These stories throw open the creaky door of history and let the light of this marvelous city flood out. Notable authors include: John Gregory Dunne, Ina Caro, Mort Rosenblum, Edmund White, and Jan Morris.
Imagine leaving this world without ever having seen Paris. For those who have been there, the thought is unthinkable. For those who haven’t yet had the chance, the thought is a reminder that their lives will be impoverished until they go, for Paris is the center of the civilized universe, the capital of the Western world, a city of transcendent beauty which belongs to everyone.
It is one of a handful of cities on earth one should endeavor to know over the course of a lifetime, not just in one or two or even a half-dozen visits. Paris—or Parisians—may rebuff you from time to time, but then, that is one of its duties, one of its perverse pleasures. Paris is not lightly seduced, not to be trifled with.
There are those who say darkly that Paris isn’t what it used to be; that hordes of visitors have irrevocably changed it for the worse; that in pandering to the needs of tourism the city has become a parody of itself, nothing more than a cultural amusement park. And of course, there is truth to the lament of the cynical, to those weary of slack-jawed foreigners who spout a kind of French which bears more resemblance to the gibberings of the Neolithic than it does the language of Molière and Victor Hugo. But Paris is such a mighty archetype that these things ultimately do not matter.
The images of Paris are familiar to all: barges on the Seine; the Eiffel Tower poking into a summer sunset; the Cathedral of Notre Dame standing stoutly on its island in the middle of the river; the Pei Pyramid glowing before the classical lines of the Louvre; the Basilica of Sacré-Couer stark white above the streets of Montmartre; the Arc de Triomphe dominating the chaotic roundabout of Le Étoile, an architectural key to the Champs Elysées and the grand obelisk at Place de la Concorde, site of the horrors of the French Revolution; lovers embracing in the Tuileries; the famed headstones of Père-Lachaise cemetery; the ubiquitous cafés and well-dressed Parisians and coiffed dogs; arresting new architecture and the fabulous Métro; the list goes on and on.
There may be no city more uplifting to the human spirit. It is a place to explore the dimensions of yourself or those of someone you love—to walk and talk, to argue about life, to sit and contemplate the events of human history which have played themselves out here on these streets, on the banks of this river.
And yet as heavy with tradition and culture as it is, the City of Light has bestowed on countless millions the gift of the incandescent present, an image, an experience or moment into which all life is condensed, to be reflected upon for years to come. Paris is a place to feel especially alive, and it’s here now, waiting for you to come, sample its treasures, and make it yours.
PART ONE: ESSENCE OF PARIS
Vive l’Argument — Thom Elkjer
Behind the Wheel — John Gregory Dunne
The Gift — Joseph Diedrich
On the Left Bank — Herbert Gold
The Mystical Scarf-Tying Gene — Lynn Schnurnberger
Le Paris Profond — Jack E. Bronston
St-Germain-des-Prés — Shusha Guppy
The Concierge — Edmund White
The Hungry Museum — Helen Dudar
Excusez-Moi, Je Suis Sick as a Dog — Maryalicia Post
Within the Périphérique — Jan Morris
PART TWO: SOME THINGS TO DO
The Empire of Death — Loren Rhoads
Paris Rapture — Michele Anna Jordan
Illumined in Sainte-Chapelle — Tim O’Reilly
On Ile St-Louis — Herbert Gold
Bonjour, Chaos — David Roberts
Monsieur Fix-It — Coleman Lollar
The Source — Mort Rosenblum
In Notre Dame — Donald W. George
Real Life House of Horrors — Taras Grescoe
The Fairy Palace — Ina Caro
PART THREE: GOING YOUR OWN WAY
My Idea of Paris — Maxine Rose Schur
Hair Pierre — Cailin Boyle
A Night in Gay Paree — Hanns Ebensten
Air Château — Bob Bradfield
Sacred Hill of the North — Irene-Marie Spencer
Turkish Baths — Lawrence Osborne
Wounded and Healed — George Vincent Wright
Montreuil-sous-Bois — David Applefield
The Frog and the Periscope — Tish Carnes Brown
PART FOUR: IN THE SHADOWS
Destination Paris — Marcel F. Laventurier
Bearing Witness — Thérèse Lung
Monsieur de Paris — Robert Daley
La Photo — Cori Kenicer
Fleeing the Splendor — Ina Caro
PART FIVE: THE LAST WORD
St-Julian the Poor — Julian Green
Index of Contributors
by Thom Elkjer
The secrets of Paris are the secrets of love.
