Being underground is always a little unnerving. And certainly when you are more than six feet under. The old Paris subway system smells of dark, dripping dankness even in the morning. Wet underfoot. People jostle and collide as they hurry to work or home or school to board the next train. All are going somewhere. My wife and I wait patiently like good Iowans. Ticket stubs in hand. Looking down the tunnel. Not too close to the edge. Hoping that they don’t brick over the passageways before we get out. We know the Eiffel Tower is up above somewhere. Shading our subterranean crypt.
We are here for reasons of romance and art, and I’m hoping to see that old carnival ride, the Eiffel Tower, up close and personal. Built for the World Expo in 1889, the contract with the City said the Eiffel Tower was supposed to be dismantled in 1909. Thankfully, it wasn’t. Over 1,000 feet tall, and weighing in with 7,300 tons of metal, this gal is a presence. Wherever you go in Paris, there she is. Holding down the left bank even from as far away as the Pompidou Center on the right bank. And, yes, she’s more than happy to challenge a sunset.
But not everyone loves the Eiffel Tower. Before it was built, many of the Paris art establishment fought against a structure that would rise above Notre Dame and other Paris landmarks. Even after it was completed in 1889, Guy de Maupassant still didn’t like it. “I left Paris and even France, because the Eiffel Tower just annoyed me too much. Not only did you see it from everywhere; you found it everywhere made out of every known material, displayed in all the shop windows, an unavoidable and horrible nightmare.”
Lord, what would Guy de Maupassant think of the carnival surrounding the Eiffel Tower today?
And there is more. The Local, a newspaper in France, reported in 2013 that several feminist groups had united against the Eiffel Tower claiming — “For too long we have lived under the shadow of this patriarchal monstrosity . . . . Every day, women in this city are forced to glare up at the giant metal penis in the sky. It may be good for tourism but as long as it stands there, France will never have ‘egalité’.”
Yikes. Those are some enemies.
But on this fall day the sun is shining. The large park at the base of the Eiffel Tower is a picture of humanity. Couples, here and there on the grass, sit with glasses and a bottle of wine, content not to move. Young immigrants sell Eiffel Tower key rings in bunches of hundreds spread out on blankets as they look out with one eye for the cops. Two young boys wrestle and chase as a third is caught up in his own imaginings. Other young men relentlessly circle, asking if you are in need of champagne or beer — encouraging you to test the coldness of the bottles. Frisbees spin, soccer balls bounce, and balloons float. And dotted across the park — lovers embrace. Kissing as an art form.
Off to our right, there’s even a strolling bride and groom. Come on. Is someone making this up??!
And with our bottle of wine, and loaf of crusty bread, and pungent soft cheese, we wait. Because soon it will be dark enough for the lights to go on. And when the lights go on, it won’t be long before they do a sparkling dance, which occurs every hour for just a few minutes. It is the 4th of July over and over and over again. Perhaps a stolen kiss is possible.
But then storm clouds begin to gather. The first drops of rain are felt. The wind is starting to blow in off the Seine, picking up blankets and napkins and sending them flying across the park. People are running for safety with their heads covered by newspapers. But, at last, the lights go on . . . . Hooray!
On the edge of the park, as my wife and I run towards our hotel, we glimpse a group of people surrounding long folding tables under a canopy of trees. A white van is parked at the end of the tables. Metal containers are spread across the flat tops. Each person has a bowl in their hands. They wait patiently in line. We can see the ladle dip and pour, dip and pour, dip and pour, as we scurry past. No lovers seem to be embracing.
And so it goes. One day in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.