Some cities – very few – we know as iconic citadels of our imagination, places of the heart, even if we have never been there: London and New York, of course; Jerusalem, possibly.
And then there is Paris.
We all know the feeling. Visit a place and you start to set a picture of it in your mind. But the next visit makes it seem different; the next, different again. Each recurrent visit has its new pleasures and discoveries as well its own dissilusionments. So has it been with Paris. Every time, it has its surprises, welcome or not, but I love it. We shall be there again before long.
The first time I saw Paris was in the early 1960s. I was an open-mouthed teenager and the city looked as it did in the Red Balloon. The buses still had the balcony at the back, pissoirs stood in the street, and a rich savoury smell, partly the fume of Gauloises, seem to cover the city. We stayed in the Rue Monge, which had a cosy village atmosphere I loved.
Later visits, when I was a penniless student, revealed more delights. Since I had no money for lunch, I used to buy bouches de la reine from a patisserie in the Rue des Petits Champs, next to the National Library in the 2nd arrondissement, and eat them under the trees of the Palais Royale over the road. Between the library and the palace stood a small bar, always filled with cops. There I stood at the zinc for four successive days until the barman began saying,”Your usual, Monsieur?” Oh thank you for that. Yes please, ice-cold Sancerre.
At the other end of the palace stands the Comedie Francaise. Somehow I wangled a ticket to a performance of Ruy Blas and was transfixed by a full-throttle display of French classical acting. In those days I was a devotee of Maurice Druon’s novels series Les Rois maudits and tracked down the place on the river where the last Master of the Temple, Jacques De Molay, burning at the stake, cursed Philip IV and his chancellor and Pope Clement V, all three of whom died within the year (1315).
A gay couple of cultivated American exiles living in the Boulevard Sebastopol gave me good advice. If you want to see what the French are really like, they said, visit the Law Courts. In those days you could stroll in without let or hindrance and listen to the advocates matching any classical actor in gesticulating bravura. Those days are gone, I’m sure.
My friends booked me a dinner in a small restaurant in Montmartre, run by a friend of theirs (I let him decide what I should eat and of course it was wonderful). A wedding party came in, the flamboyant groom a well-known transvestite cabaret star. Sidling into the party throng, and clutching a glass of champagne someone had given me, I asked him if I could kiss the demure bride,”like we do in England.” The bourgeois French macho beneath the extravagant make-up surfaced briefly and balefully: “Non!”
A patchwork of memories: idling by the river looking at all those old bookstalls and finding personal treasures that I still have; haunting the Louvre and the Sorbonne; picking up a young Midwestern blonde beauty near Notre Dame and taking her to lunch in the Rue des Rosiers, the old Jewish quarter; afternoon resting in the Luxembourg Gardens; evening mass in the church of St Louis en L’Ile, in the ultimate incarnation of a Parisian village; a summer evening’s concert of organ music by Messiaen in St Eustache, with the great man himself hovering over the organist; dusk in the busy streets of the Left Bank or up in Montmartre.
In later visits over the years I discovered other treasures: some of the suburbs like Passy, for instance, treats like the Musee D’Orsay, Napoleon’s tomb at the Invalides, the majesty and elegance of the 8th, and welcoming cafes here and there throughout the city. The music going through my head was Les roses et les lilas or the Swingle Singers singing Bach without words. And all the places I cannot now remember all made Paris magic for me. Now I come with family (two of whom now have an apartment in the Marais) and discover the dreamscape all over again through others’ eyes.
Two quotations frame a lifetime haunting the City of Light. One is by my hero Montaigne, whose statue faces the university. On the pedestal these words appear: “Paris a mon coeur des mon enfance.” [My heart has been with Paris since I was a child]. Students rub the statue for good luck. And at the other end of things like breathing, the proverb “Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris” (Thomas Gold Appleton in 1858). I hope that, when the time comes, I am part of their company, cheerfully descending the hill from Sacre Coeur on our way to a drink in the Rue Lepic.