My desire to watch the sun rise in Paris stems from a particular and unexpected moment 10 years ago, in Cambodia. I was traveling then with another Peace Corps volunteer, Sean, and he insisted that we watch the sun rise over Angkor Wat. We woke early, dressed in the dark and took off via moped to the temples. Sean, a budding photographer, was busy setting up his camera equipment and tripod, and I was sitting at the edge of the moat that surrounds the temple. I was tired. It was muggy but not yet hot, and it wasn't unpleasant. There were a lot of tourists there, given how early it was, and there was a kind of electricity in the air with everyone checking lenses, positioning tripods and then, finally, waiting for the sun.
I looked over my shoulder and saw a little Cambodian girl walking toward me, down the dirt road, barefoot, her hair ratty and falling at her shoulders. She approached me and said, in broken English, "You come with me. Mother have restaurant with coffee for you."
I shook my head, smiled and said, "No, no. I have to stay and watch the sun rise."
She looked at the temple and then back at me and smiled again. Then, she turned back down the dirt road and disappeared into the jungle. I turned back to the moat, a little disappointed because one of the truly great aspects of traveling in Cambodia is the wonderful coffee and freshly baked baguette that litter the roadsides.
The sky began shifting color, and the darkness that had carried me to the moat slowly began to creep away, until there was enough light for all of the cameras to begin clicking. I hung my feet over the edge of the moat, tilted my head back and waited for day.
Then, I heard the clinking of metal against glass and opened my eyes. The girl was back, this time carrying a tray that was bigger than she was, tottering along as best she could in those bare feet toward me. She wore the widest smile I've ever seen, and she stopped in front of me bearing a pot of French press coffee, a slim, hot baguette and a small bowl of jam.
I sat at the edge of the moat, watching the sun rise, eating warm bread and jam and swilling the best coffee in the world. The color of the sky changed from black to pale gray, to pink, to orange and finally to the bright blue of a hot jungle sun.
I always remember that morning, and when I think of Paris, I think I want to have a moment like that in Paris, since Paris is always my favorite city. I visited Paris the first and (until now) the only time in 1997, for the New Year weekend, with my sister and her British boyfriend. It was a wonderful weekend, and I remember loving all things Paris: the food, the coffee, the Seine, the Louvre, the pastries. One night, while my sister and James sat in their hotel room eating bread and cheese and watching CNN, I headed out into the streets in search of a phone card. I never found a phone card, but I did run into a young Parisian guy named Ludo who ended up giving me a personal tour of the city from about 10PM until 3AM the next morning. I remember watching the bakers on their way to work as we strolled, hand-in-hand, past this-and-that historic plaza, tomb or garden. It was a lovey way to see the city, and I think it was that night that I fell in love with Paris. Incidentally, I did not fall in love with Ludo because he was wearing a purple sweatshirt and a pair of ladies over-sized sunglasses - well into the night - which I think made him pretty much out of my league in more ways than one.
So, last week, while in Paris, I thought of the sunrise. It should have been easy, since the jet lag was awful. I had trouble sleeping at all, regardless of day or night, and I found myself wandering the streets in a sort of sleep-deprived haze. My hotel was safe and clean though a little uninspiring, and it wasn't until Thursday morning, three days into my trip, that I finally gave up on sleep altogether and set out to watch the sunrise. I was excited, if tired, because I was sure that if the sunrise in Cambodia was wonderful, the sunrise in Paris would be magnificent. I imagined a flood of color bouncing off the rooftops of the world's most romantic city. It was enough to compel me into a pair of pants, a sweater and ballet flats. I got coffee in the cafe, which was willing to make me a cup at 3AM, and that cup of coffee was very good, even if it came out of a machine, because I'm convinced that all coffee in Paris is good. It's like their greatest natural resource - some countries have diamonds or oil - Paris has the capacity for excellent coffee.
I sat outside my hotel, on a bench, sipping coffee and waiting for the magic to begin. I waited at least two hours. The city wasn't quiet. It was, even at 4AM, full of life. There were car horns blaring in the distance. I heard the sound of sirens flush past the hotel, to the north. The trash trucks and street sweepers were making their morning rounds, so the resounding thud of trash barrels hitting the pavement was the symphony of this particular experience.
The sun never did make an appearance in my sunrise over Paris. The sky just sort of changed color, gradually and slowly, without emphasis or aplomb. It was a dark gray and starless night (never really pitch black) and then it was the color of wet cement and then it was, finally, dove gray, the sun hiding behind a mass of shapeless clouds, obscured by a light drizzle of rain. I was so tired and disappointed that I didn't have the energy to even give up on the experience. Instead, I sat in the rain, my hair matted slightly against my cheek. I mean, the city didn't even have the courage to have an all-out thunderstorm. It was only a drizzle, which was even more depressing than if I had sat through torrid rains and somehow come out unscathed. No, there was nothing extraordinary in this moment, and when my hands were finally unable to properly hold my now-cold coffee cup (Styrofoam at that), I finally had to admit defeat and head back into the hotel.
The front-desk staff looked at me as if I'd lost my marbles and as if they wondered if they should call someone. I smiled, tossed the coffee into a trash bin and went back upstairs.
I undressed and got into bed and thought: that was a complete waste of a sunrise.
Then, as I drifted in and out of a restless sleep (why are people in hotels so loud? really, is it impossible to shut a door rather than letting it slam closed behind you?), I realized my mistake. My mistake was trying to recreate the magic I'd experienced in Cambodia. I thought that if I just happened upon something so extraordinary as that Cambodian sunrise, with my freshly pressed coffee and warm baguette, in the middle of the jungle, with a little Cambodian girl my ambassador to another hot, bright day - well, I thought I should be able to do even better in a city like Paris, a city of light, a city of love, a city that inspired Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Pound.
But my problem, I realized while listening to the couple next door argue over which museum to visit, was that you can't stage the extraordinary. When something is contrived, it loses its wonder. The Cambodian sunrise, which has remained a favorite among my memories for a decade now, was exceptional because I had no expectation of it. I was surprised by it, but I was also open to it, so that when it came out of nowhere (well, out of the jungle on a little metal tray), I embraced it and sat up to greet it without any idea of what it was I was greeting.
I realized that I have, for most of my life, tried to control my happiness. I mean, it sounds logical, right? We are Americans, after all. If we can't control our own destiny, what can we control?
But I think it's just that sense of control, or that fear perhaps of letting go, that restricts my experiences to the dull, one-dimensional events of a life that is only half-lived. It's hard to know when to push for something, when to take the proverbial bull-by-the-horns, and when to simply let life happen and be open to whichever experiences come our way.
Maybe life is a combination of both. Maybe we can only control up to a point, and then we have to close our eyes and jump.
Whatever it is we are supposed to do, I can tell you that I won't ever forget the Cambodian sunrise..........or the Paris half-sunrise either.