Parisians talk to themselves. Or so it seems. In the city of Paris, Palm Pilots are fewer and the “mental note” is taken orally. Listen. On the way to the bakery for a viennoise chocolat or a Coca-cola light in the park, over-hear them. At first it is a little funny, these foreign French voices harmonizing together hardly in sync. But there is nothing amateur in their pitch, but a sense of profound presence and wisdom, as the people of Paris speak to the ghosts and permanent residents of their city. Parisians are aware. They are constantly eavesdropping, observing, and never minding their own business. The buildings are older than the people and the city itself has an incredible past life that projects an overwhelming presence onto its visitors, who are not accustomed to being watched over by ghosts in their everyday life.
The 2001 film Amélie, directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, tells the story of a young girl learning about people and human intentions. She introduces the angry grocer, the lovesick cigarette vendor, and the crazy old man living next door who turns to be perfectly sane and the wisest. Set in the Montmartre, it introduces many attractions for visitors, such as St. Martin’s Canal and the Café des Deux Moulins. Though this film is a smart pick for tourists planning their trip to Paris who want to get to know their destination, the film surpasses the remedy for a curious inquiry and takes its audience on a real journey where they are left with a handful of French friends.
Amélie presents a lonely girl who is just beginning to experience people and allows the audience to follow her adventures as she gets to know them. These characters are what make the movie go round. Amélie teaches the audience about true curiosity and the art of really noticing. There is a whole story in the way she explores the surface of a stone before skipping it across the water at St. Martin’s Canal and another in the knowing smiles she offers to those who cross her path. This kind of commitment to even the simplest experiences of everyday life is what Amélie teaches. I urge you as a tourist to embrace this kind of curiosity and really take in the stories of the conciérge and waitress and get to know Paris from the inside. Get to know its spirits and ghosts. Through these relationships you will experience French culture in its most potent form.
Follow in Amélie’s footsteps–explore Montmartre and take a visit to the Café des Deux Moulins (15, rue Lepic) where the fictional Amélie works as a waitress. Sip a café au lait and people watch. See what Amélie sees–though the actual owner of the café, in order to make room for more tables, has eliminated the cigarette stand where hypochondriac Georgette sneezes throughout the film. Travel home via rue Trois Frères and stop at Marché de la Butte, where you must purchase exactly three hazelnuts and one fig.
Later in the afternoon, skip a stone off the placid waters in St. Martin’s Canal (located in the 10th arrondissement). Venture into a sex shop on the Boulevard de Clichy. Why not? This is Amélie’s adventure, and there are no judgments included; take this opportunity to explore all aspects of yourself and indulge your curiosity. This is a tour where you not only get to visit all of Amélie’s destinations but also have the opportunity to appreciate the characters in her story. Make conversation. Decide for yourself if the grocer is a bully, allow Amélie’s story to blend with you own, and travel a unique adventure.
Amélie speaks about something greater than the individual, and something even greater than individuals colliding and making life. The film speaks of the power an individual–an aware individual–has if this person merely focuses her attention on the life that surrounds her. One person can make a difference. Amélie does, with her “good deeds” and matchmaking; her new hobby changes other people’s lives. A person can get to know another in a matter of moments, if one pays attention. And a young girl can understand Paris by asking it questions and keeping her ears wide open for the answers that are found in the knowing spirits that still inhabit Nôtre-Dame and Pont Neuf.
Author Julian Green wrote, “…Shout, shout for no reason, for the pleasure of being alive, glance quickly into the antique shop, where the grey cat sleeps amid the yataghans, parasols, and fans, run on past the shop where the embroideress is ruining her eyesight stitching initials into snow-white sheets, run past the bearded chiropodist as he surveys the long pavement from his window, run as far as the bronze lion guarding the entrance to the Villa Fodor.”
In Paris be present. Keep your eyes wide open, and follow the characters you encounter. Get to know them and learn. Take in the history around you and feel this something that is greater than yourself and experience the true spirit of this city filled with ghosts. And maybe, just maybe, you’ll start talking to them too.