The last time I saw Paris, I was 19 and on a mission. I woke up at dawn with the sun tap-tapping at the tiny window of my equally tiny hotel room. Today was the day. I threw on some clothes, woke up my grumbling boyfriend and waited for him to get dressed himself. Then I dragged him to the nearest Metro station and hustled him onto the train.

“What about breakfast?” he asked.

“We can eat there,” I answered. “We have to get in before the line.”

I couldn’t imagine how he was thinking about food at a time like this. For one thing, the man standing across from us with his arm raised, gripping the bar overhead, was teaching us a valuable lesson about cultural differences, specifically in the fields of hygiene and antiperspirant. But more importantly, we were about to witness, in person, something I had wanted to see since I joined the Italian Renaissance Historical Society at the beginning of high school, something that Paris kept in a museum behind bulletproof glass. The lady with the enigmatic smile. La Gioconda. The one, the only, the Mona Lisa.

I had learned from a guide book that there was a secret entrance to the Louvre. Instead of using the main entrance with its giant glass and steel pyramid, we took the one underground that was accessible from the Metro station. No line, no waiting. I imagined the queue of people standing topside in the summer heat and felt not a little smug. Soon enough we found ourselves in what was left of the medieval portions of the Louvre, stone walls shored up by more modern construction. But I had no time for such trivialities; I was there for Da Vinci’s masterpiece.

“Come on,” I urged my boyfriend.

“I want to look at this,” he said, gesturing at some kind of ancient stone head.

Groaning inwardly, I obliged, telling myself that we had gotten in ahead of the masses anyway so a few minutes wouldn’t kill me. And they didn’t, although it occasionally felt like they were maiming me a little as my boyfriend wandered from statue to spear to sarcophagus, stopping to read every tiny plaque explaining the history of each item. The code of Hammurabi, the Venus de Milo, a giant statue of Athena, the ¬†headless winged Victory rising up from between two flights of stairs. Everything was fascinating to him. Slowly we made our way to the Italian Renaissance exhibit with its precious, mysterious portrait.

There was already a line to see it, and it was all I could do not to murder my boyfriend for dawdling so long. We dutifully stepped into the roped-off area designated for queuing purposes and proceeded to wait, while the people who, impossibly enough, weren’t interested in the Mona Lisa wandered freely around the room. It seemed like we moved mere inches every five minutes. To pass the time, and to keep from committing homicide, I began to examine the paintings hanging on the walls around me.

They were amazing. Huge portraits and scenes from myth and history filled the area, crowding each other like giants in an elevator. Napoleon reared on his warhorse, looking every bit the dashing, commanding ruler of an empire. The Sabine women threw up their arms in despair as the Romans carried them off to be unwilling wives. The naked bodies of the dead and dying slipped off the raft of the Medusa and into the turbulent water as the desperate survivors lifted up one of their own to wave a ragged banner at a far-off ship. I had never seen artwork so vivid, so huge, larger than life even when the figures were smaller than I was. At some point my mouth fell open and stayed that way until my boyfriend whispered, softly, gently, “Close your damn mouth, the flies will get in.”

I was going to punch him but it was finally time: we were almost to the Mona Lisa. I tried to stand on my tiptoes to see past the throngs of people in front of me, but being five and a half feet tall has its disadvantages. I chewed my fingernails. I nearly danced with anticipation. It was all I could do not to scream at the people in front of me to get out of the way already.

And then, there it was. Despite already being behind bulletproof glass, it was several feet away from the end of the velvet ropes surrounding the crowd of onlookers. I pushed my way to the front and leaned as far forward as I could without inciting the wrath of the security guard. My mouth was hanging open again.

It was tiny. Not even the size of a movie poster. I had a bigger print of the painting in the bedroom of my house. From that distance, I couldn’t even see most of the details; the shading on either side of her lips was so faint as to make her look entirely humorless instead of smiling her signature slight smile. On either side of me were crying children and scolding mothers and giggling schoolgirls and deaf old people talking too loudly, and they were all staring at the Mona Lisa briefly and then looking away as if some duty had been fulfilled and they could now move on with their lives.

“It’s beautiful,” my boyfriend said.

“It’s okay,” I muttered. He looked at me quizzically, eyebrows raised, but did not reply. We stood in silence until I realized I was holding up the line.

“Come on,” I said finally. “Let’s go get some breakfast.”

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