The last time I saw Paris


So this very thin, very tan person is I.   It’s July 2002; I’m on my honeymoon, smiling goofily at the guy behind the camera, to whom I have been married for about ten days at the time of this photo.  My favorite guy and my favorite city … life was good.

I haven’t been back to Paris since this picture was taken.  And you know what?  I miss it.  I actually miss it a lot.  See, once upon a time, I knew this city very, very well.

“I didn’t know you used to live in Paris,” said one of my friends over brunch last summer.  She’s in good company.  Lots of the people who know me in my life as a mom have no idea that I spent a semester studying there in college, and that I loved it so much that I went back for a year after college, teaching English in a high school in the Parisian suburbs.

It was a pretty surprising thing for me to do, I guess.    As a kid, my family never took big vacations abroad.  My knowledge of Paris was shaped primarily by the movie Gigi and the musical Les Misérables. But something happened in college — namely, I learned French — and I knew that if I didn’t take the chance to live abroad, I would always somehow regret it.

And if you are going to live anywhere, Paris is the place to be.  It was a gift, an absolute gift, to have had two separate chances to live there.  And sometimes, when I read a book that takes place there or see a Robert Doisneau photo, I get seized by this massive longing to go back.  It got into my bones, that city, that beautiful maddening stony gorgeous place, a city full of artists and tourists and immigrants and rich businessmen and small dogs and the occasional subway pervert.   I have so many memories: dangling my feet along the Seine on a gorgeous spring day, shivering in the stony splendor of the church of St.-Sulpice, eking out cold oversugared cups of tea in cafés, getting a warm baguette at the bakery, so soft and fresh that as I held it in the middle of its stalklike length it actually sagged over, like a top-heavy sunflower.  And I remember that sense of being both a part of the city and an observer, both on the inside and on the outside –  which is, come to think of it, pretty much how a writer always feels.

It’s easy to romanticize my Paris experiences now, with distance.  I can gloss over the loneliness I felt at times.  I don’t really like to remember the crippling transportation strikes in the chilly month of December,  or the hours spent in cramped airless rooms waiting to get my residency permits, French bureaucracy being one of the closest things to hell that I’ve experienced on earth.

But those are not the first things that I remember when I think of Paris.  I think of a place that was beyond my wildest imaginings, a city that always had something tantalizing to offer.  I think of the twenty-something me, soaking it all up, so wise in so many ways and so young in others.  Somewhere, inside this tired mom, that girl is still there: the girl who knew how to assume the vacant subway stare that kept strangers at bay, the girl who could cross half the city on foot when the buses were on strike, the girl who wrote diary entries by the fountain of Marie de Medici and knew even then that Paris was going to be, in some mysterious and indefinable way, forever hers.

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