By Tom Robotham
Paris is so very beautiful that it satisfies something in you that is always hungry in America. – Ernest Hemingway
In May of 2016, VEER publisher Jeff Maisey and I flew to London and spent the next 10 days touring Great Britain. It was my first trip abroad since 1999. Why it took me so long to return, I can’t exactly say. Lack of money was certainly one of the reasons, but that’s not the whole story. The truth is, I’ve often had a tendency to postpone things, and when you’re young, that’s easy enough to do: you live with the illusion that you have all the time in the world to fulfill your dreams.
Although I was just shy of 60 back then, the illusion remained strong. Fortunately, though, I didn’t put off another trip. The following summer, Jeff and I ventured to Paris. I’d been there once before, but only for a couple of nights, so I hadn’t really gotten a sense of the place. This time, I fell in love with every aspect of it, from the architecture and history to the wide variety of people we encountered. Indeed, everyone we met, from waiters and hotel clerks to strangers in cafes, was warm and welcoming, and ever since then I’ve been utterly baffled by the widespread notion in the States that “the French are rude.”
In 2018, my love of travel having been reawakened, Jeff and I planned yet another trip. There were any number of places that interested me. I’ve always wanted to go to Florence, for example, but have never gotten round to it. We finally settled on Amsterdam, another city I’d never visited, and it was a delight. But I’d been so smitten with Paris that I wanted to return there as well, so after five days in the Netherlands, we took the short flight down to the City of Light yet again, and by the end of the second week abroad my love for it had deepened all the more.
The following year, I remained stateside because money was particularly tight, but that December Jeff and I planned a trip to Rome, a city neither of us had visited, for March of 2020.
Then Covid hit.
I managed to avoid infection, through a combination of precaution and luck, but as I look back on the lockdown, I realize that it had a deeper psychological impact than I recognized at the time. At 64, and living in isolation, I was finally beginning to feel old—and one of the symptoms was a lack of motivation. Day after day, week after week, I was content to sit at home in my easy chair and read, listen to music, or watch TV for hours on end.
Imperceptibly, bad habits set in. I got little exercise, ate poorly and drank too much—but for a long time I was content with that lifestyle. Thus, late last year, when Jeff proposed a March trip back to Paris, I felt ambivalent. I still loved the idea of being in Paris, but the thought of getting there filled me with dread. Travel can be stressful and tiring even when you’re young, but now that I was feeling chronically run down and vulnerable to various anxieties, I hated the thought of going through security, sitting in a cramped airplane seat for nine hours, getting grilled by customs agents and hauling baggage through vast airports.
I told Jeff to count me in, nevertheless, because I understand the importance of getting outside your comfort zone. But in the weeks leading up to the trip, I had real doubts about whether I’d be able to make it. One physical ailment after another popped up, and with them my anxieties worsened. Among other things, I worried that being stuck on a plane would bring on severe claustrophobia and a full-fledged panic attack.
Fortunately, I fought back. In hopes of combating my anxieties, I cut way down on my alcohol intake and began eating better. To further allay my fears, I asked my therapist to write me a prescription for Xanax. I’d never taken one before, but I figured it would be comforting to know that they were in my carry-on bag. I also bought some nicotine gum to help with my cigarette cravings during the flight.
WHEN OUR DAY OF DEPARTURE finally arrived, and we boarded the plane, I was relieved that I felt no immediate anxiety. Midway across the Atlantic, I had one piece of nicotine gum and was surprised by how effective it was. As for the Xanax, I never felt the need. I was uncomfortable in the tiny coach seat, to be sure, and I’ve never been able to sleep on planes, but that wasn’t a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
I was exhausted, though, when we arrived at our hotel, but it was too early to check in, so we parked our luggage and ventured into the streets. Aggravating the fatigue was the fact that it was cold and cloudy, and at 9 in the morning hardly anything in Paris is open—not even a place to get coffee. I’d always found it charming that Parisians leisurely roll into work around 10 or so, but at that particular moment I was slightly annoyed.
Our hotel was close to Notre Dame, so we wandered down in that direction, then over to the nearby Shakespeare & Company, the legendary English-language bookstore. Fortunately, it opened soon thereafter, so we were at least able to find some warmth among the books. That said, I couldn’t help wondering if the magic of Paris had worn off.
After finally getting to our rooms and resting for an hour, we met back up in the hotel lobby, chatted a bit with the friendly and helpful desk attendant, and wandered back out into the neighborhood: the Saint Germain district, which has always been my favorite area of the city. Within minutes, I felt a strange sensation: Although it had been five years since my last visit, it seemed somehow that I had never left. I felt every bit as much at home there as I do in New York’s Greenwich Village, and a lot more at home, believe it or not, than I do in Ghent, pleasant as my Norfolk neighborhood is.
The next morning, after a great night’s sleep in my small but clean and comfortable room at Hotel Eugenie—a relatively inexpensive place that I highly recommend—I felt thoroughly rejuvenated. Not that I had the stamina that I’d had in 2016, when we’d hit the ground on no sleep and walked nearly 10 miles across the city. This time, I noticed that after about an hour, my lower back was bothering me as we wandered around the Latin Quarter near the Sorbonne. It was nothing, however, that a rest at a café couldn’t fix, over a couple of pints of Pelforth, my favorite French beer. The afternoon was further enriched by visits to a variety of charming shops and an outdoor market, spiced with brief conversations with various people we encountered.
