Forty summers ago, Paris changed my life.
I’d arrived in June as a fresh college graduate, a romantic dreamer, and wannabe poet, uncertain where my life path was leading. I had a summer internship at Kodak-Pathé, after which I had a fellowship to teach for nine months at Athens College in Greece. And after that? I wasn’t sure.
I’ve described what happened that summer in the pages of Traveler magazine:
“One morning halfway through my stay, I took my apartment building’s rickety old filigreed elevator as usual from the fifth floor to the hushed shade of the ground-floor entryway, then stepped through the massive wooden doors into the street—and stopped. All around me people were speaking French, wearing French, acting French. Shrugging their shoulders and twirling their scarves and drinking their cafés crèmes, calling out ‘Bonjour, monsieur-dame’ and paying for Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur with francs and stepping importantly around me and staring straight into my eyes and subtly smiling in a way that only the French do.
Until that summer, I had spent most of my life in classrooms, and I was planning after that European detour to spend most of the rest of my life in classrooms. Suddenly it struck me: This was the classroom. Not the musty, ivy-draped halls in which I had spent the previous four years. This world of wide boulevards and centuries-old buildings and six-table sawdust restaurants and glasses of vin ordinaire and poetry readings in cramped second-floor bookshops and mysterious women smiling at you so that your heart leaped and you walked for hours restless under the plane trees by the Seine. This was the classroom.”
The seed of wanderlust was planted, and by the end of the year, that seed had started its slow bloom into a new dream: I would become a travel writer.
This summer, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of that life-changing stay, I managed to carve out three days to spend in Paris. I arrived with no specific agenda or itinerary, but in the back of my mind I was hoping to reunite with that long-ago me.
And so I retraced my steps. I went to my former residence on rue de Rivoli, where I had taken that filigreed elevator to an unexpected epiphany.
I walked through the mind-greening Jardin des Tuileries, past the summer Ferris wheel that I used to admire every day, past the neatly tended flower beds and the noble statues that reminded me then—and now—of the city’s magnificent, multi-layered past.
One afternoon, just as I used to, I sat on a bench in the exquisite Place des Vosges in Le Marais, scribbling in my journal: “What is it about Paris? The architecture is so elegant, artful—it manifests such intelligence. Just as the French are artful and philosophical, the city itself exudes that same spirit. I think it’s that sense of some higher calling infusing the city that so drew me to it—history, art, heart, an intellectual and sensual celebration.”
I made a pilgrimage to Notre Dame and wondered again at its soaring stone and luminously layered stained glass. Sitting in a pew at the front of the church, I watched as a wizened, white-haired man walked through an oblivious group of selfie-snapping students, then stopped and laboriously prostrated himself on the marble floor, touching his forehead to the cold stone. When he raised himself, he put his finger to his forehead and made the sign of the cross.
I opened my journal and wrote, “Just as I did 40 years before, I wonder now: How many soles and souls have found their way here? How many dreams, hopes, despairs commingle in this sacred air?”
After Notre Dame I made a pilgrimage of another kind, to the legendary bookstore Shakespeare and Company. In the 1990s, I had traveled to Paris as the travel editor of the San Francisco Examiner. On that trip, whenever I mentioned this store, people would refer to its store’s owner as “George-Whitman-who-knows-Ferlinghetti,” in reference to the famous San Francisco poet and owner of City Lights bookstore.
As I recalled this, I watched an endless stream of people snap photographs of the bookstore’s façade, then noticed a distinguished older gentleman being escorted up a set of stairs. He looked familiar, but it took me a few minutes to place him. When I approached a bookstore employee, she confirmed my suspicion. “Yes, that’s Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He’s in Paris for a few days.”
And so past and past and present interwove throughout my three days, enriching, deepening, expanding in a way that I hadn’t even dared to dream.
