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Louvre circa 1989. Photo ©nztony
PARIS: A STATE OF MIND
by Cathy Fiorello
I have friends whose goal is to see the whole world. They keep a list, crossing off where they’ve been, and checking where they’ll go next. They wonder why I keep going back to Paris. They don’t understand that, for me, Paris is not about seeing, it’s about being. That’s where I want to be. John Baxter, an Australian expat living in Paris, says, “The love of a city, like the love of a person, often begins in the first instant of encounter.” That’s exactly what happened to me the first time I walked across Pont Royal to the Left Bank. I never knew something had been missing from my life, until I got to Paris.
I went to France the first time because I couldn’t get into Italy. The Italian tour I wanted was booked and my travel agent offered France as a consolation. This turned out to be one of the happiest mishaps of my life. After two weeks of glorious drives through Normandy, Brittany, and the Loire Valley, we made the final push into Paris where, after three days, the tour would end. My husband, who had studied art in Paris a lifetime ago, knew just where to lead me in the brief time we were there. We checked into our Right Bank hotel, crossed the boulevard to the Louvre Museum, and paid our respects to the Grandes Dames of Paris art. We looked in on the Mona Lisa, sprinted from the Winged Victory to the Venus de Milo and Diana the Huntress; then circled the Three Graces. On the way to the exit, we passed some Raphaels and a Titian or two.
Pont Royal circa 1954. Photo ©margnac
“Now I want you to see the real Paris,” he said as we walked out of the museum into a steady drizzle. We crossed the nearby Pont Royal to the Left Bank, wandering through its narrow streets without a map, without a plan, without an umbrella, soaking up the rain and the delights we encountered around every turn.
The next day was crammed with bus tours. You can’t see Paris from the windows of a bus; it’s a walking city. I longed to be on foot, free to linger at places I had only read about. On our walk through the Left Bank the day before I had breathed in the essence of Paris and had yet to breathe it out when we boarded the plane for home. My personal travel compass was fixed in “return” position. I knew I would be back.
Shakespeare And Company (the late owner George Whitman in brown suit) circa 1988. Photo ©Brin d’Acier
More than twenty years have passed since I first saw Paris and I’ve yet to become blasé about the city; it never fails to enchant me. The crowds that accompany the tourist season, the scaffolding covering a favorite monument, the ubiquitous strike, or two—nothing detracts from my joy in being back. I’m an unabashed romantic when it comes to Paris. As I walk the cobbled alleys and explore the Left Bank shops, I imagine the impoverished authors, now revered, who slept on cots at the Shakespeare & Company bookstore while they were learning their craft. I see a young Hemingway at La Closerie des Lilas nursing a coffee and trying to keep warm, all the while creating characters that are now literary legends. I smile when I come to the bouquinistes on the banks of the Seine and see that the “authentic” first printing copy of The Little Prince is still there. I don’t look for the new, the “in” attractions of the current tourist season. I need to touch bases with the old, to be reassured that the Paris I hold dear hasn’t changed.
La Closerie des Lilas circa 1988. Photo ©Bill W
We had that trip to Italy that we were booked out of the previous year. Again, it was a two-week tour, taking us from Sorrento in the south to Venice in the north—all of it beautiful. Being of Italian descent, my father having come to America as a young boy, there were many nostalgic moments. The kind, eager-to-please people brought back memories of the relatives still steeped in old-world customs who were so much a part of my childhood. Even the food was reminiscent of what I had eaten at their tables. The landscape was captivating— is there a city more magical than the floating mirage of Venice? That’s where I should have lost my heart; but it was too late. I had left it in Paris.
Cathy Fiorello writes in her bio that she’s passionate about food, Paris and writing. Please click on her name to read her profile and more stories by Cathy published by BonjourParis.