This Is How I Braved the Louvre to See the Lady with the Smile

Written by | Columnists and Letters

mona lisa

Photo by Eric TERRADE on Unsplash

Wade was close to making his lifelong dream of seeing the Mona Lisa come true until something, quite literally, got in the way.

I’ve dreamed of visiting Paris ever since I was a little boy. I remember watching An American in Paris with my mom and telling her I wanted to dance in front of the Eiffel Tower.

“One day,” she said with a knowing smile. “One day.”

In college, I read and adored Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, about his years as a young writer in Paris. My long-distance love affair with Europe continued in art history class, where we studied Leonardo di Vinci and his Mona Lisa. I was not only mesmerized by the painting — What was she thinking? Why was she smiling like that? — but also fascinated by later reading about the painter, including research that indicated he was gay. And as an adult, I heard tale after tale of friends’ magnificent visits to the City of Lights.

I couldn’t afford to travel much as a young man. Then, when I eventually became an author, my travel tended to center around book tours. However, my parents traveled a lot in their golden years and (after a rather arduous trip to Spain) my mom told me, “Don’t wait until you’re my age to do these trips. Enjoy them fully. Young. Like An American in Paris.”

So last year, Gary and I decided we’d finally see Paris. We took the advice of well-traveled and-heeled gay friends and stayed in a boutique hotel in the gay district of Marais. We took private tours to Mont St. Michel, Giverny and Versailles. We climbed the Eiffel Tower and we ate wonderful food at intimate bistros. But I was still most looking forward to visiting the Louvre and seeing the Mona Lisa in person.

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To prepare, we made sure we were doing what every expert told us to do when visiting the Louvre. We went on a day when crowds were supposed to be least congested. We arrived early. We secured express passes to bypass long lines. And when it was our entrance time, we made a bee-line directly to the Mona Lisa (she has her own room).

We were greeted by a crowd only slightly smaller than those attending the Super Bowl. Hordes were waiting for a glimpse into her eyes. Insane tourists knocked one another about as if whomever made it to the front were about to win a performance from Lady Gaga in their very own personal living rooms.

Gary and I got in line and waited. And waited. After a half hour, no one had budged. That’s when we noticed a large tour group (in matching shirts) was refusing to move away from the painting, despite protests to the security guard.

One man stood directly in front of the painting. Other members of his party were passing their phones to him to take picture after picture. Meanwhile, a woman beside him was taking endless selfies of herself with the Mona Lisa. First, she’d flip her hair and show her cleavage with the Mona Lisa. Then she’d flip her hair and do fish lips with the Mona Lisa. Finally, she attempted to match the Mona Lisa’s smile. I began to count how many selfies she was taking, and when I got to 50, Gary flipped his beret.

“There are so many other great works of art being ignored,” he said. “This is ridiculous. C’mon!”

But I couldn’t leave. I had waited my whole life to be right here, right now. “Go on,” I said. “I’ll text when I’m done.”

I waited patiently for another half hour but had made no headway. A frustrated woman looked at me and said, “It’s no use.”  That’s when I decided to take action.

I got down on the ground and crawled to the front of the line. There, I stood and said “You’re DONE!” to the picture-taking man and the selfie-taking woman. People actually applauded.

Finally, the other people in the room started getting their turns to look at the Mona Lisa. When I finally reached the front of the line, I was initially disappointed. I knew the painting was small, but in this grand space, it looked even tinier. I took one photo. Then another. But then I stopped, studied her famous face for a bit, and walked away. I could swear her eyes followed me, and her smirk suddenly seemed to say, “You go, girl!”

That’s when I realized the true magic of the painting (like the magic of travel itself) is the element of mystery. In the same way that you can’t really know what the Mona Lisa’s smile means until you’re standing in front of her, you don’t know what memories you’re creating making until you make them.

That night, we made a bit of a memory of our own. In the midst of a stunning fireworks display off the Eiffel Tower as part of Paris’s Nuit Blanche, Gary and I kissed along the banks of the Seine. And when I went to bed that night, I swear I could still see my mom — and the Mona Lisa — smile.

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Check out Wade’s latest novel under the pen name Viola Shipman, The Summer Cottage, and visit him online at waderouse.com

Last modified: May 9, 2019