Twenty Years Ago, I Ran Away to Paris. This Is What It Was Like to Return.
A writer revisits the city she first discovered at 19, and finds it still rich with memories of her younger self.
We were speeding through Paris after landing at Charles de Gaulle, and my heart was beating fast. It had been two decades since I’d been to the city. I craned out the cab window hungrily. I couldn’t wait to wander the Marais, or shop on Boulevard de Sébastopol for ham and eggs and white asparagus to whip up into brunch. As my husband and I made our way to the attic apartment we had rented, I was amazed at how sharply I recognized the churches and alleyways, and how, after a few hours, my rusty French began to quicken on my tongue.
My reentry was also a homecoming. When I was 19, I abruptly dropped out of college and ran away to Paris. I left the U.S. in January with little more than a one-way ticket, six years of public school French, and $700 to my name. I couch-surfed a bit, first with the baroness grandmother of a friend, then with a distant acquaintance. Finally, nearly broke, I checked into a Protestant youth hostel in the Sixth Arrondissement, renting a narrow bunk that I shared with Elise, a Scottish redhead. We ventured out daily to look for work and mostly came back empty-handed. For breakfast, the hostel put out long baguettes and butter and strawberry jam, as well as bowls of steaming milk and coffee. Every day for weeks this was my only full meal, and each morning it was a delicious miracle — in memory, still the best coffee I’ve ever had. Nights, we raffish hostel dwellers sometimes slunk into the building’s basement, a dark medieval cave where we lit candles and drank cheap red wine.
Living in Paris was heady, a bit stressful, and somewhat improbable. But over the weeks, my French improved. I landed a job as a translator at the Hôtel Ritz Escoffier École, where I learned to cook poulet à l’estragon and crumbly chestnut gâteau. A stage-set life assembled around me. I’d while away cold winter hours at Shakespeare & Co., the legendary Left Bank bookshop, reading poetry — Pound, Baudelaire, Beckett, Stein. I made friends with a Swedish watchmaker and a Norman duke. Eventually, a former boyfriend showed up, and we rented a narrow apartment near St. Eustache, on a white-cobblestoned street I adored the second I saw it.
All the while I worked and read and explored new quartiers. My walk to the Ritz took me past the Louvre, and I would pop in most afternoons using my student card. On each visit I’d sit with a single painting, teaching myself to see what it was I loved in art. One day it was a Neoclassical David; another day a delicate, shadowy Vermeer.
It wasn’t all perfect — the boyfriend and I fought, and money was wildly tight. But it was remarkable, absorbing this world week after week; learning to joke in French, to taste and wander like a proud flaneuse. By the time I left in the summer, I had cheap espadrilles, a short Jean Seberg haircut, and a 1970s-style belted blue leather coat I’d picked up at the Marché aux Puces. I felt ready to face down my adulthood.
Last year I returned to give a lecture about poetry to some American students. I couldn’t help glimpsing myself in them, recalling my life in the city as a young would-be poet. I’d turn a corner to see a flash of my own self 20 years earlier, dashing down an alley after art or bread. I was taking in not just the Pompidou but the memory of first entering the Pompidou; running along the quays below the Pont des Arts, I was also running after my headstrong former self. In the Jardin du Luxembourg I had a vivid memory of sharing warm ham crêpes on a cold evening with Elise before heading to that hostel basement to play guitars and flirt in all the languages we knew. “The shape of a city changes more quickly than a mortal’s heart,” said Baudelaire in a famous poem about Paris, but this isn’t quite true. Paris, when you’ve loved it, also seems to save a bit of you waiting, unchanged, in its crevices. It is as if the city holds within its knotty streets not only the ghosts of artists and lovers, but your own ghost, too.
This trip, we stayed in the Seventh, in a tall crumbling building mere blocks from the hostel I lived in decades ago. One night my husband and I slunk out to La Vénus Noire, another venerable basement speakeasy, to listen to jazz. Walking home that evening, after passing the stone lions in the fountains at the Place St.-Sulpice, I led us back through a familiar alley, as if toward my old hostel. I found the wall now inscribed with “Le Bateau Ivre,” Rimbaud’s poem about the seasickness of travel and longing. I stopped to savor it, dizzy between worlds.
The next day, I made a pilgrimage to Shakespeare & Co. In the cluttered stacks of a second-floor room was a copy of the book of poems I’d recently published. With wonder, I saluted the brazen, wayward young woman I’d been. Looking at the Seine that night, I thought how the self is a series of refractions, sticky with place. The pieces flash back, like light on the river. There are our hearts, fluttering in the world, glittering, waiting to be rediscovered.