Talk to me of Paris and like most people I imagine the majestic Eiffel Tower overlooking the city. I imagine couples walking down the streets lined with boutiques and cafes, laughing with each other as they nibble on a croissant as if Paris had been made just for them. I imagine podgy old Frenchmen sat outside a restaurant sharing a bottle of red wine. Part of me imagines a mime dressed in black and white with beret to match playing tricks on people. Is this the Paris that tourists really experience?
The main attraction of Paris for me is the ‘Pont Des Arts’, which is more commonly known as the ‘locks of love’ bridge. It takes centre stage as the reason why I wanted to visit the city (move aside Tour Eiffel!). I came across the bridge after doing a project about the locks at college. The tradition, which gets confused by many as being an ancient Parisian tradition actually dates back at least 100 years ago in Serbia. Time for a brief history lesson! – Nada; a Serbian schoolmistress fell in love with an officer named Relja. After the two committed to each other Relja went off to fight in Greece where he fell in love with a local woman. Stricken with a heartbreak Nada dies from her unfortunate love. Young women started putting padlocks on the bridge where Nada and Relja used to meet to protect their own relationships. The ‘Pont Des Arts’ bridge didn’t see a padlock until around 2008.
I find it melancholically beautiful for the tradition to come from this tale. I wanted to see it for myself. Paris was going to be more accessible than Serbia at the time as my partner had just surprised me with a trip to the city for Valentine’s Day – which in itself was something plucked out of a movie. I told him my plan and the next day we went and bought ourselves a padlock. Now the whole thing was becoming a reality when previously it was something I thought only Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big would get to do, or something a wanderlust Twitter account would post. I would be sitting at my computer retweeting it thinking “wow I need to do this one day!” but never getting to – how wrong was I!
After first stepping on the bridge the thing that I remember the most was how quiet it was. We were in Paris on Valentine’s Day and it was an evening so obviously the city was bustling with activity, at least everywhere apart from the bridge seemed to be. Instead you had couples whispering to each other, their soft giggles carried through the air as they shared an inside joke. People sat on the floor reading messages on the locks, either getting inspiration or maybe recollecting a past and lost love. I scoured the rails of the bridge to find a space for mine and my partners lock, my eyes catching glimpses of the messages that other couples had written. We settled on the location and attached it to the bridge. Our story was now part of thousands of others. The February sunset drenched the night sky in a palette of silken yellow and faint red. We looked over the River Seine and threw the key into its deep waters completing the ritual.
The scene on the bridge was this: People. Singles. Couples. All different ages, ethnicities and cultures. Each person had with them a different story as to why they were putting a padlock there. It didn’t seem to matter who you were or where you came from. The love between you and your other half was the important thing – everything else was irrelevant. It felt like you were sharing a special moment with every person standing on the bridge, yet at the same time it was completely personal to you. Two years later and the memory is still there and I am still just as happy as when I was on the bridge with my partner. I wonder if the other couples are also looking back. I wonder how much their story has changed. Where is Nicolette Santos now? Is Thais Larry married? One thing is left certain though, the bridge will still continue to shine as a symbol of attachment. A jewel nestled within the city of love.
Since 2014 (a year after I visited the Pont Des Arts Bridge) the Parisian government has taken a stand after complaints from locals that the locks of love were a health and safety risk. The locks caused a parapet on the bridge to collapse under the weight and as a result some locks have been removed. The mayor’s office now encourages people to take a ‘selfie’ instead of putting a lock on the bridge as a means of protecting it. “Our bridges can no longer withstand your gestures of love. Set them free by declaring your love with #lovewithoutlocks”. I write this article encouraging people to not be disheartened at not being able to attach a padlock. I want people to still see the bridge as a place of love and to respect the locals by showing that love with a picture instead. Above all the memory and the first-hand experience is the most important thing.