Paris is the city of light and romance year-round. In spring, it teems with visitors and there is a certain kind of kinetic energy pulsing along its narrow winding streets that entices some women to walk home alone even in the dead of night. I must admit, as a Native New Yorker that felt a bit daunting to me at first, but it didn’t take long before I too began to understand the merits of a long stroll at the end of a late night dinner at Le Bar à Huîtres in Montparnasse. After all, how else can one walk off a seafood feast of such proportion and still get to marvel at the night sprinklers in Luxembourg Gardens as they create inlets of perfumed water
on the streets heading down to St-Germain-des-Prés?
Yes, it is true. Paris is a bewitching city. It invites one to throw away the guidebooks, grab a Pariscope and do things one has never done before. Perhaps that is why on my last visit there I resisted the gypsies hawking miniature Eiffel Towers along the Champs de Mars and ran instead to get a taste of real ginger-bread made at the tiny bakery, Poilâne, on rue du Cherche-Midi in the 6th arrondisement. It wasn’t that I didn’t make time for the Musée du Louvre and Musée d’Orsay. I did. I also stood in the rain for over an hour to see the Marie Antoinette exhibition at the Grand Palais so I’m sure I would still be considered a tourist and an “American in Paris.” It’s just that on this trip, due to the kindness of a truly brilliant and benevolent artist and friend, I also learned to stroll Paris, from the Right Bank to the Left and back, with new purpose and little itinerary. Being taught this venerable French art of flânerie made all the difference.
My first resolution was to rent an apartment in the Marais and climb ninety-nine stairs to a fifth floor lodging at 2 Rue du Plâtre rather than stay at a hotel. The neighborhood was full of old-world charm and our apartment had a small wrap around terrace full of bright spring flowers in long window boxes and terra cotta pots. The French windows looked out on Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis Church in the far distance and the terrace became a heavenly place to drink a café crème and write about the previous day’s adventures in a red and gold embossed notebook I’d bought at a local papeterie.
Granted, one must have time to spare on holiday to choose this Robert Frostian “road less traveled.” It did take us over an hour on foot to meet our friend in Jardin du Palais-Royal, but once there, we spent another hour talking about writer Colette, who was so loved and admired by the French that she was given a state funeral after her death in Paris, on August 3, 1954. And as I gazed up at the windows of her Palais Royal home, I felt a newfound admiration for the elegant, yet provençal Paris whose society Colette so boldly wrote about in her novels. What other city can boast that it has served as home and muse to so many of the world’s great writers and artists for over four centuries?
Back home in Manhattan the pace is so fast. People drink coffee on the run and most days the waiters at the outdoor cafés make their patrons feel like nursing a drink is against the law. That never bothered me very much before. I too led a hurried and harried city existence, but today, as I sit here in my apartment staring out at New York City’s towering buildings made of steel, stone, and newly tinted glass, I find myself longing to return to the slower and more cultured way of living I experienced last spring in Paris; the city that offered me the simple gift of strolling through a palace garden while a pastel sky floated effortlessly above me.
Traveling may not always bring this kind of life changing experience, but taking the time for quiet repose, a glass of wine or a bottle of Badoit at a quaint café like Café de la Mairie on Place Saint-Suplice in Paris is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon anywhere, especially after a long stroll. And when the Paris church bells chime, sometimes it can truly feel like the beginning of a brand new day. Vive la flânerie de Paris!