France – Paris in particular – has a magnetic quality that attracts a certain type of person. Consider the free spirits drawn to the place in the early part of the last century: Hemmingway, Stein, Miller, Joyce, Beckett, Chagall, Picasso… There are similar circles alive and thriving in Paris today, people who visit the city and end up staying because their souls feel unchained there, their steps lighter. As someone who has fallen under the spell of the city, myself, I’ve given a lot of thought to what that elusive quality is, to what exactly it is about Paris that keeps luring me back, like a thirsty horse to water.
I first went to Paris when I was 19, a naïve, young thing in blue jeans traveling on a beer budget. I’d just graduated from university and had bought a one-way ticket. I stayed a month, wandering the streets in a perpetual state of marvel, and then came the time to leave for Germany where I’d secured a job. The night before my departure, after dinner in the Marais with a friend, I remember coming across a lighted garden that glowed magically behind tall iron gates. I stood before it thinking I’d never seen anything more beautiful in my life and suddenly my heart tore in two. Why was I leaving?! I was crazy to leave!? It was all wrong!
Then, a little voice piped up within my head. It said, “Don’t worry. You’ll be back.” For some reason I trusted that voice, and off I went. It would be about a decade before I returned, as it happened, but imagine this: entirely by accident, I ended up living just steps away from that very garden.
That was a long time ago. Over the past 15 years, I have gone to and fro from Paris countless times. Sometimes, I’ve even declared, “That’s it. I’m done! Onwards!” But, it never works out. Every time I say a final goodbye, something takes me back. After all this time, I may finally have figured out what it is.
Highly civilized cultures value beauty. They seek it out at every turn, create it (ie: put money into it), preserve it, and, in it, take great pride. The French are one such culture, and Paris is just one jewel in the country’s crown. Besides, the beauty of the place isn’t just visible in monumental things like architecture; it’s everywhere you look: it’s in the bow on a shoe peaking out from beneath a café table, a whiff of perfume in the street, the golden hue in a wine glass, the latest planting in the Tuileries, the twinkling blue of Christmas lights, a starched white tablecloth, the mournful voice of a distant accordion, it’s in a glance… Paris is alive with sensuous life! And the people there recognize it and are reveling in it while they can. It’s as though there were a spirit of “carpe diem” coursing through the veins of the city and everyone’s infected.
And that’s the je ne sais quoi. That’s the allure. It’s also the secret ingredient in French cooking and dining that makes me keep on writing about it. It’s certainly the muse behind Paris Express.
By Laura Calder