Come in! Sit down! Welcome to the A.C. Travel Agency. It’s summer! Let’s take a trip. What do you want to see? Some people want to plant a flag on the mountain top, some people just want a high place where they can see their own lives from a distance. Which are you? Little of both, I think, from your look, and I’ve been in this business a long time, my friend. So, if you want to see how other people are doing it, if you want see some sites, well—you have to see the capitals!
I mean the capitals: New York, London, Paris. Spin the rack of postcards: Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, Eiffel Tower. Hudson, Thames, Seine. Subway, Tube, Metro. Bagel, Scone, Croissant. Bit like comparing apples to apples to pommes, right, innit, n’est-ce pas?
Oh I know, you’re a traveler, not a tourist, that reviled nuisance, with their sensible sneakers and their upside-down maps. I feel you. You want to see the real thing. You want to see the light. Well, let’s look at my brochures together, and see what we can see.
First, New York: Here we have celebrity, bright lights and sunglasses at night. Here people want to be looked at. They like the big show, the spectacle, the confrontations, the collisions. It’s the friction between us that sparks the fires of the place, so they walk fast, rub up against each other on the subway, wolf whistle, honk their horns. New York is so kinky. When you walk down the steaming sidewalk on a summer day and some mystery fluid drips on your lips from a fifth-floor air conditioner, it’s like the city is spitting in your mouth. See there—an eighty-year-old grandpa in a three-piece suit with a walker is meowing at you lecherously. Oh, we see you, New York, you flasher. That glittering skyline is eight million people with stars in their eyes, and they’re winking at you. Beautiful, isn’t it? But you look unsure, like you suddenly feel poorly dressed—maybe something a little less noisy?
Now, London: Royalty. Throne and scepter. Pomp and circumstance and orderly queuing. Here they shout in Parliament and shriek in tabloids, but this city actually values its quiet, the refuge of green places, its squares and courtyards, its chambers and clubs. But it is a place of business and the businessmen walk briskly in pairs, wear beautiful suits cut to show off prosperous girths. Wealth is requisite and serious and more and more foreign—Russian, Emirati. The natives bellyache about the paucity of sunlight, forget to see how beautiful the city is; but when the clouds part they share a bench and loosen their neckties and lift their pale faces up. And at night, when you’re walking down a street in SoHo, you come upon soft squares of yellow light shining onto the cobbles from a pub window, and it’s like that light is shining from a gaslamp lit two hundred years ago. It’s as timeless and comforting as butter melting on toast. Inside are middle-aged men bent over pints and racing forms, and the barkeep will call you dearie, and you’ll remember what it was like to have a grandfather. We see you, London, your light is a flickering heirloom, history spilling into the street. Lovely, isn’t it? But you look uncertain, like you lack a well-made umbrella and a coat of arms. Alright, well look over there—follow my finger—across the Channel… see it?
Paris! Courtesans, champagne, and lingerie. Here, people want to look at everything. They arrange the café chairs on the sidewalk in rows facing out, like a movie theater, and sit smoking thin cigarettes over doll-sized cups of coffee while they take in the boulevards and balconies and beauty of the passersby. Paris wants to be devoured. So many people hunger for its tourism-board brand of confectionary romance—and so do you, admit it! We all do. But it’s the clash of that glittering Eiffel dream with urban inevitabilities—garbage, unimaginative graffiti, plebian Parisians—that gives you a glimpse beneath the brochure rouge. See there, in that little square: A mural of tiles says “I love you” over and over and over in three hundred languages. There’s a couple kissing on a bench nearby. An elderly Parisian with his back to the wall tears pieces off a baguette and holds them out to birds who pluck them from his fingers on the wing. He puffs a cigarette over a limp cravat, and when you hold up an iPhone for a picture, his glare nearly singes off your eyebrows. Voila! There is Paris. Put away your devices, your digital filters. We have plenty of lights to see by: The glowing shop front of a patisserie. The burning ember at the end of a French girl’s cigarette. Sunset coruscating on the water of the Seine. There it is! Can you see it?
A.C. DeLashmutt is a Virginian living in New York. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's, The Washington Post, theNewerYork, Flash magazine, and elsewhere. She also writes plays. Follow her on Twitter @acdelashmutt.