It all came together for me on my very last night in Paris. For my final dinner, I had decided that I would go some place suffused with meaning for me. But as I left my apartment on the rue de Jarente, I walked through the charming, compact square over which my bedroom window looked, the Place du Marche Sainte-Catherine. It was an appealing spot at any time of day, cobbled and tree-shaded, with one well-appointed restaurant on each side, but now, as dusk cast it in a grainy, magical light, it seemed especially alluring.
I stopped at a restaurant called La Terrasse Sainte-Catherine. There were perhaps a dozen tables outside, and all the patrons were laughing and eating and drinking and seeming to have a wonderful time. So I spontaneously decided to stop and have a drink. A waitress greeted me with a dazzling smile and after I mustered my best French to say that I just wanted to have a drink and would it still be OK for me to sit at a table, she winked at a table full of regulars and said, “Usually it is not OK, but when a customer asks so beautifully—of course, have a seat!” She laughed and they laughed, and immediately I felt at home.
I ordered a kir royale and absorbed the scene around me. The air was soft and warm, and in the gorgeous gloaming, everyone was exultant, talking passionately, eating passionately, drinking passionately, calling for more mussels and more wine. The couple to my left were animatedly discussing the prospects for the resurgence of the Left, the foursome in front of me were deconstructing the art exhibit they had just attended, and all around me the air sang with snippets of conversation—which beach to go to next week, the proper way to prepare tomatoes, the merits and demerits of this Bordeaux and that rosé.
One kir royale led to another, and suddenly I was telling Virginie, the wonderful waitress who had welcomed me, that I’d like to stay for dinner after all, and as she winked and said, “I knew this would happen,” I ordered a pitcher of rosé and asked her recommendation for an entrée. The regulars had an opinion about this, as did most of the diners at the surrounding tables, and after much back and forth, I ended up ordering—to a communal “Bravo!”—the entrecôte and frites.
Suddenly I was swept into a buoyant bubble of bonhomie, and before long the two sprightly seventy-something women on my right—one from Algeria, the other from Spain, and both now residing in Paris—were leading me through a small universe of topics: the allure of Paris (“the beauty, the history!”), French politics, American politics (“Who is this Trump?”), immigration, racism, Obama, climate change, the future of the world. Fueled by entrecote and rose, I was somehow able to follow—and fully participate in—this hour-long odyssey.
After the women had departed and the regulars had shaken my hand and clapped me on the back, and the art-deconstructionists had bade me philosophical farewells, Virginie brought me a pear digestif on the house, and I opened my journal.
Suddenly, everything seemed to come together, and I caught a glimmering of one truth that this journey—three days, 40 years—had revealed:
“Forty years ago I was surrounded by wonderful people—Marie-Claire and Didier, Isabelle, Patrick, Michel, the Baillets and the de Chevignys—who became a second family for me. In a way all that seems so long ago, such a different time of life—and yet tonight, too, for a moment, I became a part of an extended family, and when I think more deeply, after three days here, I feel a direct thread between then and now.
I still feel there is so much to wonder at—so much beauty, so much passion, so much caring, so much kindness, so much richness and diversity and creative energy.
“I realize that I haven’t had a single moment during these three days when I totally focused on the me of 40 years ago and tried to bring him to life again. Instead, I’ve focused on absorbing Paris now, losing myself to the city now, grokking it as it is now.”
I remembered Hemingway’s famous words to a friend: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”
And I wrote:
“This is to be young—whatever your age—and in Paris, to immerse yourself in a celebration of life and art and light and sensuality and elegance and philosophy and intelligence and beauty.
Sitting in this enchanted place, in this enchanted city, I feel the continuity of my life more deeply than ever. And I realize that I don’t need to connect to the young me, that there is no young me out there waiting to be found.
I am the young me; we are one and the same. He has always been here, and always will be—deeply alive and in Paris, just as Paris is deeply alive and in me.”
Don George is an editor at large at Traveler and the author of The Way of Wanderlust and Lonely Planet’s Guide to Travel Writing. He has also edited award-winning travel writing anthologies, including An Innocent Abroad. Follow Don on Twitter @don_george.