Why the Paris Love Locks Matter

Growing up, whenever I would ask for permission to do something that all of my friends were doing, my parents tossed out the familiar, “if all of your friends jumped off of a bridge, would you jump too?” It was particularly comical since there was a low bridge not far from my house that teens regularly dared each other to jump off into the water below. For the record, one time in high school I stood atop the bridge with friends, staring 20′ down at the water as we all prepared to jump. Cowardice prevailed, and I walked down the bridge defeated and alone.

I can’t say the same for the peer pressure at the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris.

Origin unknown, there’s a recent tradition in which couples write their names on padlocks, lock them to the bridge, and throw the key into the Seine River below. Presumably the gesture illustrates the permanence of their love and commitment. A victim of its own popularity, the tradition has now caught the attention of some who call the act vandalism and cite a number of specious side effects as reasons it should be outlawed. As I’ve journeyed around Europe, I’ve noticed the occasional padlock or twenty locked onto bridges, railings or fixtures. But no other site that I have seen has achieved the lock density, global recognition or mystique of the Pont des Arts. There, in a city known for romance, a modern landmark has been created by ordinary, everyday people, one little bit at a time.

“If all of your friends were locking things to a bridge would you?”
“Apparently so, Mom. Apparently so.”

Amidst all the hubbub about whether affixing locks to the world famous bridge should be banned, the question few have asked is “why are people doing this at all? Why is this even a thing?” It seems logical that if you want to stop people from doing something, asking them why they are doing it is a good first step.

When I set foot in Paris for the first time in November of 2012, I was understandably enamored. On my 33rd birthday, I went to mass at Notre Dame then climbed to the top of the Eiffel Tower for a glass of champagne with friends. Though I walked across the Pont des Arts with my better half during that trip, we never considered buying locks to take part in the spectacle.

A year and a half later, I unexpectedly returned to Paris with coworkers during a multi-city European adventure. As a thoughtful gesture after a great night in London, a colleague bought locks for herself and me. “We have to lock these to the Pont des Arts bridge when we get to Paris,” she explained.

We arrived at the bridge in Paris during a late night walk. As we ambled along, we marveled at the most unusual inscriptions and searched for the oldest date on a lock. I particularly enjoyed stumbling on a lock affixed by “the Anton Family” (no relation, as far as I know).

A few days later before boarding a train, I fastened my lock to the bridge with the intention of leaving a mark 5000 miles away from home – sort of a reverse souvenir. Instead of bringing home a tiny piece of Paris, I wanted to leave a tiny piece of myself there. That way, whenever I was there next, I could stop by. Or I could challenge friends and family to find my lock on their future trips.

The charm of Love Locks is that it becomes a unique bonding experience and an enduring moment. And it’s novel.

It’s almost like having a small piece of real estate in one of the world’s most beautiful cities (which is probably why celebrities keep homes they rarely see in places around the globe). It’s the same reason some choose to carve graffiti into bathroom stalls or spray paint on the side of buildings. It’s why people are specific about where they want to be buried or have their ashes spread. It’s a sense of place and semi-permanence in a rapidly changing world. That is not to say these activities should be condoned or condemned, just that I understand the motivation behind their creation.

Rather than trying to ban Love Locks, energy could better spent trying to provide a more innovative outlet to harness the sentiments above. As the movement has been executed so far, it comes across like a few love-scorned curmudgeons trying to spoil the fun. Provide an interactive alternate activity that achieves the same means and taps into the same emotions and everyone wins.