My study of French on Duolingo notwithstanding, I’m still unable to speak the language at length, but I took pleasure in using what little I know—and when I didn’t feel up to the task, but needed to ask a question, I always opened with, parlez-vous Anglais? In contrast to my experience during previous visits, I encountered a lot of people who did not speak English, but it wasn’t hard to find people who did. Either way, they were friendly. Indeed, during the entire week that we were there, I didn’t encounter a single instance of rudeness—a rather remarkable thing, it seems to me, given that Paris is such a big city. As a native New Yorker, I always push back when people say New Yorkers are rude. But the fact is, I always run into some rude people in the Big Apple. In Paris, even the taxi drivers we encountered seemed courteous, patiently stopping for pedestrians and bicyclists without leaning on their horns the way drivers in New York and many other cities tend to do.
That sense of feeling emotionally safe and welcomed only increased during the week, and it didn’t matter whether we were in some down-to-earth pub or a more upscale restaurant. At one of the latter, Les Editeurs, where we went for drinks on three separate occasions, we encountered a host of upper-crust Parisians, finely dressed, and formally-clad waiters. We were dressed in jeans and black leather jackets—slobs by comparison—but were treated with the same regard and courtesy as the wealthiest-looking patrons were.
The same was true of Le Procope, a fine-dining establishment founded in 1686, which once was a favorite haunt of Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and other luminaries. It’s so good that we had dinner there on three separate evenings, and were treated like royalty. On the third evening, we even requested a specific table that we’d had on the second evening—a semi-private setting in a quiet corner, with leather armchairs that looked as if Napoleon—another of the restaurant’s former patrons—might have used. Moreover, in spite of all its elegance and the first-rate quality of the food, it is very reasonably priced. None of my meals cost more than 30 Euros.
AS WE HAD SEEN so much of Paris on previous trips, we skipped the big tourist attractions like the Louvre, although we wandered around the outside, which is always a pleasure in itself. One attraction we did revisit, however, was Père Lachaise Cemetery, a 110-acre burial ground that is home to the tombs of scores of famous people, from Chopin and Balzac to Edith Piaf and Jim Morrison. It’s an exhausting walk, as it’s quite hilly, and was all the more so for me because of the recurring lower-back pain. Moreover, finding the graves of specific people is a challenge, given the cemetery’s size and confusing layout. I went looking for Gertrude Stein’s, for example, without any luck. I was pleased, on the other hand, to pay my respects to Oscar Wilde. (We’d seen Morrison’s famous grave before, so we didn’t bother to try to find it again.) Overall, it was well worth the time and effort.
Another highlight was a show—free of charge, with just a one-drink minimum—at the Sunset Sunside Jazz Club, one of the best in Paris, a city that has a long jazz tradition. The featured ensemble was a French trio—piano, bass and drums. I had never heard of them, but they did terrific renditions of the great jazz standards in the style of the great Bill Evans trios. The evening was enhanced, once again, by social warmth, thanks to a great host and a friendly couple who sat behind us and engaged us in interesting conversation while we waited for the show to start.
I don’t have the space to go into detail about all of the other highlights of the trip, from meditative moments in beautiful churches to browsing excursions in old bookshops. Suffice it to say, they will reside in my memory with deep fondness.
I would be remiss, however, if I didn’t mention the last evening we were there. Earlier in the week, we’d stopped at a small and very old restaurant called Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole, an eclectically decorated space built in 1512 as the home of the Canon of Notre Dame. I’d not been there before, but the charmingly flamboyant manager—a man named Frederico who favors a red silk smoking jacket and loves to start singing operatic arias at random moments—remembered Jeff from a previous visit. After a late lunch on our last day, we stopped by there for a drink, and Frederico not only greeted me by name—as if we were old friends—but remembered how many ice cubes that I preferred in my whiskey. Soon other regulars started stopping by, along with a lovely family from Brazil. What had been planned as a quick cocktail stop turned into a five-hour affair, a delicious dinner of boeuf bourguignon, and the most delightfully festive group conversation with Frederico and friends. It was the only night there that I overdid the drinking—Frederico kept pouring me whiskies unsolicited, like an effusive host at a private dinner party—but it was well worth it. I suspect that the next time I return, he will remember me instantly. I’m sure, at any rate, that I won’t forget him, his hospitality, and his sincere love of people.
The next morning, remembering that evening, made the melancholy of leaving all the more pronounced. To make matters worse, my back was bothering me on the long trip home, and when I got up from my own bed the next day, it was really sore. I didn’t grumble about feeling old, though. On the contrary, I woke up feeling inspired to get back into travel-shape. I no longer live with the delusion that I have all the time in the world. But I want to spend whatever time I have left with a greater sense of joie de vivre—hopefully, some of that time in Paris: the most beautiful city I know—and contrary to popular notions, one of the friendliest.
Tom Robotham can be reached at [email protected].