“What was this Paris like? What a vague name! She repeated it [...] for the mere pleasure of it; it rang in her ears like a great cathedral bell; it shone before her eyes, even on labels of her pomade-pots.”
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary, Michel Lévy, 1857.
Dear Paris. I owe you what I am.
It was love at first sight. I was one of the countless tourists who arrived in the city of lights on a sunny summer day in 2006. Everything I was dreaming of exploring was big and shiny: the Eiffel Tower, the grand boulevards, the Louvre, the Palais de Versailles. I visited all of them and was amazed, of course. I had one day left. I put the rest of my plans in my suitcase, tossed the map away and went back to the streets; this time, with no destination in mind. Paris started to work its magic on me. I went to Saint-Germain-des-Prés and wandered through its narrow streets lined with art galleries and old bookstores. I got myself a memoir by Hemingway and looked for a sunny café terrace. Although the famous Café de Flore and Les Deux Magots were a stone’s throw away, the red tent of café Bonaparte drew me like a magnet. “Paris is a moveable feast” Ernest used to say; “Wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you”. I looked around me and everything seemed strangely familiar. Why did I feel like I was carrying this city with me all along?
Was it because of all the French songs that filled my head with their tunes when I was a kid? Should I put the blame on Yves Montand’s velvet voice singing softly to my ears “A Paris”? Or maybe, on Joe Dassin’s “Champs Elysées” ? The Champs Elysées… One idea brought me rapidly to another, as if I was playing in a Cadavre Exquis, the Surrealists’ game of thought association.
I felt as if I already knew the Champs Elysées and the other big avenues of Paris. With their literature, Emile Zola and Gustave Flaubert had flown me there years before Air France ever did. These two eminent historical novelists described Paris in such detail, such realism I had never seen before; they depicted a world as glamorous as it was cruel, in textures you could almost touch, scents you could almost smell.
They brought to life a 19th-century metropolis in its renaissance, with its Haussmannian boulevards, its new Opera house, the first department store… Reading one page after another, I could almost feel myself being there. I could see the ladies coming out of their carriages in red velvet gowns, eager to show off their pearls and their refined manners. I imagined gentlemen at the Opera Garnier parading their vanity along front seat rows. Morality was gradually succumbing to the marvels of a newfound capitalism that placed the world at the feet of a mighty bourgeoisie.
Just when this golden era was about to consume itself in the Natures Mortes of Cezanne, the bourgeois portraits of Manet, or Gaughin’s exotic beauties, the French capital started to draw, one after another, a younger generation of artists from across Europe. Gallery owners and impresarios –offspring of the recent economic boom- had the eye to recognize the talent of a Picasso, a Stravinsky, a Brancusi, or a Chagall. From their tiny, humid rooms in Montmartre, these avant-garde newcomers of the École de Paris laid the foundations of modern art as we know it and made Paris its world capital over the first half of the 20th century.
«Voulez-vous un autre café ?» The waiter cut my daydreaming short and a new thought dawned upon me: I came to admire the grand Paris, but it was the small one that ended up seducing me: the small coffee table I was sitting at; the narrow streets in which I got lost; that pocket book I was holding; and Place de Furstenberg, a tiny square I had discovered earlier, hidden like a lost gem. That evening, I watched the sun go down from the Pont des Arts and headed to the city’s oldest jazz club.
I knew nothing about jazz, except for two albums by Miles Davis. When high-pitched notes of the trumpet started to bump nervously into the stone walls of the low ceiling, I began to suspect that this city would suit me to perfection. And that I should come back.
A city to discover yourself in
A year later, I was moving to Paris as a student of international law. Four decades after the revolution of May ’68, I found myself sitting at the square of the Sorbonne University, trying to imagine what the manifesto of my own life would be. It took me over a decade to be able to write only a preface, and I mostly owe that to the City of Lights.
Discovering Paris helped me discover myself. The city revealed to me an unsuspected interest for the history of arts that I cultivated in its schools, museums, and historical sites; from Paris I set sail to explore Europe and admire its cultural treasures. Thanks to Paris, I fell in love with Italy, with its serene Renaissance and its dramatic Baroque, its food culture, and its gorgeous landscapes. The Parisians taught me how important it is to make time for the simple pleasures in life, and, among the new friends that I made, I found myself a life companion: jazz.
You see, they say that Paris is an introvert of a city, but this is only the surface. Yes, you may feel more comfortable if you speak the language, but even if you don’t, Paris offers plenty of activities that open up to the foreign, the different: exhibitions on ancient or modern civilizations from Japan to Peru; seminars and films, literary diners and philosophical salons, gastronomic trips and classes unearthing old languages and local idioms. Paris knows how to satisfy the curiosity of both its guests and residents, on one condition: you have to be willing to scratch its surface.
And that brings me to three pieces of advice that I always give to friends who ask me how to get a better understanding of Paris and its people during their visit.
3 golden tips
He runs over the old book cover with his fingertip checking how much gilt is left on the spine. Its content? That’s for the intellectuals. He is a collector.
The art of display
A scarf embracing the neck of a statue; A shop front glowing with drops of crystal; Cherry cakes glossier than lip-gloss. Paris is a master in the art of display.
A place to debate or philosophize, to seduce or break-up, to spread rumors or write a book…The Parisian café is everything but a coffee shop.