In Paris, men and women love with their intellect as much as their emotions. This is in fact a deeply romantic approach to love, one that sees the lover as the most worthy adversary in the world, worthy even of trying to persuade. Of course we are talking about Paris, so the persuasion involves panache, aplomb, and attitude—plenty of attitude.
A young couple enters the Café St-Germain on a November afternoon. His leather jacket is open over a white t-shirt; her heavy gold sweater sets off a mane of black hair. They are beautiful to look at, and clearly in love. They sit, smoke, and drink coffee in a room of spidery mirrored walls and brown marble tables. In fact they sit at the next table and the café is not crowded, so their discussion quickly becomes more interesting than the afternoon newspaper. Love in public is public love, n’est-ce pas?
It turns out the young woman is attempting to convince the young man that their relationship should proceed to the ultimate intimacy more or less immediately. Not tomorrow, not tonight, but today, now. The young man sits back in his chair and listens, which means he is resting, marshaling his own arguments for the rebuttal to come. It is a tender scene of young love, in Paris.
There is a famous photo of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, who shared one of the great romances of this century, in Paris or anywhere else. They are sitting at the table in La Coupole where they dined daily for many years. She looks off to the side with a half smile on her lips, he looks down reflectively. What discussions they must have had, I always thought. One day it dawned on me that they didn’t go to the same café for 40 years to agree with each other. They went to discuss, to disagree, to argue. In fact, their lifelong agreement on where to go for dinner saved invaluable energy for what happened when they got there.
I don’t mean they argued as in “had a fight,” which you almost never see in Paris, but an argument as Aristotle thought of it: a coherent series of logical reasons, advanced to prove a point. What could be more Parisian than that?
The young woman in the café takes the young man’s coffee cup from his hand so he cannot hide behind it. It was not religion that invented love, she asserts, leaning forward. It was not your school or your parents, she continues, eyes afire. It is men and women who reinvent love together, and if we two do not make love, love is not made in this world. She crushes out her cigarette and throws her hair back over her shoulder in a flourish of valedictory passion.
You don’t have to be Parisian to appreciate this kind of romance, or to participate in it either. An American woman I know spent years trying to convince her Provençal boyfriend that they should leave Paris and live somewhere, anywhere, else. Katie is a professor of economics, a discipline in which so little is actually provable that the ability to persuade is paramount. The discussion about leaving town should have been over in a month. They remained for years. How could this happen? They were in Paris, and in love: the argument illuminated their happiness like a bonfire.
Another Parisian love story, that of Mimi and Rudolfo in Puccini’s opera, La Bohème, has made millions of people weep. It makes the Parisians I know squirm. They prefer the scenes between the second couple, Musetta and Marcello. I once asked a Frenchwoman to explain this to me. (Of course I started by stating a logical case; I was secretly in love with her, and we were in Paris.) Both Mimi and Musetta leave their artistic lovers to be kept by wealthy men, I argued, so one is no better than the other. Mimi has far lovelier arias, more vulnerability, and one of the most touching deaths in all of theater. Why do you spurn her? It’s not her, the lady said, rolling her eyes. (She was reversing the usual procedure by opening with attitude and then hitting home with logic.) It’s the story, she said. Rudolfo and Mimi meet in his room at the beginning, then she dies in his room at the end. But where’s the rest? With Musetta and Marcello you get to see them argue a little, so they express their love. The other two, they split up somehow, but we never see it. The real love is all offstage! Right now, on-stage in the café, the young man reaches for a cigarette. He lights it thoughtfully, blows out a cloud of grey-blue smoke, and considers the intelligent face of his tablemate. I cannot disagree with anything you say, he begins softly. This does not melt the young woman. She is in Paris, and in love. Instead her back stiffens a little.
