josh rosner

SOME THOUGHTS ON … PARIS

In Europe, Fine Dining on June 17, 2013 at 12:22 pm

I first visited Paris in the summer of 1992. I was twenty-one years old and thought I was a poet. I wore a silly red beret, an over-sized coat and I spent much of my time trawling through second-hand bookstores, drinking copious quantities of coffee and sitting on the banks of the Seine writing poetry. I saw a few sights, of course, but I wasn’t there to be a tourist. I wanted to blend in. I naively thought my French was so good that nobody noticed I was a foreigner.

I’d spent two years trying to write a novel while living in London. It was a complete failure. Perhaps if I hadn’t spent every night at my local pub drinking myself into oblivion until last drinks were called, I may have managed some serious work. I was young. I chose to drink and party, assuming there would always be time to write.

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Traveling to Paris, I abandoned my novel-writing aspirations and turned to poetry. I desired La Boheme. I lived out of a cockroach-infested apartment in which the bed, the bathroom and the kitchen comprised the one very tiny room. But I loved it. There was a small wooden desk under the window with views of a brick wall. I thought it was heaven. “Being able to live alone,” wrote Albert Camus, “in a cheap room for a year in Paris teaches a man more than a hundred literary salons and forty years’ experience of ‘Parisian life’.” Every day, my beret a permanent fixture, I wrote arguably the worst poetry ever written in cafes (pretending I was Hemingway) and while strolling along the Seine (pretending I was Rambaud). Creatively, it was a failure. But a tiny piece of Paris stayed with me, even though I was not to visit again for two decades. Paris really is, as Hemingway put it, a moveable feast, in a way so many other sprawling metropolises are not. In truth, Paris was not what I had come to expect from the many French films I had seen. It was not the Paris of my dreams. You never get another first time, but I was happy with my Paris.

Twenty years later, my novel no further advanced and my poetry still appalling, I returned to Paris. It had changed. Or I had changed. Either way, despite my excitement to return, it was like a completely different city. It was as if I had visited the pre-Houssmann Paris only to return many years later after it had been knocked down and rebuilt. Nothing was familiar, least of all Parisians themselves. They were ruder; at least, even ruder than their global reputation. The places I had once loved – Notre Dame, Moulin Rouge, the Eiffel Tower, the sound of the Metro, students – were no longer charming. The city was dirty, smelly, expensive, and it seemed as if every Parisian walked about with a Galloises hanging from their lips, whisps of disgusting carcinogenic smoke lingering in the air for unsuspecting tourists to inhale. The footpaths were littered with dog shit. Poverty seemed to have made a surge in Paris with homeless people congregating outside major attractions and department stores. Gypsies, with small children in tow, begged or attempted to scam, from tourists. They carried little signs, written in various languages, asking for money. Or, as happened to me, a gypsy pretended to pick up a ring right in front of me, telling me she was returning my ring then asking for a reward. It was a cheap imitation, of course, and her coat was full of them. Instead of offering a few Euros I took the ring, pocketed it, and walked off, telling her in French, “You lose. Too bad.” Paris has lost its fun. It no longer had a soul.

I still did the rounds of the tourist sights and enjoyed myself. I ate in some of the cafes I had frequented twenty years earlier as an act of nostalgia. I wandered aimlessly around Montmartre with little regard for direction or purpose. I thought to myself that I’d had my time. Paris of the early 1990s had been my Paris. I was young. I didn’t have a care in the world. I was poor. Returning twenty years later I stayed in a suite in a luxury hotel. I could afford to eat expensive meals in some of Paris’s oldest and most exquisite restaurants. Most people would be pleased with the transition from poverty to comparative wealth, no longer having to live in a cheap hotel with barely enough money for a baguette each day. I was grateful, don’t misunderstand me, but the Paris I fell in love with no longer existed. It was twenty years older. Its politics had changed. Its place in Europe had changed.

In 2012 I returned again. Perhaps because I felt comfortable and safe, perhaps because I was capable of navigating the Metro network from memory, or perhaps because I was more visiting with no agenda, I was able to once again fall in love with Paris. I ate in some fine dining establishments, but I also stumbled across backstreet cafes off the tourist trail. I had fun. Parisians still smoked to excess, but I ignored them, passing it off as one of the city’s quirks. I visited old haunts and found new favourites. I realised I could never have too much of Paris.

In the days after leaving Paris this last time a thought came to me: I don’t need trinkets or kitschy ephemera to remind me that I love Paris. All I need to do is slow down and take the time to remember the joy that Paris brought me all those years ago.

It was, of course, me who had changed. Not Paris. Once I realised that I was free to embrace and enjoy a city that had once been the love of my life, even if for no longer than a European summer.

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