Last October I achieved the unenviable milestone of passing a full year without spending time in Paris. By now, my withdrawal symptoms should be subsiding, but no, they surge uncontrollably at the slightest provocation. To soothe my malaise, I drop in for a perfectly brown and crusty croissant at the one downtown patisserie in our West Coast, USA, university town that is capable of producing a convincing facsimile. It’s a great croissant. I squint hard and sniff for a whiff of diesel to evoke an early morning café in the City of Lights, but I’m not there.
Honestly I prefer not to talk about it. To the random American, it sounds effete. The phenomenon of Francophilia is not particular to me. What can I say? “Paris feels like a second home?” This is ludicrous, like the faithful servant granted a night alone in the palace. Home? I wish. Or I pretend. Desperate to maintain the language, I peruse Le Monde, the French daily, for news of the latest strikes. I engage conversation and even hazard a recently acquired French idiom on a French-speaking guy on the bus. Pleased with the attention, he thinks, under his ironic grin, “Pathetic.”
No, at this stage of my displacement, I’m hooked on a more satisfactory accommodation: Oliver Gee’s “The Earful Tower” podcasts. An Aussie, in Paris for nearly five years, he engages savvy guests and compelling topics on all things French and Parisian: the Seine, the best fromagerie (cheese shop), the Mona Lisa, critical pronunciations, great walks, best streets. On those mornings I awake with my familiar yearning, I turn over in bed to indulge myself in Oliver’s most recent podcast. I’m immediately swept into his ardent enthusiasm for his subject matter. Is it difficult for him to sustain this pitch over time? Does he weary of cranking up for each episode? Does your love for a place intensify only when you know that one day you will lose it? Just so, Oliver often closes by asking his guest some version of “If it were your last day in Paris, how would you spend it? Where would you go, and what would you do?”
The question has inspired a new daily occupation. In quiet winter moments, on meditative walks or sitting by the fire, I’m dreaming up ways to spend my last day in Paris. If it has not occurred already, it has to come sometime, right? Best be ready.
How would I do this; that is, how would I say goodbye? Having lived in the 2e arrondissement (2nd district) as my home base for a period some years past, I imagine I herald my last day exiting through a large dark green door onto rue de Richelieu, for a short jaunt to Notre-Dame des Victoires (at Place des Petits Pères, in case you’re curious) for early mass in this parish that possesses an authentic, diverse, and devout congregation, unabashedly at prayer and meditation as a natural way to greet the day. Hence, in silence I gather my wits and brace myself for the hours that will tick away today’s time.
Fortified, I jut across Place des Victoires to the best morning street I know—OK, thousands of people’s special place—rue Montorgueil. Having snagged a newspaper from a tabac down the street, I light on the terrace at Café du Centre, for my café crème and croissant. There, across from the colorful fruit market, I intermittently read the paper, watch the world go by, and plot my route for the better part of an hour.
What have I determined as my meandering begins? My goal is not to preoccupy myself with anything grand. I want to pass my time as flâneur (an idle wanderer—masculine), or as Lauren Elkin feminizes it: flâneuse. More aptly, I want to stroll in that dolce far niente, or sweetness of doing nothing, perfected around the Mediterranean basin.
I aim myself toward the smaller island in the Seine, Île Saint-Louis, walking along Quai de l’Hôtel de Ville up to Pont Sully, a bridge leading me to the peaceful little park at the island’s eastern tip. From there I turn onto the street straight down the middle of the island: rue Saint-Louis en Île. I take my time along the less populated park-end of the street, frequently criss-crossing the ten to fifteen paces from one side to the other among the more sober, less kitschy establishments. Halfway along, the lately traffic-restricted street is choked with tourists drawn by ice cream. Hypocritically, I, a tourist, have the urge to bolt past the crowds jamming these perpetually inventive shops but find it hard to cast a cold eye. When I succumb and press my way inside, I fall upon beguiling soaps, scarves, hats, and art prints. Yet I firmly weigh any purchase as to whether it will impede my freedom of movement as the day progresses. In the end, I buy nothing.
I’ve reached the cafés at the end of the little island only to confront my first important decision. Feeling peckish, should I stop for a bite? I could grab a Berthillon sorbet, or even a ham/gruyère baguette sandwich and Orangina to nosh in the garden of Pope John XXIII behind Notre-Dame, just a hop over the bridge to the larger island, Île de la Cité.
I had tucked in my bag a little edition of a Willa Cather novel, The Professor’s House. The main character, Godfrey St. Peter, reflects on his early days in Paris. I can rest, read, and summon perspective in the sunshine of a garden bench, before my next foray across the river to Place Maubert, on the Left Bank. I’m struck with the realization that this must be a Tuesday, Thursday, or Saturday, so that I’m able to scope out the market! Yes, it’s Thursday. Yet I find today I’m not so much drawn to the linens,cutlery, and cheese. I pass through guiltless. I had put off lunch, after all. I figure from here, down rue des Écoles, past Montaigne’s statue, it’s only fifteen more minutes to a café that has previously proved its worth—Le Rostand, facing the Luxembourg gardens.