Even Paris itself, the physical city, is an argument for romance Parisian style. Baron Haussmann’s broad boulevards and great monuments argue eloquently that Paris is not like other cities, and its inhabitants not like other city dwellers. Why then should they love like others, with more feeling than reason? Even recent civic “improvements,” such as dropping a glass pyramid into the lap of the Louvre—Europe’s most romanticized museum—appear intentionally designed to stimulate passionate argument.
The first time I took a woman to Paris, I discovered things about her—and her attitude about our relationship—that were previously unrevealed by years of polite American passion. We were sitting in the cozy corner of a small restaurant in the rue de l’Echaude, savoring winter soup and crisp Sancerre, when she said casually, “This is working out better than I ever thought it would.” I believed she was praising either the dinner or my management of our trip, and asked which she meant. “No,” she said, “I meant us, the whole thing.”
I do not remember any of the courses that followed, nor how we got back to our hotel. I’ll never forget the argument that erupted, however, or the heightened passion of the remaining years we shared.
The young man retrieves his coffee cup and gazes into it. When we make this change it will be glorious, he says softly, as if thinking aloud to himself. Our essences will be mixed, our destinies joined in a way that cannot be described, or reversed. He shakes his head slowly at the immensity of it all.
The young woman’s body is still wary, but her face is beginning to soften, her eyes to glisten. The young man puts down the coffee cup and takes her hands. He continues speaking to her with such persuasive sincerity that even I am willing to believe anything he says. But what of today? he asks. Once we leave this moment we cannot return to our passionate innocence. When at last we make love, the wanting and waiting will be over, but they will also be gone. Then we cannot go back, he says. Ever.
There is a long moment in which neither of them moves. The sun slides away behind the buildings, and afternoon becomes twilight. An older couple enters the café to warm greetings from other habitués; on the sidewalk a man in an elegant overcoat sweeps a woman in furs into his arms; inside, the bartender is talking on the phone with one hand and gesturing dramatically with the other. Yet somehow all is silent, waiting for love to decide the argument.
Finally the young woman extracts her hands from his, sits back, and luxuriously smoothes her hair. It is not clear whether she is savoring victory or accepting defeat. A moment later, the two of them go out together. Do they go to her place and make love, or walk the Seine in silence for hours, arm in arm? Which one of them has prevailed? This is Paris, this is love. The argument continues.
Thom Elkjer is the wine editor for Wine Country Living magazine (formerly Appellation). He has contributed to Wine Spectator in the U.S. and WINE magazine in London, and appears in Travelers’ Tales volumes on Paris, Italy, Ireland, food, humor, and spirituality. He has also published a mystery titled Hook, Line and Murder and is the author of Fodor’s Escape to the California Wine Country. He lives in San Rafael, CA.
Series editors, James O’Reilly and Larry Habegger, first worked together as late night disc jockeys at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire. They wrote mystery serials for the San Francisco Examiner in the early 1980s before turning to travel writing. Since 1983, their travel features and syndicated column, “World Travel Watch,” have appeared in magazines and newspapers in the United States and other countries.
They have traveled extensively throughout the world, from the Canadian Arctic to the Borneo rain forest, from the Himalayas to the Dead Sea. They have spent time with heads of state and retired headhunters, and bring a unique blend of humor and insight to their work.
Sean O’Reilly is a former seminarian, stockbroker, and bank slave who lives in Arizona with his wife Brenda and their three small boys. Widely traveled in Europe, he most recently spent time roaming East Africa and the Indian Ocean.