I fell in love with Paris when I was 22 years old. I moved there right after graduating from Princeton, to work on a three-month internship at Kodak-Pathé. After an initial week of desperate room-searching, I lucked out with an apartment on the rue de Rivoli, overlooking the Jardin des Tuileries, and just a five-minute walk from the Hotel Ritz and the Seine. Every evening, I would wander the streets, from the fashionable shops around my apartment to the Quartier Latin, all the while inebriated with the elegant avenues and facades, the arching bridges and graceful streetlamps, the laughter spilling out of bistros and bars, the musicians in the metro, and the grand apartments on the Île Saint-Louis, whose high-ceilinged, chandelier-lit rooms beckoned like a dream.
That summer I gorged on Molière at the Comédie Française and the Ballet Béjart in the park, immersed myself in Manet and Monet in the Musée d’Orsay, got lost in the ancient alleys of Montmartre and the Marais, stood stunned in stained-glass silence in Notre Dame and conjured Hemingway and Fitzgerald on Rue Descartes and in Les Deux Magots café.
One morning halfway through my stay, I took my apartment building’s rickety old filigreed elevator as usual from the fifth floor to the hushed shade of the ground-floor entryway, then stepped through the
massive wooden doors into the street — and stopped. All around me, people were speaking French, wearing French, acting French. Shrugging their shoulders and twirling their scarves and drinking their cafés crèmes, calling out “Bonjour, monsieur-dame” and paying for Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur with francs and stepping importantly around me and staring straight into my eyes and subtly smiling in a way that only the French do.
Until that summer, I had spent most of my life in classrooms, and I was planning after that European detour to spend most of the rest of my life in classrooms. Suddenly it struck me: This was the classroom. Not the musty, ivy-draped halls in which I had spent the previous four years. This world of wide boulevards and centuries-old buildings and six-table sawdust restaurants and glasses of vin ordinaire and poetry readings in cramped second-floor bookshops and mysterious women smiling at you so that your heart leaped and you walked for hours restless under the plane trees by the Seine. This was the classroom.
In the romance of that moment, the seed of my future was sown. Rather than write about literature, I would write about life in the world. I would become a travel writer.
Four wonderful, wandering, travel-writing decades later, I returned to Paris last summer for a celebratory three-day stay. My initial plan had been to revisit my old haunts, but on my first night, I stopped for a glass of rosé at a clean, well-lighted sidewalk café and became enchanted by the street theatre: parents and children walking in a festive row, the kids occasionally breaking free to skip ahead; couples with their arms wound around each other, pausing to kiss long and
passionately; sleek, suntanned women in short skirts and high heels walking arm in arm; solitary strollers measuring pensive steps. I remembered what my first love 40 years before had taught me: that Paris is a place you see by surprise, not design. And in a brief ritual over a second rosé, I tore up the scrupulous list of things to do and places to go I had prepared, and surrendered myself to the city instead.
Over the ensuing days I paid homage to my old apartment at 200 rue de Rivoli, ambled through the mind-greening Jardin des Tuileries, lingered before Monet’s “Coquelicots” at the Musée d’Orsay, made one pilgrimage to the soaring stone symmetry and stained-glass splendor of Notre Dame and another to the sacred secondhand bookshelves and reading rooms at Shakespeare and Company. I bought Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast there, then stopped at the charming bistro next door, Le Petit Chatelet, which turned out to be an exceptionally pleasant place to nibble on camembert and baguettes and sip a crisp rosé.
I was doing just that when Notre Dame unexpectedly erupted into a symphony of bells. The clarity and purity of the sounds seemed to suspend the air, and I thought of all the ages that pealing had descended like a blessing balm over the city, from the 12th century to the 21st.
I remembered those same peals transporting me four decades earlier, and I exulted in my journal: “I’m feeling fantastically satisfied by my three-day stay in Paris. I’ve done exactly what I wanted to do: I’ve revisited the most important places from my past, and let serendipity take me by the hand, wandering through the streets, gazing up in awe at the elegant buildings with their wrought-iron balconies, absorbing the beauty and spirit of this intoxicating place. There is such a celebration of art and philosophy and history here, so much intelligence manifesting in the design of the city and the preoccupations of its citizenry. Art exhibits, concerts, the celebration of eating—la bonne vie française. I’ve fallen in love all over again.”
That night, I paced a solitary path to the Seine. Before I left the city, I wanted to get at the essential romance of Paris, to understand how it exerted the enchantment it did, why passion and sensuality seemed to grow so lushly in its urban soil.
Then I reached the river, and the moonlight in the leaves of the plane trees and the lamplights on the surface of the water made a mockery of analysis. Couples whispered, laughed, kissed; the leaves applauded; the stars winked at the clouds.
Paris past and present seemed to march in a procession of images before me: the bright, chic streets, the haute couture shops, the boulangeries and brasseries, the churches and museums; the green parks with their burbling fountains and marble statues; the leaves of the poplars rustling in the wind and the leaves of the chestnut trees turning from green to red; smoky dinners in centuries-old restaurants; candlelit, table-clothed tables bright with flowers. I thought of the smell of fresh baguettes, coffee and chocolate, of walking and walking and walking, of sun-dappled squares with little round tables and cane chairs. And I thought of that morning 40 years ago on the rue de Rivoli, when Paris had first opened the life-path before me.
I recalled Hemingway’s final words in A Moveable Feast: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who lives in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.”
Suddenly the puzzle-pieces clicked together, and I took out my journal and penned: “This is the real romance of Paris, the essential lesson it bestows: that past and present are all part of a vast, vibrant, life-celebrating whole. Paris evolves and I evolve, and the decades infuse layering and rounding richness to it all. The city I first loved and the 22-year-old who loved it are still abundantly alive, outside and inside; they always have been and always will be. On this return 40 years later, I’ve found that young man still enrapt in Paris, and the romance of Paris still enwrapped in me.”
Text by Don GerogeTranslated by Rui Chen