Why My Project Fascinates Me

I remember my first day in Paris. I told you about it a little. I walked all over without knowing where I was or where I was going. I had a vague idea that I wanted to have a Real French Meal at one of the big, old- fashioned restaurants around Les Halles. I worked at a restaurant in DC called Brasserie Les Halles (of Tony Bourdain fame) so it seemed like a symbolic enough goal. I wasn’t aware at the time how silly the idea of walking from Auteuil to Les Halles was. It must have been something like 10 kilometers the way I zigged and zagged from the Eiffel Tower to the Champs Elysées, from the Latin Quarter to Sebastopol. I would wander for ten minutes, look up, see the Louvre, and think, “Oh, that’s it…” I saw half the city on that walk and blamed everything from hunger to fatigue to overstimulation for why the city I had waited so long to see wasn’t knocking me off my feet the way I expected it to.

Tonight I took all the money I’ve been saving up the past few days (mm, pasta) and treated myself to a Real French Meal. One of the few classics of French cuisine that I had never managed to try: sole meunière (somehow I dove into blood sausage, veal kidneys, liver, and pig’s foot before fish in brown butter). The first dish Julia Child had when she first came to Paris with Paul and the memory with which she began her memoirs. One of the dishes that epitomizes French cooking to me: simple food in a simple sauce with nothing for the chef to hide behind. Just skill and technique and patience to determine how the meal turns out.

And afterwards I wanted to go table to table and just kiss everyone in the restaurant on the mouth.

When I left the restaurant, it was still early – the one American habit I cannot break is eating dinner before 9:00 – so I decided to take a walk.

I took the Boulevard du Montparnasse down to the Boulevard Saint-Michel and started walking toward the Seine. In my research, I’ve been reading François Loyer’s book, Paris XIXe Siècle: The Building and the Street. He studies the history of Paris living spaces in the 19th century and how the apartment was born and how it evolved. Part of it is a description of how the aesthetics of buildings and building façades changed over the years according to different artistic movements, and as I walked down the Boul’ Sain’-Mich’, I started to notice the differences between the buildings across the street from me.

I said before that I sometimes feel as if I can walk forever in Paris, and when I’m here, I find that a long walk through my favorite parts of the city is the fastest cure to any malaise.

There is a restaurant on the Pont Neuf, right where the two quais meet, outside of the Place Dauphine, in view of the great statue of Henri IV, where I met some friends for dinner once. My friend, Selin’s, old roommate was visiting and Selin couldn’t resist introducing her to us. The name of the restaurant was Quai-Quai and the reservation was at 8:30. I was that night, as I always am, impatient, and I got there an hour early. I thought I would take a walk around. I remember I was wearing a sweater over my shirt so that I would look nice, but it and the thin fabric of my pants could not keep the cold out. The rain fell slowly, hanging in the hair like cars passing an accident on the highway. For some reason I didn’t have an umbrella.

I thought about going into the restaurant to wait, but I was too shy. My French at that point was not very good. Twice I walked around the île-de-la-cité, admiring the Notre Dame in the lights. I passed through the Place Dauphine. I walked all the way to the end of the bridge towards La Samaritaine and then back in the other direction, but I never made it to the other side. I stopped halfway across the bridge, almost all alone. A man in a long trench coat holding an umbrella in his right hand walked by with his girlfriend, in a beautiful black dress, wrapped in his left. They walked along the slick pavement, entwined together, stopping to kiss the way you imagine Parisians from old movies you’ve seen must kiss. The Seine was like a glacier, frozen in place but still sliding down beneath my feet. The wall of the left bank followed it off into the distance, tracing the edge of the river with its streetlights. The buildings were just barely visible in their glow, watching with me as the river slowly trundled by. It could have been any year.

The thick mist of that night stood between me and the city like a sepia dye. The cold rain collected in droplets on my arms and my sweater sagged under the weight. Into the bridge are carved semi-circular niches and I couldn’t help crawling into one of them. I placed my knees on the seat and my elbows on the lip of the bridge and leaned forward. The sounds of the city were reduced to a whisper telling me things I didn’t yet understand, and I reached my arms out over the edge of the bridge and embraced Paris. The lights of the streets and the bedrooms refracted through the mist and bounced off the rippled water such that one thousand lights because one million. I felt that the whole world was moving, except for the Eiffel Tower, which stood still, fixing the horizon. The whole world and I with it revolved around her. And at 8:00 PM when she lit up in a million sparkling lights, it was as if the sky had erupted and its stars had fallen to earth.

