“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived 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 in return for whatever you brought to it. But this is how Paris was in the early days when we were very poor and very happy.”
Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
As someone whose travel for work and pleasure has propelled me to places far-flung – from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe − I’m often asked what is my favorite city in the world. I have no hesitation whatsoever. Paris.
Growing up in the 1960s, Paris represented sophistication. Those ethereal water lilies of Monet, Christian Dior, airy soufflés, Jean Seberg as the American journalist on the back of a motorcycle in Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless − everything that my working class Dubuque neighborhood did not. During my regular Sunday evening babysitting gig in the 8th grade, I tuned into Julia Child as “The French Chef” on PBS and fantasized how I too would whip up coq au vin one day. By the time of Mr. Daresh’s high school French class, Paris was already blinking on my travel radar.
The legend of Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, and their salon of artists and intellectuals intrigued me. I was amazed to learn that one of those salon habitués, a penniless Ernest Hemingway fended off starvation by catching pigeons in Luxembourg Gardens. My favorite opera is La Bohème, about a group of young bohemians living in tubercular poverty in the Latin Quarter of Paris. In one convoluted mystery dream that found me kidnapped and imprisoned in a 5th arrondissement garret, I even sang Rodolfo’s spine-tingling aria as a coded signal to the gendarmes outside my attic window. I later shared my wild dream with my psychotherapist, who found it clever, inexplicable, and very French. Mais oui.
When I was in my late 30s and a working professional living in Chicago, I finally experienced the magic of Paris for myself. I spent the entire first day exploring the Left Bank on foot to get my bearings. I stopped to have a café au lait and croissant at Les Deux Magots, the venerable outdoor café on the busy Boulevard Saint-Germain where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir ‘discovered’ the theory of Existentialism decades before. I sipped my café and listened to the lilting chatter of the French conversations around me. I immediately felt smarter. Philosophical. A short walk away, Luxembourg Gardens exploded in the pink and purple fragrant elegance of a May afternoon. Under huge old shade trees, old men with berets and mustaches hunched over chessboards. Were the nearby bushes where the starving and stalking Hemingway had snared his lunch? I wondered.
I spent the next ten days savoring as much of Paris as one could possibly absorb. I communed with Cezanne’s apples at Musée d’Orsay and Matisse’s paper cutouts at the Centre Georges Pompidou. I soaked by luxurious candlelight in a claw foot iron tub in my own version of the La Bohème garret, a top floor bathroom with dormer windows in a butter-colored tiny hotel on the Rue Jacob. My wanderings through the neighborhoods of the Right Bank revealed E. Dehillerin, the revered cookware shop that has supplied soufflé pans and toques to all serious French chefs since the early 19th century. I paused a minute outside the big wooden door. Would the clerks think me a pretender to Julia’s whisk? Would I be found wanting? I almost bowed my head entering this temple of French culinary art. Descending the rickety wooden stairs to its dusty basement reminded me of all the times I had fetched jars of homemade sauerkraut and stewed tomatoes from our musty basement pantry in my childhood home. I had never seen so much copper and porcelain in one place before. Julia herself shopped here!
Soon I felt like a native, or at least an adoptee, breezing in and out of neighborhood fromageries to discover the perfect piece of aged goat cheese. “Bonjour, Madame! Comment allez-vous?” the cheese monger would chirp, unaware that I hailed from the banks of the Mississippi River and not the Seine. Despite what others had told me – that the French were haughty and arrogant, that they hated Americans – Paris never disappointed. I found that if I smiled, murmured “s’il vous plait” and “merci beaucoup” frequently, and asked questions by saying a noun or two “en français” with a questioning inflection and a quizzical look, Parisians were unfailingly gracious. Perhaps they sensed that I was in love.
The last morning of that first trip to Paris, my first stop was the local boulangerie for a warm and crusty baguette. At my favorite fromagerie, I inhaled the pungent scent of the dozens of cheeses displayed like precious stones, and selected a wedge of a soft ripe Camembert. I tucked both into my backpack along with a bottle of Evian and headed toward the Musée Rodin, a small museum in an old mansion that is dedicated to the work of the great French sculptor. One of the versions of his iconic work The Thinker lives in majesty in its garden. I strolled around the grounds for a long while, just breathing it in. I found a little bench in a far corner of the garden which I determined to be an appropriate setting to enjoy my final taste of Paris − at least final for this trip. There was never any doubt that I would return.
