Reliving a Dream of Youth in Paris

A former wanderer returns to the City of Lights in search of more than the Boulevard Cliché

On The Town | Christian Cummins | April 2009

The expanse of the Parisian cityscape and the Seine as seen from the Eiffel Tower (Photo: Christian Cummins)

We were fresh off the plane, very tired, and while our hotel room was being prepared, we had been drinking near Pigalle at 9:30 in the morning – a sinful occupation even for a district that revels in dissipation. We were standing at a simple zinc bar, sipping small beers served with quiet dignity by the waist-coated bar keepers behind the counter. Another waiter was sweeping discarded sugar packaging from the tiled-floor, his broom darting between the customer’s legs and under their feet like a mischievous cat. To our left, workers in orange-overalls, fresh from a long shift cleaning the streets, were reading the sporting papers and enjoying small glasses of sharp white wines, some colored purple by a dash of crème de cassis. Beyond them were the tall glass windows of the brasserie through which one witnessed the morning bustle on the Boulevard de Clichy. Drinking in the morning can be wonderful.

We stepped out onto the gray street and walked towards a new bar; and that’s where, rendered nostalgic from the beer, I had my Proustian moment: It came from the distinctively warm and rather bilious gusts of air blowing up through the grates of the Paris Métro running below.

Not Marcel P’s famous Madeleine cakes and tea, perhaps, but no less powerful:

I was back in the Paris of ten summers ago, where, just weeks out of my teens, I had turned up with 400 francs and a backpack at the nearby Gare du Nord, following love and confident of seamlessly fitting into city life. Being impecunious seemed such a minor barrier back then. Was that naïveté, or a wisdom I have since lost? My girlfriend and I had quickly found a yellow room in a shared atelier flat in Rue Condorcet, deep in the immigrant district of central Paris. The jovial (and possibly criminal) Lebanese landowner, Monsieur Hamoui, required no deposit and accepted cash by the month. There was a hole in the outside wall which let in a thin pipe and the bewitching bedlam of the quartier: the relentless cacophony of car-horns, the summer-heated diesel-fumes, the Arab-toned shouting and the odor of couscous and spices. To wake up in the narrow bed to the sounds of frenetic life outside was, for a country boy, deliciously intoxicating.

A sharp wind slapped me out of a rêverie. I hadn’t flown back to Paris to indulge in rose-tinted nostalgia. Besides, when I really thought about it, far from being indifferent to money even in those days, I’d constantly longed to have enough francs to enjoy the town properly.

Now, finally, I had some. I could turn at least some of those fantasies into reality. So it was time to reclaim the town in style. I thought of a passage from Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast where the aging writer described how he was always drawn back at different stages of his life to revisit the city in which he had launched his literary career:

"Paris was never to be the same again, although it was always Paris and you changed as it changed," he wrote, before concluding that, "There is never any end to Paris." Now I was back, a decade on, with new circumstances and new love. Now I had 96 hours until the flight back to Vienna. It was time to write a new chapter in my romance with the city.

Since Hemingway was on my mind, it seemed appropriate to start in the quartier that he made so iconic in the English-speaking world – Montparnasse, on the left bank of the Seine. We dressed up to look as smart and sophisticated as we could manage on a 15 kilo luggage allowance, and went under the old pink neon sign of the Café Sélect and up to the long, dark, noble bar. With its heavy sexual atmosphere, the Sélect became almost a character of its own right in The Sun Also Rises, and we were keen to soak in that feeling.

But the bar was fairly deserted that evening and the lethargic clientele that had bothered to turn up looked decidedly unlikely to do or say anything scandalous. It soon became clear some experiences are simply more vivid in print.

The same can’t be said of going to the wonderful restaurant opposite, La Coupole, which was once frequented by Sartre and was beloved of Henry Miller. Below its immense, high domed ceiling, which is supported by pillars decorated by the artists of Montparnasse, the constant hustle and bustle of the brasserie was enchanting. We ate a fine meal surrounded by its elegantly scurrying waiters and heavily gesticulating, heavily mixed clientele.

But now the literary pilgrimage was done, it was time to move the feast forwards. If I didn’t want Paris to belong to my own past, I’d be damned if I was going to let it belong to anybody else’s, literary or otherwise. Paris, itself constantly changing, constantly evolving, is about creating new memories, to share with new people.

Paris is a jungle of pleasure. Everywhere you can find new places, new sounds and new smells that no one told you about, so that now they belong to you and this moment. Such as discovering that on the Ile de la Cité on Sundays the marché aux fleurs, the flower market, becomes, the marché aux oiseux, or bird market; and so if you walk through the narrow aisles you are serenaded by bird-song. And, from there, being drawn by a different sort of music, on the Pont des Arts, where a ten-piece jazz band, all donning eccentric head gear, are busking for money in the middle of Paris’ most famous footbridge. Or hearing the inimitable sound of the great organ at Notre Dame as we ventured into the cathedral during the middle of Sunday service – the boom of the reverberating bass almost threatening to the non-pious – watching the nuns from French West Africa sitting straight-backed in the front rows.

Or recovering from the sensual overload of the art galleries of the Place des Vosges by eating open-faced Poilâne sandwiches with duck rillettes and Crottin de Chavignol, goat cheese from the Loire Valley, washed down with a Sauvignon at a traditional bar à vins. Or finding the massive lunch time brasserie near Grands Boulevards Métro, with its winding, cast-iron open stairway connecting the two massive floors, where the workers of the quartier come to eat simple, hearty food, and where the waiters write down your drinks on the paper table cloth. Or the tightly crowded and low-beamed student bar behind Montmartre where you can lose yourself for hours in the exuberant bonhomie of the young Parisians, confident that this is their time in their city – perhaps the finest city there is. And then staying so late that on your way home you pass by one of the independent bakeries preparing for a new day, with the rich smell of pâtisseries wafting out into the street – promising a new day of indulgence.

"Paris was always worth it," Hemingway wrote. It was, and is, a feast for all the senses.

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