On cold evenings, when I walk past that spot on the Pont Neuf, I feel my skin prickle and I stop. I remember the taste of the sausage and the mashed potatoes I ate that night. I remember the wine we drank. I remember the sounds of girls laughing and I remember Selin’s moans of delight as she and I shared a heavenly pain perdu for dessert. I remember the cool breeze as we stepped out onto the street. And I remember that the city itself seemed to become a knowing grin.

When my walk tonight had slid its way from Saint-Michel down to Saint-Germain, through hidden passages and medieval streets out onto the Pont Neuf, I remembered that night. I thought about Selin and how beautiful the city seemed the first time I saw it light up. I thought about that meal, which made me think about the meal I had tonight.

My walk eventually took me around Les Halles and the Louvre. I saw some Americans scream and run out into the Tuileries to take pictures of the Eiffel Tower when it lit up. And I kept thinking about that first day. These days I can’t look at any of the things I saw on that first walk without being overwhelmed. Now, every time I walk down the Champs Elysées I remember that silly first afternoon, my endless energy, how new and bewildering everything was. I am reminded how silly I felt the second time I saw the Champs-Elysées, when I first looked back on the first. And I remember all of the times after that.

Paris is a special city for memory, and it has a long one of its own. As I sit here in my apartment on the Rue Delambre, I find myself looking out my window onto history, from Louis XIV and the original boulevards of Paris to the Second Empire to Ernest Hemingway. They are all scattered out on that street, and among those shreds of memory I find the night of the thunderstorm when Alex and I sat outside under the awning of Le Select, and the night with Maria that ended with 14 euro strawberries at Brasserie Lipp, and the last night with Selin when the waiter asked when we were getting married and I said, “tomorrow, unfortunately,” because I thought he asked when we were leaving France. And I can feel tonight being slowly rolled between history’s fingers, rolled into a little ball to be flicked out my window, briefly atop the ever-growing pile of memories.

Paris was not, for me, its most beautiful when I first saw it. It was certainly a lovely city, but it wasn’t until streets began to be saturated with my happinesses and fears and memories that it began to be incomparable. And so necessarily, each day it gets more beautiful.

I’ve felt for a long time that Paris was the secret in some way to understanding me. The name of the city pops up in various moments in my family’s history, and it has always seemed somehow significant. When I was sixteen, I read The Sun Also Rises for the first time and I thought that if I could just go to La Closerie des Lilas or drink coffee at La Rotonde that everything would make sense.

It is a generous city, and if you let it, it will let you add your experiences onto the long fabric of its own. It will let you eat where Hemingway ate, and it will let you write there, too. And if your books become famous, it will add your name next to his. It will let you sit on a café terrace and participate in the long history of boulevards. If you know how to read them, its streets will recount to you a long story ending in your own.

As I walked down the Boulevard Saint-Michel this evening, I looked over at the long row of façades on the other side of the street and realized I could read them like I never could before. I could tell from the shape of the roof and the type of balcony what decade the building came from. I could tell from the difference in height which building came first and how much the architect cared about homogeneity. I could tell what kind of people used to live there and I knew why the Saint-Michel was important. So many stories were opening themselves up to me, and so many new mysteries, too. Why is there a courtyard behind the Comédie Saint-Michel? How did four apartments in a row, all on one block and all by the same architect, end up with such wildly different façades? Is that building on the corner from the 18th century or is it pretending to be?

Each day this project teaches me new things about this city, but the really exciting part is to be able to get myself lost in some strange neighborhood, look up, and start to unravel the hundreds of years of history that led to me standing there.

My next missive will be more about what I’m reading, because frankly I do nothing during the day but read and eat and I’m finding most of it extremely interesting. But I hope you can excuse me this one digression into francophilia to let me try to explain why it is I’ve come 3000 miles or whatever it is to study 150-year-old street maps.