It was prime time in Paris. Friday night, just after 9pm, and the sidewalks of Boulevard du Montparnasse were crowded with people celebrating the end of another work week. There was just enough chill in the soft September evening to make me pull the soft cashmere wrap I always bring along when I travel, closer around me.
I was taking one last stroll before going back to the Hotel Le Littré to pack my bags for an early departure in the morning and I’d just passed a small cafe when two women stepped out of a doorway and out onto the sidewalk ahead of me.
Even with so many other people around, I noticed the women immediately because they were both dressed in vintage clothing from the 1930s or 40s: floral dresses, close-fitting hats and shoes with short heels. Both were wearing coats and carrying handbags.
The women walked quickly, purposefully, and the sound of their heels striking the sidewalk rang out over the noise of traffic moving along the busy street.
I suspected they were part of some theater troupe or art installation because they were well aware of the looks they were given as they passed, but I loved the serendipity of the moment. Every time I’m in Paris, usually staying at Le Littré, a small pre-war hotel on a quiet street tucked into a residential area in the 6th Arrondissement, I imagine the human drama the street has surely seen. Sometimes, late at night when I can’t sleep, I hear laughter or a woman’s heels on the pavement and imagine similar sounds have been heard many times in the past century. I could close my eyes and travel back in time, supplying a visual image to fit the sounds, putting them in the age of my choice.
That was part of the appeal of Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris” wasn’t it: the idea that time settles around us in gossamer layers and—if we are fortunate and open to the experience— we can move in and out of history when the moment is right.
And there, on my last night in the city, the two women had given me my own not-quite-midnight in Paris moment.
I reached into the pocket of my coat and pulled out my phone. The women were walking fast and I had to hurry to keep up with them, but just before they turned and entered another doorway tucked between two storefronts, I held up my pone and snapped a photo. The light was poor and I was moving as I pressed the shutter button, so I didn’t expect much out of the shot. After the women were gone, I walked on, soaking up the energy and beauty of Paris before I had to leave, walking as far as the Musée Rodin before turning around and heading back to my room.
I flew out the next day and the women and the photo on my phone were forgotten. It wasn’t until later when I was going over all the photographs from my trip that I found it and the moment came back to me.
I’d expected a shaky, out-of-focus, image and that’s exactly what I got. But what I hadn’t expected was the effect. You could clearly see the two women in period clothing walking on a busy street at night, illuminated by lights from the stores and headlights of cars on the Boulevard. But the colors faded into one another and all the lines and edges were softened. The photo on my camera looked exactly like a watercolor that could have been painted 80 years ago.
Of all the photos I’ve brought home from my travels, the watery image my camera produced without any filters or manipulation on my part, is one of my favorites. I’d somehow managed to capture exactly what I experienced: a you-had-to-be-there moment in a beautiful city with a rich, dramatic, and poetic history.
So, I set aside the cliche photos of the Eiffel Tower, Pont Neuf and Notre Dame. They are a dime a dozen. The blurred image of two women dressed for another time is the one I chose to keep where I can see it every day.
Cheryl-Anne Millsap's audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and on public radio stations across the country. She is the author of ‘Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons’ and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org