We'll Always Have Paris

This story originally appeared on my travel blog at nocommonface.com.

I never really wanted to go to Paris. Or maybe it is more accurate to say that the thought of never making it to Paris didn’t bother me in the same way that the thought of not returning to it bothers my Aunt: a woman who would consider leaving her reasonably happy near fifty-year marriage to Manhattan if she knew that she and Paris were on the same page about commitment.

During the earlier part of my twenties, when I knew everything, Paris was a place where people went when there was something else they were looking for. And while I took pleasure then in the stories of those who had been there, I hadn’t yet grown old enough to understand what it was they were trying to find. On the other side of my twenties, I took a job in advertising, quickly understood, and a trip to Paris (among other places) was planned.

One of the first people to alter my tepid feelings for Paris was Adam Gopnik, whose book Paris to the Moon is a series of breathtaking short stories that detail his five-year stint as the Paris correspondent for the New Yorker. I read the book for the first time in 2009, in part as a preparatory measure for a meeting between the two of us that a friend had arranged, during which I’d planned to talk to him about what it takes to be a great writer. But the book taught me everything I needed to know: don’t talk about it.  Two years later I would buy my second copy at a used bookstore in Amsterdam.

In September of this year, my husband and I quit our jobs, moved out of our Chicago apartment, and began a seven-month journey around the world. On a flight to London, we thought of Paris, and we wondered what the hell we’d just done. True to his supernatural tendency to hear the calls of those who wonder what the hell they are doing, the opening scene of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris unfolded on the miniature screens in front of us. If you’ve never seen the film, let me spoil it for you: the first two minutes are a series of shots that show Paris in its various stages of dress.  Everything beyond this point is superfluous.

October arrived, and so did we, to Gare du Nord at 4:00 p.m. In my best incomprehensible french, I asked for directions to the number 4 metro line, and we navigated our way to the 9th arrondissement.

Pigalle?” a fragile female voice asked us over the train speakers as we boarded. “Pigalle!” she affirmed, while we, in the same moment asked of ourselves: Have we really made it? Yes, we really have.

Stepping out on to rue Pigalle, it becomes instantly apparent just how beautiful everyone is. Especially the children; many of whom, in their khaki shorts and sweater vests, lag slightly behind their mothers -- consumed by their own happiness and completely unaware of their good fortune. Juxtaposing this are the elderly women, who have the good fortune of sharing a commonality with Parisian architecture in the sense that both have succeeded in making something breathtaking out of their own frailty.

The latter I notice almost everywhere, particularly in the neighborhood Montmartre, which is the place where people go to in Paris when they want to see the whole of it. This view is arguably one of the greatest on the planet, and the best place to see it is from the lawn just outside Sacre Coeur.

In search of Jazz, as we often are, we found ourselves in Montmartre one night at BAB-ILO: A jazz club in a tiny basement space on rue du Baigneur. Here, we sipped banana juice among a mysterious turnout of seven who’d come to hear a regularly featured quintet. The cover charge was five euros; less than I’d paid for an unmemorable glass of wine at Les Artists café before we’d arrived. I still haven’t forgotten about the music. 

Enjoying Paris in the nighttime is habit-forming, and if you do it right, it can also be expensive. For this reason, even the Parisians choose to eat and entertain in their own kitchens. Many of which are wonders in themselves, though not without the help of the markets.

Le Marche de Barbès: Apart from its reputation as one of the most popular open-air food markets in Paris, this bi-weekly public garden of culture and humanity, which can be witnessed beneath the train tracks at the Barbès-Rochechouart stop on the metro, is just as beautiful as any Rodin, Le Vau or Le Brun you will find. It is a place where merchants of all creeds and colors sell goods of all shapes and sizes to crowds of all social and economic classes. Their common thread: excellent taste. Everything at this market is as cheap as it is delicious, and the most unforgettable meals we had in Paris were cooked in a kitchen off of Cite Pigalle by a beautiful French woman who likely spent less than 15 euros in preparation for it.

It was during one of these meals that I caught my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, the taller half of which peeks up over many of the rooftops in the 9th arrondissement. 

When you travel to Paris for the first time, you can expect to be left speechless and satisfied as you savor your first taste of its air: for you are at the start of an adventure that so many long for and never get to have. You can expect to begin each day with pastries and coffee whose richness can never be experienced twice; you can expect to be overwhelmed after a morning at the Louvre and then delighted as you recover from it on a bench in the Jardin du Luxembourg, but nothing can prepare you for or help you to anticipate just how or when you will fall in love with Paris. For me, it was this moment -- when I was guided up the stairs of a beautiful Parisian apartment and greeted by an inexplicably familiar landmark who was dressed for the occassion like an enormous glass of champagne. It was the exact moment I understood what people go to Paris to find. And even after two and a half weeks of indulging in the whole of the city, it will forever be the primary reason why I return.