Words & Photos by Tom Robotham
How is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city? You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form. ~ Woody Allen, ‘Midnight in Paris.’
When I visited Paris for the first time in 1999, I was instantly smitten with the city. I promised myself I would return as soon as possible. But year after year, I came up with one excuse or another for postponing the trip. You know how that goes—you have a dream, but you can’t pursue it just now. Someday soon, though, when you have more money, or more time. The next thing you know, the years have turned into decades, and you begin to wonder whether that dream will ever become a reality.
Earlier this month, I’m happy to report, I finally made it, accompanied by Jeff Maisey, the publisher of this magazine.
I couldn’t help wondering, as I was planning my trip, whether the realities of Paris in 2017 would meet my expectations. So many places have changed, after all, and not for the better. Over the years, for example, I’ve watched the character of my beloved hometown—New York—gradually diminish, as corporate chains have displaced one favorite haunt after another. I noticed the same disheartening phenomenon in London when I visited last year after a long absence. I still love both of those cities in spite of these changes. But on the long flight over the Atlantic, I hoped that what I’d once loved about Paris had endured.
Perhaps as a test of this hope, I’d booked a room at the Hotel Quai Voltaire, where I’d stayed before. Upon my arrival, I was delighted to find that it had scarcely changed at all. The lobby was a different color, and the rooms had been renovated, but its charming essence remained intact. If you’re planning to go to Paris yourself, I strongly recommend it. The staff is welcoming and helpful; it has its own cozy little café—and the location can’t be beat. Immediately after settling into my room, I opened the floor-to-ceiling French windows and took in the view, directly across the boulevard, of the river Seine, and the Louvre museum on the opposite bank. Its history adds to its appeal. The building itself dates back to 1780, when it was an abbey, but it has been a hotel since 1851, and its guests have included Oscar Wilde, Jean Sibelius, Richard Wagner, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Ernest Hemingway, among other luminaries of the arts and letters.
When we arrived, our rooms were not yet ready—it was about 8 a.m., Paris time—so we ventured off on a long stroll through the already busy streets. Along the way we stopped at several cafés for refreshments, including Café Hugo, which sits near the home of another luminary, the author of Les Misérables. Like many cafés throughout the city, this one still allows smoking on its partially enclosed patio. Apparently the city has been trying to crack down on the practice, but Parisians have largely ignored the effort, and nonsmokers don’t seem to care, especially because there is a prohibition against smoking in the main indoor dining areas.
After enjoying lunch at another café, we ventured on to our ultimate destination for the afternoon—Père Lachaise Cemetery. The sprawling graveyard is the final resting place of dozens of famous people, including Chopin, Rossini, Balzac, Edith Piaf, and many others. But as an avid Doors fan, I was most interested in visiting the grave of Jim Morrison, who died in Paris in 1971, after leaving the band. The headstone is modest, and now sits in an enclosure to prevent fans from leaving objects of tribute, or marking it with graffiti love notes. Nevertheless, when I saw it, it was still adorned with flowers, as well as a bottle of beer and a bottle of whiskey.
I could have spent more time there, but it was getting late, and we were tired, having walked about 13 miles in total, so after I was done paying my respects to Morrison and a few other favorite artists, we took a cab back to the hotel.
That evening in my room, after dinner, I turned on the television and watched the news. I can understand only bits and pieces of French, but it was enough to learn that the country is now embroiled in a turbulent presidential campaign, reminiscent in many ways of our own. Just as Trump did last year, one candidate—François Fillon—seemed to dominate the news with his controversial positions and blunt criticism of liberal immigration policies brought about under the European Union. One of the other frontrunners, the far-right Marine Le Pen, is even more critical of the EU, and if either of them is elected, a “Frexit” may follow, leaving the EU all but dead. The third frontrunner, Emmanuel Macron, is a moderate and supportive of the EU, so the bottom line is that this election may well determine the future of Europe as a whole.
While the timing of my visit may turn out to have been historic for me once again—I was in England last year, just two weeks before the Brexit vote—I paid only marginal attention to the news after that first evening. A year of political lunacy in this country had taken its toll on my spirits, and it was refreshing to have limited access to Facebook and CNN for a week. I was more interested in exploring the city—especially its bookstores.
First on my list, needless to say, was the legendary Shakespeare & Company, which sits on a little alley directly across from Notre Dame. The original store, owned by an American named Sylvia Beach, was in a different location, and was a famous gathering place for Hemingway, James Joyce and other writers of the time. The newer location has its own fascinating history, though, having been opened in 1951 by an American WWII vet named George Whitman. Soon thereafter, it became a magnet for the writers of the Beat Generation. Little if anything at the store has changed since I saw it nearly 20 years ago, including the popularity. When we arrived, the store was so crowded that there was a waiting line outside. It remains a sanctuary for Americans and Brits living in Paris, as well as a tourist attraction.