Paris was at her sparkling best this May morning. I could see The Thinker over in the other corner of the garden, looking as if he had been contemplating the profound questions of the universe for decades and would continue for many more. I had profound questions of my own. What is it about Paris, I pondered, which makes me feel so present, so totally in the moment? Is it the fresh flowers? The discerning chefs strolling open air markets on the hunt for the very freshest ingredients? Daily baguettes under the arm of almost every person I passed on the street? Or was it some kind of a magical glow emitted by masterpieces from Van Gogh, Monet, Matisse, Renoir, and my own personal favorite, Picasso? It hadn’t escaped my notice that Parisians had polished the mere act of sipping le café to a high art. One would never find a Styrofoam cup at a Parisian café. This was the time for porcelain, lively conversation, watching the world go by.
I knew that somehow I must bottle this essence of Paris and transport it back to Chicago. I wanted to be able to tap it some morning when I was stuck in traffic on the Eisenhower Expressway or fidgeting in an interminable corporate meeting. How could I too learn to relish those precious moments of beauty and joy − and while I was living them, just as I was now enjoying the tang of the Camembert on my tongue? Was the answer as simple as a mindfulness of the beauty and the joy around us?
Since my inauguration years ago, I have returned to Paris many times. My romance continues. When I first met my husband Rich, I was astounded to learn that he had traveled all around Europe while a university student in Stockholm, but somehow his travels had circumvented Paris. “Eh. I don’t know. I really like Barcelona and Rome,” he said. “I’ve never been all that interested in Paris.”
What?! How could someone who professes to love travel not want to travel to Paris? Surely it was my civic and marital duty to correct this serious deficiency of judgment. I would show him my Paris.
For a surprise Christmas gift early in our marriage, I rented for a week the next summer a charming old Parisian apartment with high ceilings and a tiny terrace that overlooked the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower. Our arrival on Bastille Day was greeted by fireworks and dazzling lights dancing up and down Le Tour Eiffel. A red carpet welcome to be sure.
On a drizzly July morning a few days later, we strolled from our apartment along the Seine through the historic Le Marais district to our day’s destination, the Musée Picasso. I have loved Picasso ever since my first exposure at a special touring exhibit hosted by the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 1980. I had never seen anything like it. His audacity captivated me. Now at his namesake museum, I savored his artistic vision at its boldest, fearless best. His sorrowful Blue Period. The ebullient Rose Period. Avant-garde Cubism. Erotic half man-half beast drawings from the ‘30s and ‘40s. All of his passions and emotions were right there on canvas for millions to see.
By mid-afternoon we exited the museum and stepped right into a real-life version of “Paris Street; Rainy Day,” a favorite treasure of the Art Institute of Chicago that I had seen dozens of times. The painting depicts elegant 19-century Parisians with umbrellas strolling cobblestone streets mirrored with rain. We were not so lucky. Soaked after walking just a block or two with no umbrellas, we tucked into a small café. We warmed ourselves and waited for the rain to stop. A small yellow flyer on the wall behind our table caught my eye. A string quartet was to perform Vivaldi’s Four Seasons at the medieval chapel Sainte-Chapelle that very night. We could even walk there from the café. “It’s a sign from the universe. We were meant to come in from the rain and see this flyer,” I said.
Rich agreed, some reluctantly. “Hmmm. But what about our dinner at La Rotisserie Beaujolais?” He was already fixated on escargots bathed in garlic and butter.
I teased him that, after all, we’re talking Paris here. Why not both?
We arrived early to the ancient chapel on the Île de la Cité near Notre Dame to ensure ourselves good seats at the concert. The rain had stopped and the early evening sun beamed in through 13th century stained-glass windows. The hushed sanctuary was transformed into a jewel box sparkling with streaks of ruby and indigo. The audience settled in and the string quartet took its place at the front. For the next hour or so, I sailed along on the emotive waves of Vivaldi’s adagios and largos. The concert and its setting were as spiritual as anything I had ever experienced. I grabbed Rich’s hand and held tight, wishing that this perfect Parisian moment would never have to end.