love without locks: a modern pont des arts engagement

French Grey Photography by Brian Wright 001
French Grey Photography

I had just arrived in Paris, feeling jet-lagged and haggard. I knew Victor was going to propose–I had just flown to France for the express purpose of becoming his wife–but I didn’t know when. I thought it would be the following evening, when I knew we had fancy dinner plans.

After stopping at the apartment to change, we headed outside on a long, meandering walk. The rain had let up and the air was crisp, the ground slick with golden leaves. I breathed in that familiar Paris scent–exhaust and smoke and the metro–not conventionally pleasant, but as evocative for me as any perfume.

We passed landmarks large and small: there, the shiny-glass pyramid of the Louvre; here, a favorite udon bar. Approaching the Seine, I made towards the closest bridge with its glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. Victor held back.

“Let’s go further this way.”

“Oh, sure.” I wasn’t aware our walk had any logic, but I followed him several bridges further. We climbed the steps to a bridge that looked vaguely familiar, but it wasn’t totally recognizable. Something was off.

“What is this?” I asked. “Is this new?” It looked it.

Victor didn’t respond, but looked around in semi-confusion just as I did. We walked to the middle of the bridge and he took a small box out of his jacket. Inside was a tiny key and a silver, heart-shaped lock that read Jessica & Victor 2018img_3400

Attends. Is this…the Pont des Arts?”

The famous “Love-lock bridge” didn’t look like itself. Le Pont des Arts was once home to no less than 45 tons of cadenas d’amour. That’s about one million locks. Locks on every surface possible. Locks hooked to locks hooked to locks. Like so much else in the realm of tourism, charm was suffocated by popularity, until the bridge–thought to provide one of the best views of the city–took on a look that was less belle-époque and more graffiti wall.

The trend is thought to have been started in 2008 or so by Asian newlyweds who flew to Paris to celebrate their nuptials. The tradition skyrocketed in popularity with visitors from all over the world. Lovers wrote or engraved their names on small padlocks, affixed the locks to one of the narrow beams that formed the sides of the bridge, and finally, gave the keys a hearty toss into the river below.

It may elicit an eye roll from afar, but when you’re in love and in Paris, the idea starts to have some allure. It’s a tempting metaphor. Eternal love. A piece of your relationship living forever in Paris and so forth.

On my visit in 2014, all this love was already becoming a problem. I remember seeing posters urging would-be love-lockers to think again. “Our bridges can’t stand up to your love,” they said in French. Stop aux cadenas ! #lovewithoutlocks

The nice warning didn’t work, of course. Who cares about structural integrity in the face of modern folklore? Becoming a part of history?

The illusion was finally shattered in 2015, when the city got serious about combatting this problem. The bridge just couldn’t take the weight of all that affection (once again, 45 tons of decoration). The trend was becoming a serious safety issue and the city had already replaced several railings as they swayed under the weight of all that love. Instead of slapping honeymooning couples with fines, the city of Paris decided to remove the temptation. The metal railings were covered on both sides by clear glass panels, so that the original design could be seen but not touched.

This was the disorienting view that greeted us in September. Weather-beaten wood under our feet, modern-looking glass on the sides. At least I’d read about this and was familiar with the evolution. Victor was a bit stunned. It must have seemed so alien–what had become a well-known fixture of Paris disappearing without a trace. Immediately, though, I loved the story. More so than if his plan had gone on without a hitch.

There, on the bridge that had been loved to death, Victor asked me veux-tu m’épouser ? The yellow-gold, princess-cut diamond ring fit snugly on my finger, with the appropriate amount of wiggling. Both of us breathed a sigh of relief that it had not slipped from trembling fingers, bounced off a slat of the bridge, and fallen into the Seine below.

3 thoughts on “love without locks: a modern pont des arts engagement

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