Memories of a Simpler (and Locks-Free) Time

I first came to Paris in April of 1998. I was only here for three short days, taking the weekend for myself in the middle of a 2-week business trip in Germany, excited to finally visit the city of my dreams. I had found a charming little hotel on the Rue Bonaparte in the 6th arrondissement, just down the street from Hemingway’s haunt, the café Les Deux Magots. My chambre was an attic room with original wood beams, pink and white toile wallpaper, and a view of the dome of the Institut de France. Just beyond that dome was the Seine, and the Pont des Arts, and the views I had imagined for decades but had never seen with my own eyes.

The first order of business after I settled in was to walk immediately to that classic bridge. I stood there for long minutes, at the very heart of Paris, seeing the Eiffel Tower for the  first time, watching the bateaux-mouches pass below and waving at fellow tourists, and soaking up that view of the Ile de la Cité and the Pont Neuf which has been my favorite view in all of Paris ever since. I was alone, but not at all lonely: I was finally in Paris, at last! And it was as magical as I’d always pictured it.

Me, “my” bridge and “my” view. It was simply perfect… BEFORE.

I next came to Paris in May of 2001, specifically to celebrate my 40th birthday. This time, my mother came along as my traveling companion. We weren’t able to get a room in that same hotel, but they had a sister hotel just a few blocks away on the tiny Rue Grégoire de Tours, just deus pas from Odéon. On that trip, too, the first thing we did, Mom and I, was to walk toward the river so I could share my favorite view with her. And it was exactly as I’d remembered: the Pont des Arts hadn’t changed a bit, with its graceful steel arches and light, simple design. The bridge’s unassuming demeanor allowed those strolling across it to slow down—even to sit down, on one of its wooden benches—and soak in the wonderful views in all directions, and to simply enjoy being in the moment. The bridge wasn’t the big attraction: Paris was. And that, as I thought then and still think today, was exactly as it ought to be. On that birthday trip, my mother and I happened upon an art fair in the gardens behind Notre Dame, where I discovered the most beautiful, small, framed piece of embroidery: It was my favorite view! I still have that sweet little piece of needlework, one of my most treasured souvenirs of any trip anywhere.

Souvenir of my favorite view from my favorite bridge on my 40th birthday in 2001

When I moved to Paris in 2006, I came back to “my” bridge (I had long since claimed it as my own, in my heart, along with that view) at the earliest opportunity. All was exactly as I had left it: the bateaux-mouches were still passing underneath, and lovers were stopping to kiss on that bridge. It seemed designed for lovers to kiss upon, without the noise and distraction of cars. I dreamed of a day when I, too, might be able to stop for a romantic moment on that very spot, with someone I loved.

I didn’t have to wait very long. In October of the following year, I met the man who would soon afterward become my husband. On our first Valentine’s Day together, in 2008, we decided to take a little “getaway”, though we didn’t go far: we took a room in the hotel on Rue Bonaparte, and acted like tourists in love. We took a little pique-nique à deux on a bench on the Pont des Arts. So what if it was February? The sun was shining, we had wine, bread and cheese, we had that incredible (still locks-free) view, and we had each other.

We never needed a lock to seal our love, or our memories, on that bridge or any other. We would no more have thought of defiling that bridge with a lock or scratching our names into the railings than we would have spray-painted our names on the side of Notre Dame; it would have been pure sacrilege.

Sadly, 2008 was the year when people started attaching locks to the Pont des Arts, no doubt finding their inspiration in early media stories of the same thing happening in Florence or Rome, or in Asian cities far away (though the exact source of this trend is still unknown). The media and the tourism industry are, in large part, responsible for over-romanticizing and spreading the trend; they don’t care about impact on the bridges or the cities in question, they want to make money.

Today, when you want to stroll on the Pont des Arts, the first thing you notice isn’t the views, or being at the very center of Paris; no, the first thing you notice are the ponderous layers upon layers of locks. It’s a phenomenon that makes a very strong impression. At first, you might be tempted to think the locks are beautiful, because the people who attached them there did so out of love. But look more closely, because those love tokens left by tens of thousands of couples are rusting faster than you can say “croissant”. And the tens of thousands of matching keys to those locks? Also rusting, at the bottom of the Seine, where they only contribute to the ecological problems this river has already been combatting for many years.

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Valentine’s Day, 2014, the Pont des Arts: nothing but rusting locks, blocked views, and graffiti declaring “Love is dead”. And on this bridge? Maybe it is. The locks have killed the love.

This is why I am so saddened and frustrated by the scourge of “love” locks. I know they were put there by people seeking to create some sort of special memory. But their thinking was incredibly short-sighted, not to mention selfish, because while they got their romantic moment, it was soon over and they left Paris, going back to their own lives. Those of us who have to live with and look at the ugly aftermath (not to mention that our taxes now have to go toward repairing the damage caused by all that “love”) are not amused. We don’t see love; we see vandalism.

For me, and for many others both here and abroad who share my love of this city and all that is special about it, our memories aren’t of a bridge overrun by hunks of steel, and the ugly graffiti that has come along with it. We remember that we used to come to the Pont des Arts to relax, to take in the scenery, perhaps even to do a little kissing with someone special.

Who really wants to go and spend time there now? It’s ugly, it’s swarming with tourists taking pictures and even climbing up the lamp posts to hang locks (which is not only dangerous, but reckless and stupid), and it attracts illegal street vendors selling locks, not to mention dozens (I counted) of pickpockets and scam artists. You can’t sit and enjoy the views, because the formerly view-friendly fencing is now littered in thousands of individual acts of vandalism, and because the crowds of lock-hangers and voyeurs are too thick. The soul of the Pont des Arts is simply gone, sacrificed to a bunch of locks in a deeply misguided expression of amour.

When did it become legally and socially permissible for someone to come along and commit vandalism on a beautiful historic structure in the name of “creating a special memory”? What about the rest of us, both Parisians and travelers alike, who love Paris and its very special character? When you try to lock up our bridges and our views, you are also locking up our memories  and degrading the very nature of the city. You are taking something that was once beautiful and special, something that was one-of-a-kind, and turning it into little more than trash. You can try to dress it up and call it “love” if you want, but THE PICTURES DON’T LIE. Trash is still trash.

We want our bridges back. We want our views back. We want our Paris back. And we want our memories back. No lock can ever be as special a memory as Paris itself— Lisa Taylor Huff