A Street Corner in Paris

Travel Stories: Jeffrey Tayler had all but given up on the City of Light. Then he sat down at a Left Bank cafe.

01.30.12 | 11:22 AM ET

Louvre, ParisPhoto by tibchris via Flickr, (Creative Commons)

Feeling glum about the future—and who wouldn’t, these days?—one summer evening not long ago I took a seat outdoors by the potted honeysuckles at a café bar, Le Vin Sobre, where rue des Feuillantines traverses rue Saint Jacques, on the Left Bank, and ordered a half-carafe of Côtes du Rhône.

I’d started visiting Paris in the spring of 1983, and, at least until recently, had returned so often—for days, for weeks—that I’d lost track. This time I came not as a tourist, but to give my annual lecture at the nearby Paris American Academy. As the years passed, la Ville Lumière lost its grip on my senses, and I stopped coming unless it was for business. In fact, I could hardly see why it was called the City of Light anymore, at least away from the spectacular, low-numbered arrondissements curling around the Seine. So many quartiers are grimy, trashed-up, and urban in a careless rundown way recalling the seedy parts of big cities everywhere; and the occasional riots in the mostly immigrant banlieues betray the existence of a whole other side of Paris, one never featured in travel magazines: the Paris of the disfavored, the racially and religiously ostracized. I ended up preferring sundrenched Marseille, which has an even larger immigrant community, but is infinitely more relaxed, and exudes an Afro-Arab ambiance as spicy as it is welcoming. The Paris I continued to love belonged to Maupassant and Baudelaire, Balzac and Zola, and existed on the page alone.

Anyway, seated at Le Vin Sobre, I opened my book, a slim volume about the pleasures of reading that I had bought second-hand for less than a euro at Gilbert Jeune, and launched into an essay by Proust called Journées de lecture. The waitress, a willowy waif in black jeans and a black T-shirt, with wide, if tired, hazel eyes, a delicate nose, and sculpted flaxen hair, brought me my wine. I took my first sip, savoring the rich, deep red, and returned to my reading. At least the wine in France never disappoints; and this time it was chilled, which pleased me immensely on such a warm day.

Proust is rarely easy, and even this short essay proved a chore to follow, with its serpentine, multi-clausal sentences and manifold digressions. I was ready to move on to the book’s next selection when I lit upon the line about “thoughts plucked from these too-beautiful skies, skies of varying colors reflected by the window panes of the church that one caught sight of, at times, between the roofs of the village, sad skies that appeared before showers, or afterwards, too late, when the day was going to end.” Thoughts plucked from sad skies, eternally changing sad skies at day’s end, spreading over the medieval churches in French hamlets! A splendid, textured evocation of a fleeting moment, a lost time, in the villages of northern France.

The passage justified further attention, so I read on. But then a faint orange glow crept into my field of vision. I looked up. The setting sun was glinting off the windows of the chambres de bonne (“maids’ quarters,” tiny attic apartments once reserved for domestics) on the iron-gray gabled uppermost floors of the beige stone buildings lining the streets, three and four stories high, dating from Victor Hugo’s day or before, with, here and there, belfries and steeples peeping above the roofs. I put down my book. The sky was transmuting: a rather cheery, if common, summery azure vault laced with cirrus was metamorphosing into a melancholy tableau of oyster-shell clouds set against luminescent, rosée-tinted sand, an inverted seascape in the heavens calling to mind long walks at dusk along lonely beaches, probably with a loved one’s hand clasped in one’s own. Just the sky, a soft northern sky, to pluck thoughts from, a sky lacking the saturated, and at times sating, brilliance one often sees down south.

People around me were conversing quietly. Mais non . . . be’ oui . . . mais tu rigoles ou quoi? The rhythms of French, restrained but sensual, caught my ear; a breeze stirred the honeysuckle, scenting the air. The waitress moved among the tables, addressing customers as messieurs or mesdames. (No “Hi, I’m Virginie!” no phony bonhomie, no intrusions.) Down the sidewalk strode all manner of Parisians and immigrants: dowagers balancing on canes, with diamond earrings and tinkling necklaces; French men with effeminate figures and messy crops of hair; African women with manes of hennaed cornrows; stately French girls carrying bags of groceries with baguettes jutting out. Some stopped to examine Le Vin Sobre’s ardoise du jour (“slate of the day,” the blackboard menu, perched on an easel), and its offerings of entrées, plats, and desserts. These diverse folk all seemed to belong here, it occurred to me. Even I felt at ease about stretching out my legs, reading my book, and sipping my wine, as if I owned the place. I had come here every evening during my stay and read for hours, and had never been hurried, let alone asked to leave for ordering very little.

This was wonderful, but there was more to my pleasure. Somehow, we all, locals and foreigners, seemed ennobled, raised above the common by Paris, by the dignity, the balanced craft, the art de vivre on display: the wrought-iron balconies overflowing with geraniums; the moderate dimensions of the buildings (no skyscrapers in this part of town); the presence of so many bookshops offering livres anciens et modernes, often arrayed on tables on the sidewalk; the Jazz Café Universel and other cafés, the Bistro Royal Saint Jacques and other restaurants, all places to linger, to be, without dot.com logos, without purpose except to provide pleasure—civilized, paced-out pleasure. Even the traffic flowed at a humane tempo: spotless silver taxis and gleaming black Volvos whirred by, slowing for people about to enter the zebra crossings at corners. The barely contained madness and gnaoua-style clamor of the streets of Marseille felt distant indeed.

There was, after all, I remembered, a reason why I used to love this city. Paris was now enchanting me all over again, prompting me to delve into my reading almost as much as wonder at the beauty of my surroundings.  Then I thought: Paris has always been a city for writers, including expat writers (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Miller), some of whom spent years here as delighted as they were famished. No one said la Ville Lumière was all splendor and feasting, let alone light. Anyway, writers at times need the dark, the gentle skies of the north.

The waitress delivered a carafe of wine to the next table, and stopped by me to sniff the honeysuckle. She smiled and moved on. She works here and she still sniffs the honeysuckle! I thought. And why did she sniff the flower next to me? I wondered hopefully, before abandoning the silly notion.

The Côtes du Rhône seeped through my synapses. A jazz singer was performing at the Universel, and her notes, distinctly American, mixed with surprised be’ ouis, with quizzical c’est bizarres, with the warbling elongated trills of swifts dipping and darting across the sky. It all felt so right to me, so true and proper, as if I’d been coming to this street corner for decades; and my absence, my almost childish peeve against Paris, had been forgiven. Now I felt alive, with nothing more than a glass of wine under a summer sky in Paris having driven away my blue grumbling mood. Whatever shoddy quartiers there are elsewhere in Paris, for me, this corner was reason enough to return.

Jeffrey Tayler is a contributing editor for The Atlantic and the author of six books, including River of No Reprieve: Descending Siberia's Waterway of Exile, Death, and Destiny. His latest is Murderers in Mausoleums. His second book "Facing the Congo" ranked No. 28 on World Hum's Top 30 Travel Books of all time. He was the subject of a World Hum interview.

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