Have ingrained images from my first meal there on a Sunday morning decades earlier distorted today’s reality? Young parents crossing the intersection and through the Luxembourg gates with children in tow. Dark red and green curved-back woven chairs. Blue and white Villeroy and Boch china. Soft, moist omelettes with herbs, served with a little crystal pitcher of fresh lemon juice and a tiny Dijon mustard pot. Along came a basket of sliced baguette, of course. I even recall salient details of the blue and white tiled toilettes.
It is now half past midi (noon). I can dine at leisure on the warm terrace. First, I thoughtfully scrutinize the menu, and after five studious minutes, order an omelette anyway. Since the day is bright and temperate, I add a request for their smallest carafe of white wine, a Chablis, well chilled. I note ruefully that the china has been replaced and there is no fresh lemon juice today. The service is more tepid than warm, but the omelette and other details are true to form. I have decided to text a friend to meet me here. She arrives expeditiously, and we remain for a couple of hours, extending our meal with another carafe and an espresso to fuel the remainder of the afternoon through the gardens.
The Luxembourg gardens! How many writers have depicted trysts, espionage, or breakdowns under the protection of those green borders and in the anonymity of its diverted crowds? There is no such thing as rushing through; one strolls at a full-leisured pace, looking outward at the park’s many enchantments, whether the Medici fountain, the marionnettes, a carousel, a game of chess, brilliant French and English garden beds, potted palms, or pond sailboats. One luxuriates in rotating observation.
Following a short ramble, we don sunglasses and pull two chairs close to the pond, propping our feet on its ledge, so to gaze hypnotically on the children’s slow drifting sailboats while we dissect the engrossing interpersonal interplay, expansive gestures, and understated French style on display. We converse as the spirit moves, although an amiable silence better befits the drowsy tenor of this moment.
On towards evening, it’s time to stretch our legs. We slip around the western edge of the park, past the fountain at Saint-Sulpice. Here, convinced we are French after all, we exchange the affectation of farewell bisous (little cheek kisses). When would we meet again? Probably pretty soon back home, truth be told. Shaking off the languorous afternoon, my pace quickens, as I am to meet my husband at Le Fumoir, one of our go-to restaurants, at the Place du Louvre, for happy hour and dinner.
As I cross back to the Right Bank over the Pont des Arts, I realize I’m quite late. There can be no dawdling, though on such a fine evening, la vie en rose is on full display. Sunset’s pink and coral cloud fingers reach across from left to right bank. The bridge is uncharacteristically empty. Its unsightly padlocks have been stripped away for an unimpeded view west to the Tour Eiffel.
I find my husband looking self-satisfied and comfortably settled at an outdoor table with a Heineken, soaking up the sunset, now punctuated by glowing lamplight. I order a cool rosé to match the evening sky. They bring us tiny trays of nuts and olives.
Dark descends quickly, but our table inside is ready, in the cozy library room at the rear. We saunter back past familiar servers. They greet us cordially, while we suppress the sense that they are “friends” only in this moment, there to earn a living.
Once settled in a quiet corner, a bottle of Burgundy uncorked, we trade stories of our respective last adventures. He has been to his favorite haunts as well—to a pub between Place Saint-Michel and the innumerable Gibert Joseph bookstores of the Latin Quarter, to the bouquinistes (book and tchotchke sellers along the Seine), to see once more Poussin’s paintings at the Louvre, exiting toward the Tuileries.
As M.F.K. Fisher has written, everyone has their own mental map, highlighting what matters in a place they love. My husband and I each have our very own map. I think: where is this more likely than in Paris? I think: I will draw my map; I will mount it in my kitchen back home and take it down for revisions, plotting my next adventure as memories surge and fade. But wait: this is my last day. Do I want to lock in my map of a fixed time, conceived in vibrancy, too soon a dingy scrap of what has forever passed? Not likely.
After small bowls of savory lentil soup, we order our entrées, cod and lamb, and lift our glasses, pretentiously I fear, to the inoubliables (unforgettable): the people, places, and moments secure within our selves. Two hours along, we’ve failed to finish the bottle, but we push off, arms linked, to traipse up rue de Rivoli to Avenue de l’Opéra to rue St. Anne and back to Richelieu. What a day this has been; what a rare mood we’re in.
Back in our apartment, I grab some water from the fridge, drop my bag, fall on the couch, and hit “replay.” The only images that surface reveal what I have omitted: rue du Bac, Bois de Boulogne, Montmartre, the Arts et Métiers and Saint-Paul quarters. What was I thinking? I really have not left the center. Why, after all, must I avoid the métro or my favorite bus route, line 68? My day has been unintentionally but decidedly touristy. Unimaginative. I’ve botched it. If I had been strategic, I would have scheduled this day in the off-season. Is there an off-season? I would have stretched myself further in each direction.
We fly out tomorrow at 10:25 a.m. Next stop, Dulles, then points west. Tomorrow evening, my real home will feel comforting and easy, so why not let go? I know of no optimistic tradition in Paris, like the Fountain of Trevi in Rome, where you can toss a coin over your shoulder and into a basin to guarantee your return. As the years roll by, we lose confidence in such assurances. Is to be in Paris a consequence of chance or determination? Is it wise to force oneself to return everlastingly? Onward we advance, whether across an ocean or into the breach. The only comfort we possess is that as we forge our lives, at home or away, we become a composite of who we are based on where we’ve been.