anything was happening there, but I joined the crowd going in. I smiled and wished “Bonsoir!” to the stern-looking guard checking my bag and then looked up to a sight that had my jaw dropping.
The entire museum was beautifully lit up, which by now I had got used to, but someone had the genius idea of releasing thousands of soap bubbles in the front courtyard, the kind that kids play with. The translucent balls floated up, catching and diffusing the lights, essentially turning the entire space into a kind of fairyland that you had to see to believe. The kid in me, the one that still likes ferris wheels and cotton candy and lego, was enchanted and everyone around seemed to share my delight as laughter, pure and simple, rung out into the night. This was joie de vivre at its very best.
My favorite crepes place in the Marais was too crowded as I’d expected, so I joined the people walking the streets with a takeout crepe, hot and melting with butter, in my hands. The streets that would usually have been deserted at this late hour were alive, even shop windows looked like they were just waiting for you to walk in and inspect their proudly displayed wares. The crepes should have satisfied me, but who can resist the smell of fresh and hot falafel on a rainy night.
I walked towards the river happily munching on my falafel, passing one of my favorite corners in Paris, now ghostly in the night. Walking along the river is the thing I love doing most in Paris and I had saved the best for the last.
The lights glinted and beckoned, boats passed by, music and revelry were in the air. Lovers kissed, people danced and children skipped along the river’s edge. I reckon I added to their amusement as I tried to balance an umbrella while bending in all directions trying to take a good picture in the rain without a tripod. I was quite proud of myself for pulling it off.
I paid homage to the Notre Dame from my favorite viewpoint – standing on the tiny bridge behind it. From here walking on the left bank, you can truly appreciate the grace of its flying buttresses and the elegance of its rose window.
I then made my way to the last stop for the night. The obelisk at Concorde stood proud and tall as traffic whirled by. The Eiffel had unfortunately gone to bed signaling it was time for me to listen to my tired feet and head home.
You’d never know it was 3 am because it seemed like rush-hour in the metro. The only difference was that people (in Paris!) were smiling at each other. Copious amounts of alcohol would seem like the cynics’ reason for this sudden warmth, but as I looked at the people around me – old, young, Parisians, tourists, in designer clothes and hand-me-downs, I’d like to believe that like me they too had experienced something special – a magical night they would never forget.