A travel writer’s recollections about his extended stays in the French capital underscore the immersive benefits of slow travel.
My first trip to Paris was a blur of frenzied activity. My pal Julie and I were en route to Amsterdam and had just two days to explore la Ville Lumière, so we ticked our way down our must-see list. Eiffel Tower, tick. Champs-Élysées, tick. Moulin Rouge, tick.
At the Louvre, we literally followed the signs to the Mona Lisa, ignoring the millennia of human civilization on proud display around us. When we finally arrived in the gallery, it was packed. In the distance, Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous portrait appeared as just a smudge on the wall. “That’s it?” Julie finally said from the back of the throng. “That tiny thing?” I shrugged. Tick. We turned around, struggling upstream against the crowd, and left for the hot chocolate at Aux Deux Magots, which a friend had assured me was the best in town. Tick.
And that was pretty much it. Afterward, whenever anyone asked if I had been to Paris, I’d say yes, but the answer always seemed like a lie. Like that Charlene song: “I’ve been to Georgia and California … I’ve been to Nice and the isle of Greece … but I’ve never been to me.”
Technically, I’d been to Paris, but, other than a book on Matisse I’d picked up from a bouquiniste (one of those old-fashioned bookstalls strewn along the banks of the Seine), nothing had stuck.
Paris has been on my mind a lot this past year, especially as it’s become clearer with each passing day that even when a vaccine is available and the world’s borders reopen, we’ll probably never again travel the way we once did. For starters, with so many airlines in financial doldrums, airfares will be a lot more expensive. So there goes those spontaneous weekend trips to Bali. There is, too, the innate and probably long-overdue understanding that flying less has a positive impact on the planet, and that translates to visiting fewer destinations and staying longer in the one spot. Which is not a bad thing at all, particularly if it allows us to forge more meaningful connections with the places we visit, rather than skimming the surface on a whirlwind itinerary. Slow travel, in other words.
After that first trip with Julie, I returned to Paris many times over the years, staying for increasingly longer periods. Once, I stayed two weeks, ostensibly to practice my French. Another time, I spent three weeks housesitting my friend’s flat while he was in Barcelona for the August holidays. And one year, I cat-sat another friend’s Siamese for a month while he was in Stockholm on assignment.
And that was how I finally fell in love with Paris. Because now, I had time on my side. Time to breathe slowly and calmly. Time to navigate the city’s storied streets. I wasn’t fighting the need to cram in everything in a couple of days. I was able to fully relax and slip into a rhythm that matched that of the locals.
The first time I visited the boulangerie around the corner from my apartment, the madame was brusque and unsmiling. “Bonjour,” she sighed, hand on hip, a pronounced dip in the corners of her mouth. “Uhh …” I said as I peered at her array of golden croissants, Mont Blancs, and luridly hued macarons. By the end of the second week, she had graduated to a tight smile. A month later, when I told her I was leaving the next morning and that I’d miss her pain au chocolat, she slipped a box of madeleines into my carrier and winked. “Bon voyage, cherie!” She then turned to the American couple beside me and barked, “Bonjour!”
Those long stretches of time allowed Paris to open up to me as each day, I discovered something new, something the guidebooks never tell you. I followed my nose to an incredible fragrant stew of beans and lamb in a bistro on rue Keller with a nondescript frontage. I spent an entire afternoon lingering among the Khmer treasures at the nearly empty Musée Guimet, and thought of all those tourists currently jammed up against the Mona Lisa. And while everyone was hotfooting it to the Sacré-Coeur, I sat on a bench in place Émile-Goudeau, a little park farther down Montmartre’s slope, and nibbled on bittersweet choco- lates I’d picked up from Regis on rue de Passy the previous day, marveling at the fact that in this ignored part of Paris, Picasso and his Bateau-Lavoir colleagues had once discussed colors and a newfangled movement called Cubism.
I remember those long, languid days with such joy. In a way I’ve never experienced in any other city—and only because I’ve never stayed longer than three days at any one time—Paris was, like my first love, all mine.
One evening, with snatches of passing French conversations drifting in through the open window, I lay in bed reading a collection of essays by Janet Flanner. The famous American correspondent for The New Yorker had spent most of her life in Paris, faithfully recording the events, the sights and sounds, the personalities that invested the city with so much magic. I came upon a passage she’d written toward the end of her life, when ill health had forced her return to the United States.
Remembering her first sight of Paris in the early 1920s, she said: “One’s eyes became the eyes of a painter, because the sight [of Paris] itself approximates art, with the narrow, pallid facades of the buildings lining the river; with … the vast chiaroscuro of the palatial Louvre, lightened by the luminous lemon color of the Paris sunset off toward the west; with the great square, pale stone silhouette of Notre-Dame to the east … The Pont Neuf still looked as we had known it in the canvases of Sisley and Pissarro.”
By the time I read this, Flanner had been dead some 30 years. But that didn’t stop me from experiencing an illogical need to tell her that her Paris was still there; to reassure her that while the whole world had changed, her memory of her long love affair with the city—the architecture, the food, the gardens, the light—was still very much alive. And all she had to do, to experience it once more, was to come back and, this time, stay a little longer.
This article originally appeared in the December 2020/February 2021 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Slow but Sure”).