“Having lived in Paris unfits you for living anywhere, including Paris;” — it’s a quote from American poet John Ashbery which sticks with me. In the course of time I lived in Paris for graduate school, and the extended flânerie after I had graduated, I spent my waking hours strolling the city. From where I lived on Rue des Quatre Vents near Odéon, I dressed up for Paris’ stage to discover her winding streets and grand boulevards over and over again.
Descending three flights and into her embrace, I stepped out of my door. A stone’s throw from Boulevard Saint-Germain, I’d pass the corner HSBC which always seemed closed, the bright candy vendor on the island centered between the two cinema houses and métro entrance, and ironically across from Un des Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Chocolatier. I walked passed pale stone buildings. More than any storefront, I noticed the details of the roofs and windows, the doorways — immensely tall and wide wooden doorways. Skipping past the tourists hovered near Fontaine Saint-Michel, I instead sneaked up to Rue des Écoles or brushed through the sectioned masses like a horned toro until reaching Rue des Bernardins.
Rue des Bernardins always felt shaded despite the white exteriors of its structures. By habit, I peered into the dark windows of Curio Parlor, a bar which was once tucked away here and where I celebrated my 24th birthday, aiming to see the taxidermy on the walls or the glossy black martini bar even if it was closed during Paris’ daylight hours. And suddenly there it was, the sun, as I left the street’s narrow corridor and stepped out onto the quai which runs along the Seine.
Of course, it’s Paris — it rains, it’s often covered in clouds, but I only remember the sun coming out for me as I would cross Pont de l’Archevêché and peer out over the river onto Île Saint-Louis. Cathédrale Notre-Dame etched in my periphery like a postcard and yet my gaze was always to the île. It encapsulated the epitome of an American’s dream of Paris. If I close my eyes it’s just as vivid as the first, tenth and hundredth time I looked at it, regardless of having returned to my hometown of New York City some five years ago. I remember the île and the surrounding quai glistening. It was shiny and spotlighted in gold.
Pont Saint-Louis often was crowded — with tourists, masseuses or dancing rollerbladers, or sometimes pleasantly with a lone pianist — but, when I close my eyes, the bridge is quiet and my own. Only the lone or coupled Parisians and expats whose postal codes began with 75 would elegantly glaze passed as though hired scenery. This view unto Île Saint-Louis and the river bend might be the most beautiful place in the world. For me, it rivals any natural wonder. Its allure could drive me melancholic, knowing the city was not mine, like a deep red and purple sunset that slips away out of grasp, I knew that all too soon I would be on a plane back to bustling Manhattan, the caput mundi I know so well, which somehow seemed a less appropriate backdrop for my acquired European sensibilities.
On the days I continued my walk north toward le marais, I would alternate selecting Pont Louis-Philippe following it up Rue Vieille du Temple and taking the farther Pont Marie to Rue Saint-Paul. Here I’d pass the Thanksgiving store — a familiar place filled with foods I seldom actually consume in my American life. Inevitably, I found myself following my footsteps to Place des Vosges, a red square in the heart of the 4eme, its pigment so diverse from Paris’ soft tones but just as pleasing to the eye.
Perhaps, I would find a windowed or outdoor seat for a café express (French for espresso). Most often, my first express of the morning was drunk on the window ledge at the Gerard Mulot at the end of my street (before they built the second outpost and restaurant directly across from my old apartment and next to one of our old university haunts — The Moose). I’d knock it back like a Roman and take my croissant in a bag up Rue de Tournon to the Jardin de Luxe[mbourg]. I let the crumbs sink into the bag as I pulled apart the pastry which melted in my mouth in a seemingly calorie-free euphoria.
I have a lot of memories in Paris. My early-to-mid twenties were shaped by the city and no matter how in love, broken-hearted, stressed, happy, drunk, hungover, direction-less, masterful, lonely or surrounded with the best of friends that I still treasure closely — I always had Paris.
I hold a dream of this city which I remember with such an unreasonable perfection that I may never be able to truly exist anywhere else, just as Ashbery described. Her perfectly lit architectural wonders, her street parade of crafted delicacies and beautiful people aiming to catch your glance — it’s all so sacred — this idea that this way of life can belong to someone, that it can truly exist. New York may be the city that never sleeps but I remember Paris as the city where the night is always still young — full of spontaneity, opportunity, and wonder.
Notes on a Tragedy
I felt compelled to write this article when Paris was struck by terrorism in 2015. I wanted to talk about a city that is so important to me while trying to make sense of the changing world. I thought about removing the second part of the article (below) and just make it a travel piece about Paris. But that seemed inauthentic to world’s goings-on, our collective memory, and how it affected me at the time.
When Paris was hit by terrorism this weekend hearts were broken, families broken, and my dream abruptly awakened. My dear city was somehow toughened, darkened. The very culture that I hold in such esteem, affronted.
At sixteen years old, I participated in an exchange program at a high school in Marseille. It was the same year my city — New York City — had been broken, our hearts, our families, our skyline.
I do not know if we ever patch the broken pieces back together. It seems we eventually pick up again as we know how to be. Some say time heals, but I think time just makes the past seem farther away.
On 9/11 our world changed. Traveling changed. Airports changed. Suddenly we live in a targeted world and while mostly it feels like we can live our lives freely, we still seem to straddle this age of uncertainty, even if we can take comfort in not feeling ‘under siege’ every day.
I do not have an answer, nor advice for healing wounds that may cut so deep that we are forever changed. I can only confess my love for Paris and for New York, the two cities who raised me. I can only say, keep embracing new places, keep exploring, traveling, discovering, keep hoping, keep dreaming.
During my years as a Parisienne.