After browsing for a while, I asked the man at the counter, a 30-something Brit, where I might find some other good English-language bookstores of note.
“No offense to Shakespeare & Company,” I added.
“No offense taken,” he said. “Bookstore owners aren’t competitive. We all love books and are happy to make those recommendations.”
It was a refreshing comment.
He recommended two others nearby: San Francisco Books and Berkeley Books, which, appropriately, are around the corner from each other.
At San Francisco Books, I chatted with an employee named Jim Hamilton, an American who has been living in Paris for 15 years or so.
“Paris has changed a lot,” he said. “It’s gotten so expensive, so it’s a tough place to live unless you’re wealthy.” He went so far as to say that he often wishes he could move somewhere else, a sentiment that undercut my occasional fantasy of actually moving there. In this respect, Paris has gone the way of so many other cities, from London to New York to San Francisco—which is to say, much of it aside from the decaying northern end has been gentrified to unhealthy extremes.
Later in the week, on the recommendation of a friend in Norfolk, Jeff and I stopped in at the Ritz Hotel bar, where I ordered an exorbitantly priced martini. It was worth every penny. We’d been told after entering that we couldn’t take photographs because it was fashion week, and the glamorous guests had requested sanctuary from the paparazzi. Nevertheless, everyone who worked at the hotel was warmly welcoming—a pleasant surprise, given that I was dressed in jeans, hiking boots and a flannel shirt. I’ve been in high-end hotels in other cities where I’ve received dirty looks or worse because I clearly “didn’t belong there.”
Indeed, nearly everywhere we went the Parisians we encountered were extremely friendly. It astonishes me that so many Americans still cling to the stereotype that the “French are rude.” In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
As I was sipping my martini, I asked the bartender how Paris had changed in his lifetime (he, too, was in his early 30s, I’d guess), and he echoed Hamilton’s sentiment, though he focused on something else. “The food is not as good,” he said. “When I was a kid, there were all these local growers who brought their strawberries, or whatever, to the market. Now it all comes from Spain and has no taste.” I assured him that all things are relative and that if he had a tomato, let’s say, from an American supermarket, he’d likely come away with a new appreciation for Paris produce. But I took his point. In some ways even Paris has changed for the worse.
That said, my overwhelming sense was that Paris has held onto its character in ways that many other cities have not. Much of this is because of historic preservation. At every turn, one comes across some stunning piece of historic architecture, and I’m not just talking about the most famous buildings like Notre Dame or the Louvre. Countless apartment buildings and shop facades are worthy of gazing upon for their beauty, as are the bars, restaurants and brasseries. One evening, we drank some superb wine in a lounge at Lapérouse. Established in 1766, it is one of the oldest restaurants in Paris, if not the oldest. The décor is so reminiscent of La Belle Époque that I felt as if we were following in the footsteps of Gil, the main character in Woody Allen’s charming film Midnight in Paris, in which he goes back in time, first to the 1920s, then to the 1890s. A day later, we visited Paris’ oldest café, Le Procope, which was established in 1686 and later attracted Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, among others.
Old or new, nearly all the cafés we visited retained their traditional Parisian charm, which is based on a laid-back attitude. One could easily sit for 3 hours, nursing a single beer, glass of wine or cup of coffee without fear of getting a dirty look from a waiter. And this, of course, is part of what makes Paris itself a work of art—not just the architecture, museums, art galleries and music venues at every turn, but the way of life. Parisians drive like mad men in their tiny cars or on ubiquitous scooters, but when they stop they treat time in an entirely different way. Life is to be savored for the moment or the hour, or three, rather than treated as something that is relentlessly pressing upon you. Moreover, conversation is something to be enjoyed. While we did see a fair number of people on their phones while walking down the street, few—except for some American tourists—were staring at their phones while sitting in cafés. Even those sitting alone seemed to prefer savoring their beverage and the sights of passersby, as opposed to the tendency of Americans to live in their cyber-bubbles wherever they go.
Yes, in some ways Paris has changed for the worse. But my primary observation during the week is that it has held onto so much of what makes it beautiful, both sensually and spiritually. Indeed, while only a small percentage of Parisians attend one of the countless gorgeous churches on a regular basis, Paris struck me as a deeply spiritual city in its devotion to soulful living and beauty.
Given what Hamilton told me, I doubt my dream of someday living there for a year or more will ever come to fruition. But in the end, Paris more than met my expectations as a visitor. So much so that I can assure you of this: It won’t take another 18 years before I return. On the contrary, I’m sorely tempted to book my next visit right away. And if you believe that cities themselves can be works of art, I recommend that you do as well.