Paris has been on my mind. Of course, I mean the city’s charms, so ubiquitous they’ve turned it into a caricature: bistro tables set like typewriter keys, rows of croissants in a pâtisserie window. But these are only part of the story.
I recently read John Baxter’s A Year in Paris: Season by Season in the City of Light. He explains how Parisians live according to the time of year. The city’s character shifts; there’s a natural rhythm that guides everything. Embracing this mindset arguably makes residents healthier and happier.
By that reasoning, there’s no bad time to visit.
As the famous quote goes, “Paris is always a good idea.”
Every season has its colors: whether it’s cherry blossoms at the Champs de Mars; a sunset cruise on the Seine; fall foliage at the Jardins des Tuileries; or reflections on a wet street. The City of Light is a city of life.
I’ve been lucky to visit three times. There’s a nearly fifteen-year span between the trips. Each one was so very different. Each one, I realize, represents a distinct time in my life. My own seasons.
Just as the city grows and changes through its phases, so do I.
Spring arrived when I was sixteen and obsessed with all things French. I’d just read Cynthia Baxter’s A Summer in Paris, about four friends who sign up for a school trip before heading off to college. Some are more enthusiastic than others, and none more so than Nina. Not only did she have dark hair like I did, but she also lived and breathed French culture. Spent every day immersed in visions of cafes and croissants. Dreamed of being a writer. This was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Then it was my turn. Fiction to fact. Our French teacher announced she was organizing a trip to France. My parents said yes, knowing it meant as much to me as it did to that character in the book I’d been absorbed in. This was my once-in-a-lifetime.
I listened to French radio stations. Practiced my vocabulary. Borrowed travel books from the library. Then the day came.
Paris. My first real adventure. What more could a teenage girl ask for? The city was everything I imagined. In my adolescent wisdom, I considered conveniently losing my passport so I could stay forever. (I didn’t do that, thankfully.)
My Spring was full of color. A vibrant bouquet of innocence and excitement. A time of, and for, the young — a season of dreams. It was perfect. And it couldn’t last.
I thought that was it. One and done. I’d been fortunate, and I accepted, more or less, that there wouldn’t be a next time. But after Spring comes Summer, and it turned out Paris wasn’t finished with me.
Grade twelve is a period of change. High school to university. Child to adult. Independence, responsibilities, decisions. It was amidst this whirlwind that Paris once again said, “Bonjour.”
That year, the city would host World Youth Day. Which meant that when I and my fellow youth group leader weren’t writing exams or papers, we were raising money for a trip to Paris by putting on spaghetti dinners, and washing cars. All that pasta and sauce — and scrubbing — paid off.
Graduation came and went. Before leaving for Paris, I packed my belongings for the move to university; there would be only a few days between arriving home, and beginning the next stage of my life.
It was a scorcher that August. Sweltering days felt all the muggier with a million extra people. Dust was everywhere. But we were young and idealistic, and roughing it was no big deal. Wearing wet bandanas to stay cool? No problem. Sleeping at the Longchamp Racecourse? Bring it on! We had new friends and candlelight vigils to sustain us.
Nothing could dim those flames. We were invincible.
A few days later, Princess Diana died after a crash in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel. I left for university.
Life got real.
“Third time’s the charm”? Sort of.
My Autumn came. I was married. Our schooling in the rearview mirror, my husband and I focused on work, bills, and a little boy. I thought I’d quit Paris, but every few years I got the itch. Somehow, I convinced my spouse to go.
It didn’t matter that he was hopeless with languages. That we were complete opposites. He needed to see it for himself, right? The sights and lights. The colors. We could re-create some of the magic from my teens. