It was late March 1996, and the trip to Paris was growing closer. I had sold the jewelry I’d inherited from my mother to finance the cheap winter fare and had enough left over to cover two nights (two more paid for with frequent-flier coupons) at a Hilton near the Eiffel Tower, airport parking, some simple food and sightseeing, and even a much-needed new computer. I met a friend for dinner and confided, “I have that surreal feeling about this trip. I am terrified, but it’s another one of those things that I know I need to do—wildly impractical but essential.” Going back to school; buying my Maine cottage; adopting my dog, Luke; cross-training in epidemiology—many of my best decisions had not been practical.
Back then, three girlfriends and I met at the local diner for breakfast every two weeks. For two months they had listened to my travel plans unfold while they and their husbands journeyed to sunny spots like Sarasota, St. Martin, Australia. The day before departure, one of them announced, “You really should call David.”
“Who’s David?” I asked.
“He went to law school with Jim.”
“He’s in Paris?”
“He lives there. We see him every time we go.”
“It doesn’t matter, but is he single?”
“I think so.”
“It doesn’t matter, but is he gay?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Okay. Will you get me his number?”
In 1996, e-mail was in its infancy and transatlantic phone calls were costly. Auspiciously, I had already promised a friend from Toronto that I would call her cousin, just to say hello. So why not? This trip was all about taking risks, and if I could master the French phone system for one call to a stranger, I could commit to a second. Besides, nothing was going to happen during a weekend journey across an ocean. I had confidence in my armor.
“I’ll have Jim call him and let him know you’re coming,” she volunteered.
I phoned her the next morning to get David’s telephone number. Jim never did contact David. But I did.
Cardinal rule of traveling as a single woman: pack light. You always want to be able to manage your own belongings. Almost as a talisman, I chose the red calico tote that had been a present from my closest childhood friend. She was my personal fashion angel, sending gifts that represented beauty, femininity, style. Indulgence. For good measure, I transferred my passport into the Paloma Picasso wallet that she had sent me for my fiftieth birthday. French francs fit in its compartments, and its luxurious leather helped my fingers rub away fears. A skirt and pair of slacks that matched the forest-green jacket I wore on the plane (extra warmth over a black cashmere turtleneck and leather pencil skirt), tucked neatly into the cotton bag. Add a white blouse, sensible underwear, a second pair of shoes, some makeup and toiletries, and I could sling the carryall over my shoulder and into the overhead with no strain at all.
So, on March 27, 1996, I left Luke the bichon with Carmella, his groomer; my patients with the name of another psychologist in case of emergency; an away message on my answering machine; my Honda at long-term parking at JFK; and a layer of illusions in Connecticut as I boarded a flight to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
Thirty-three years was a long time to have been away. The nineteen-year-old girl who had claimed Paris as her own in 1963 had had her whole adult life in front of her. She could not possibly have imagined the losses and pain that were going to unfold in her future, nor her own triumphs as a parent and a professional. And she had little she thought she could lose. Puffed up by freedom from a jealous and judgmental mother, she drew courage from her determination to solve problems as they arose and confidence from a belief that we control our future. Now, here I was, middle-aged, going back to the source. Back to the place where I had discovered a softness and receptivity that were later lost in the cultural demands of doing, rather than being, of accomplishing, rather than exploring, of giving love, rather than receiving love myself. Life’s external demands can be harder to ignore than internal ones.
Navigating Charles de Gaulle Airport’s then-bewildering circular Terminal 1, I eventually found the newsstand that sold phone cards, bought a Museum Pass at the tourism desk, and then joined the queue for Les Cars Air France to the Étoile. Nestled inside the modern bus, I watched the morning landscape as it rolled past on the way into the city. Decorative sound screens lined the highway, graffiti affirmed local talent, billboards advertised international corporations. The construction that was becoming the Stade de France for the 1998 World Cup came into view. Shortly beyond, majestic as always, luminous and curvy Sacré Coeur perched like a crown atop its small mountain. Spoken French surrounded me, and I prayed that my ear might soon again become attuned to its lilting rhythms and round sounds. The softness of the landscape and the language began to relax my own edges too long exposed to Manhattan’s hard angles. I consulted my Plan, the small, worn book of maps, arrondissement by arrondissement, that I had saved all these years, hope of returning never totally buried.
The bus left the Périphérique at Porte Maillot, and then, a short drive beyond, there was L’Arc de Triomphe. As grand and stately as ever, it now presided over a broad avenue, sidewalks wider than some streets, with a center boulevard free of any parking. I gasped. Not quite the same Champs-Élysées that I had left in 1963. The lineup remained as I had remembered it: the Arc, the Luxor Obelisk at Place de la Concorde, the gates to the Tuileries, and then the little arch announcing the Louvre. But it all seemed so much brighter, more orderly. And it was. As in so many places in Paris—the Invalides, the Louvre, Notre Dame, for example—parking lots had been constructed underground; kiosks and street lamps renovated, restored, and freshly painted; boulevards and walkways swept clean of cigarette butts and stray papers. Paris was taking pride in her presentation.
Underground, I bought my first carnet and slipped a ticket into the metro turnstile. I had forgotten how large and confusing the station at the Étoile could be; the clear signs pointing out routes to board lines 1, 2, 6, and RER line A seemed unintelligible at first. Eventually I found line 6, eventually the entrance for Nation-bound trains, and eventually I stood on a platform, about to board the metro for the first time in decades. Gone were the massive steel gates that clanked closed at night, the wooden seats filled with a generation of women widowed by the war. Instead, the cars were clean, the billboards lining the station informative or entertaining, and the passengers diverse, courteous, orderly, and often stylishly dressed.
The train rose aboveground at Bir Hakeim, and I got off, trying to identify anything that seemed recognizable. This part of the 15th seemed frighteningly unfamiliar, but I studied my maps again. Just a block away, I found the river and followed it. The Eiffel Tower sprang into view, larger than life, breathtaking in its security as one of the world’s best-known landmarks. Walking along the Quai de Grenelle, I moved toward it, then turned right onto Avenue de Suffren. There, overlooking a pristine soccer field, with its entrance on a tiny side street, lay my hotel, the base camp for my adventure.
Not surprisingly, my room was not available at the early-morning hour. I parked my Vera Bradley tote with the bellman and walked outside to begin to rediscover—to reclaim—Paris. Images had been racing through both waking and sleeping moments ever since I had made the reservation: the flower arrangements at the Rond Point; the steps and views in front of Sacré Coeur; the river and its bridges; the Monet water lilies in their oval rooms; tiny glass elevators; tall, molded ceilings; cafés smelling of espresso and Gauloises. So much to discover, too. The Musée d’Orsay, the Musée Picasso, the Centre Pompidou, and the pyramid in front of the Louvre had not existed in 1963. I was hoping that churches would still host concerts, shops proudly sport enchanting displays, and architecture stun with its grace and occasional whimsy. I yearned for the taste of a perfect croissant, a sandwich au Camembert, soupe à l’oignon—staples from student days. But first I needed to get my bearings. I decided to begin where my nineteen-year-old self had left off and headed toward 214 bd. Raspail, just south of bd. Montparnasse, where I had lived. From there, I planned to follow the street I had known so well toward the river and the Musée d’Orsay.
That first day was a fiasco. My language skills refused to return, and my usually strong spatial orientation was abysmal. I kept getting on the metro going in the wrong direction and then needing to disembark from a train, cross an overpass (or underpass) to the other side, and board one heading the opposite way. Repeatedly, I got lost and then found myself. The unexpected learning curve amplified the expense of my efforts. Learning is more costly (in time, energy, money, and demands on the body) than knowing. But confronting and mastering the unfamiliar can be more rewarding and is often essential to growth.
Jet lag set in, and, finally exhausted, in late afternoon I made my way back to the hotel, officially checked in, caught my breath, and realized I was famished. This was a metaphor for my life, wasn’t it? Lost and then found, exhausted and needing to recover, starving for basic sustenance after sustained effort. I had come to Paris because of some internal demand, and there it was: I needed to recalibrate to a more respectful flow of energy, creating space for abandoned interiors and hidden corners along the way. Years of responding to legitimate needs of others, problems requiring solutions, responsibilities demanding honor, had shifted attention outward. Needs that lived deep in the heart, in the soul, had become buried under the clutter of daily life. Would slowing down, quieting down, scraping away the external demands permit room for those parts of me to speak?
Dinner out that night was beyond my capacity. I had noticed the charming restaurants that lay just across the street on avenue de Suffren, even read the daily specials posted in chalk on the ardoises (menu boards) out front. But I was watching each franc (no euros yet in 1996) and too tired to take on a solo meal in a foreign culture, so I headed for the third-floor hotel bar. Staring out the windows that overlooked the Eiffel Tower as it began to glow against the night sky, I sipped a glass of Bordeaux, snacked on a plate of cheeses, and contemplated the phone calls I had agreed to make. That task would be the last I would ask of my overly conscientious East Coast American self, at least until the next day.
I have never liked making phone calls, especially to people I do not know, but my life had been filled with completing tasks I did not like doing and did anyway because they were the right things to do (an RSVP or a call on behalf of the PTA) or they might be helpful to someone else (a patient in need or a friend in grief) or they simply needed to be done (repairs to the furnace or updating an insurance policy). And I had made a promise to a friend.
I am mechanically challenged, so conquering the pay-phone system (while trying to understand required steps written in a foreign language, no less) was no small feat and made the accomplishment of calling my friend’s cousin a small miracle. When I reached her, she seemed cold and distant and I could hear annoyance beneath her icy politeness. No doubt an endless parade of visitors who had been given her name as a resource had caused her to burn out on the kindness and generosity she once might have displayed to strangers. I extended well wishes, a news report, a promise to take regards back to North America, and hung up as quickly as I could.
Fear of a rerun was insufficient reason not to call David, and so I did. Sitting in that tiny phone booth in the corridor outside the Hilton bar, I sighed with relief when his answering machine picked up, providing first a message in French and then an English translation. His voice—deep, soft, resonant, flawless, undeniably masculine yet smooth—felt like silk slipping over my body; it sent shivers through me. I left my name, my contact information, and a message that I was in Paris for the weekend, first time in thirty-three years, and our mutual friend had suggested he might have ideas about what activities would be most worthwhile during my short time in the city. I hung up, had that no-turning-back feeling, and settled in early for a deep night’s sleep.
The next morning the phone rang with uncanny timing, just as I had climbed out of the bathtub and was dry enough to slide naked under sheets and blankets for the conversation that followed. He had been out to dinner, heard the message upon return, too late to call back, and wanted to reach me before his first client of the day. (Twenty minutes later, I thought, and I would have been gone.) As he reeled off suggestions, from picking up the current Officiel des Spectacles to walking rue du Faubourg St. Honoré (special attention to the Hermès windows) to visiting the incomparable Musée d’Orsay, his meeting time drew closer. I asked him a question about some specific choice of visits or sites. He responded, “Depends on your point of view.”
“I do that for a living,” I bantered.
“You’re an optometrist?” he asked, the teasing clear in his tone. I laughed. A few minutes later, he invited me to dinner that evening “to continue the conversation.”
I agreed to meet him in the lobby at eight. “I’m middle aged, have gray hair and glasses, and will be wearing a green suit.”
In spite of my determination to make no demands of my trip, this was not the weekend I had been expecting. Oops! Planning again, wasn’t I? Slow down, breathe, I said, but the energy had its own agenda. Besides, I was in Paris. With a long must-do list and now some new entries, I walked toward and over the river, then took the metro to St. Philippe du Roule, a reasonable place to begin a walk down rue du Faubourg St. Honoré. I found a kiosk and bought an Officiel, and a bakery, where a cup of coffee and a croissant, each flake crisp and yeasty on my savoring tongue, became breakfast.
I had left home with no perfume. Dinner without perfume with a strange man who had a voice like David’s—and in Paris!—was unthinkable. For sure I could buy it at les grands magasins, and for sure they would accept my Visa card. But maybe I’d wander a bit first, and then, according to the Officiel, there was a noon concert at Église de la Sainte-Trinité, not far from Galeries Lafayette. Sounded like a perfect place to rest from walking, enjoy beautiful music, and prepare myself for the afternoon.
As I walked along rue du Faubourg St. Honoré, my steps became surer and lighter at the same time. Elegant and imaginatively dressed Parisians moved in a manner and at a pace far different from that of New Yorkers. Unconsciously, I slowed down to let my attention be drawn, rather than directed. I began voraciously consuming the carefully constructed eye candy in the windows of the boutiques, one haute couture designer after another. As David had promised, those at Hermès were spectacular. They showed off sculpture-paintings made from monochromatic or two-color arrangements of scarves and saddles, pocketbooks and silk shirts. By the time I reached the Madeleine, where a metro could take me north to Trinité, I had begun to feel the joy of taking in beauty and the internal spaciousness created through moving and stretching.
The church was opposite the metro stop, easy to locate. I sat down in a pew, the familiarity of meditating in an old church bringing comfort, delight, and hope all at once, and slipped into an altered state of consciousness. Soon the concert would begin, and I trusted that it would rouse me. Except that it did not. Noon. Then my watch said twelve fifteen. I approached one of the few women who was entering or leaving and tried my best to question what was wrong. She smiled but clearly did not understand my French. Finally, I pointed to the entry for the concert in the Officiel. She nodded. “Aujourd’hui—ce n’est pas jeudi.” In taking the overnight flight, I had lost track of a day. It was already Friday. Maybe the unexpected date with a mysterious stranger that night had disorganized my usually methodical mind?
Galeries Lafayette was only a few blocks from the church. A salad from the cafeteria in my stomach, fifty milliliters of Coco eau de toilette in my pocketbook, and I was ready to take on the afternoon. I strolled along the stalls in front of les grands magasins, then down rue Tronchet to the Madeleine, pressing my nose against windows featuring pâtés at Fauchon, jewels made out of chocolate at Madame de Sévigny, the wine of the day at Nicolas, fruits glacés at Hédiard. Past Baccarat on the corner and then the china and crystal shops that line rue Royale—Villeroy & Boch, Swarovski, Christofle, Bernardaud. I turned right to walk through the Jardins des Champs-Élysées, past the boutique hotel on Avenue Matignon where I had stayed with my father in 1960, and reached the Rond Point, with its six matching displays of spring blossoms welcoming the season. Another view of the Champs-Élysées, widened and returned to turn-of-the-century elegance. Across the intersection onto Avenue Montaigne and past flagship stores of great couturières—Dior and Chanel and Nina Ricci and so many others—down to Place de l’Alma. There, I crossed the river and then turned left toward the Musée D’Orsay, opposite the Tuileries on the Left Bank of the Seine. It had been a train station used as a sometime movie set when I was a student. Now it featured some of France’s finest art collections.
I was beginning to feel oriented again. French signs became familiar and then comprehensible. The sounds of the language carried words with meaning, as well as background music. Parallel tracks fueled my hungry consciousness: I wanted to take it all in, become reacquainted with the Paris of my adolescence, the Paris where I had felt so utterly comfortable and able to manage any needs that might arise. At the same time, a refrain kept strumming, a low-level awareness chanting that the fifty-two-year-old me had a dinner date that night with a mysterious friend of a friend.
Attention thus split, I entered the glorious museum. After slowly descending the few steps to the first floor’s center path, casually punctuated with major Rodin sculptures, I made my way toward the back to tiptoe across the glass floor covering a model of the neighborhood surrounding Opéra Garnier. I climbed the stairs to the top floor in search of Renoir, Cézanne, van Gogh, Monet and Manet, Degas, eventually Toulouse-Lautrec. The balcony that overlooked the Seine and the Tuileries offered a perfect rail to lean against, as I contemplated the beauty inside and outside the building, whose energy was pulsing through my body. The river curved; the streets followed. In the distance, the fountains at Place de la Concorde flowed. I was filling up, fast, and everything inside me wanted to relax and open up to the nourishment of balance, color, explorations in light. The air reeked of the end of March—fresh, clear, ready to usher in all manner of new growth.
Here I began to reclaim my Paris, the city I knew, the one that spoke to the creativity of the human spirit and a complementary separation of the sexes. A hundred years before, the impressionists had transformed the artistic landscape. This building that now held so many masterpieces had itself been transformed, from train station with adjoining hotel to post office to theater to museum—evolution according to need. And now I needed to reclaim the soft self who could stop long enough to look at the light, to follow its changes, to see the colors and watch them dance through the sparklies on the river. As the museum approached its six o’clock closing, I made my way back to the river, the heart and soul that organized the city.
I don’t remember getting back to the hotel that afternoon. Perhaps I had realized that I was within walking distance—simply follow the river and turn left after passing the Eiffel Tower. But I probably didn’t. The 7th arrondissement was not a quartier I had known well, like the Right Bank Golden Triangle of my father’s elegant world or the Left Bank Latin Quarter, which had been home when I was a student. Instead, because I was tired and had gained some confidence in getting around the city, I may have just hopped on the RER for three stops and then made my way back to the Hilton. The light was changing quickly as sunset approached; by the time David was due to arrive, night promised to blanket the city with a different kind of transformation and mystery.
Contemplating my “date” with a man I did not know, I was more curious than nervous. After all, nothing beyond a pleasant (or even uncomfortable) evening could possibly result from this encounter. It would merely be an opportunity to learn more about this city I loved from someone who had chosen to devote his adult life to enjoying its inspiration. To discover a “real” French restaurant with someone who knew his way around them. To have a few hours of adventure. Nonetheless, it was Paris and I was a woman, and so I put on fresh makeup, dabbed on the perfume, meditated for half an hour, and got dressed. Only much later did David confess that my green suit, the newest and most prized possession in my wardrobe, was one of the dumpiest, dowdiest, downright ugliest outfits he had ever seen.