I don’t remember falling in love with Paris. My memories of my family’s first visit to the city faded long ago, for it was 40 years ago. I’ve heard stories of snooty waiters who looked down their noses at us because we spoke no French, and I’ve seen photos of my mom, my sister and I in front of the Eiffel Tower and a few naughty statues, giggling and wearing chunky down coats and brightly colored knit hats that mark us as Americans as if we were wearing big neon signs.
But soon after that, I chose French over Spanish in middle school, perhaps because of our trip there. I began to learn the rudiments of the language: “Nous allons a La Place d’Italie a Paris” is a phrase I recall from that very fist class in seventh grade.
I took an intensive French course the summer after my freshman year in high school, and it changed my life in many ways. I learned to overcome my shyness, to speak up and be heard and to have confidence in myself. I also learned that I had a knack for the language. I took an advanced course my sophomore year of high school and during my junior year, when we once again planned a trip to Paris, my delighted parents had me call the hotels and make reservations. This was long before the era of cell phones and data plans, and transactions between two countries were expensive, so I nervously felt the stakes were high. I managed to both understand and be understood, and once again we headed to the City of Light.
This time, we paddled small boats on the Bois de Boulonge. I bought a designer jacket at a secondhand shop and a red bikini by Pierre Cardin at a large store. We sipped chocolat chaud at cafes and watched the world go by. We strolled beside the Seine and through intimate, ancient neighborhoods. We looked at storefronts and ate delicious meals and bought baguettes and cheese and fresh fruit from neighborhood markets and ate them on park benches under flowering trees bursting with color. We visited art museums and historic sites.
I was hooked.
I continued my affair with the French language in college. I lived in French House my freshman year and my roommate was a native French speaker. My accent and fluency began to improve. I worked in food service in college and saved my money, and in January of 1987 I made my way back to Paris. I stayed in the Quartier Latin. I spent almost a week there on my own, conversing with French waiters and shopkeepers and walking everywhere.
I was in love. With a city.
Then came the poverty of graduate school, the commitments of a job, a marriage and a child. Paris faded into the background, a faraway dream of my youth.
Until one, shortly after my divorce, when I rifled through through a bunch of old papers and came across a dog-eared report card from my French teacher, Mademoiselle Langevin. She had been my hardest teacher, and I had been proud to earn a “B” in her class.
“She has the makings of a good linguist,” she wrote.
Her words launched a flood of memories of narrow streets and open-air cafes, of small dogs and busy commuters, of flowering trees and brightly lit boulevards.
“I want to go back,” I thought. And so I saved money for a few years and traveled to Paris with my mom and my 10-year-old son Emile.
We did all the things that a 10-year-old boy might enjoy. We visited the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. We saw the Egyptian section of the Louvre. We ate crepes and baguettes and cheese and chocolate. We drank Orangina. We walked and we took the Metro. We wandered through the neighborhood park near our hotel and ate fresh pastries every morning.
A few years later, I enrolled in graduate school in French literature. And in middle school, Emile began to study French in earnest. He learned to read and write and speak pretty well.
In 2011, I decided to take him back over spring break of his junior year in high school to celebrate his impending graduation. We ate pastries in the mornings. He had brought his roller blades, so I rented a bicycle and he put on his skates and we toured the city for five hours on wheels. We wandered through the tiny back streets of the Marais, where Parisians were out taking their Sunday walks. We bought two fresh oranges and ate them on the steps of a church, listening to the organ rumble inside. We headed to the Place des Voges, a square surrounded by buildings dating back to the 1500s with a park in the middle and cafes lining the outside. We headed to the Quartier Latin and stopped at a creperie, then stopped at a square to eat our crepes and listen to an old man play a portable piano as neighborhood children danced before him on the cobblestones.
More recently, in fact this year, my husband and I celebrated our 10th anniversary with a trip to Paris. We stayed in an airbnb just one block from Notre Dame on the Isle de la Cite. We could hear the cathedral bells chime every morning.
Curt had recently earned a degree in history, so while I showed him many of my favortie things about the city, to my delight our trip focused a good deal on places I had never been. We visited the museum at l’Ecole Militaire, where we saw an excellent exhibit on World War I and a stunning collection of armor from the early Middle Ages to the 17th century. We went to the Hotel de Ville, where Marie Antoinette and many other people were incarcerated before their executions during the French Revolution. Seeing these and other historical sites reminded me that much of the wealth of the Paris elite had been redistributed to the government following the revolution, and also that Paris had the dubious fortune of being invaded early during World War II, so its historic sites survived intact.
We saw a Rodin exhibit in honor of the 100th anniversary of his death. We had planned to go to the Musee Rodin, but in a very French way we found out by a small sign at the door that there was a strike that day and the museum was closed.
I’m grateful that I had the opportunity to travel as a child, to see other cultures and understand that my way is not the only way, and sometimes not even the best way. I’ve traveled many places since childhood and lived abroad as well, and seen many amazing, exotic and exciting cities. But when I visit Paris, it is like coming home.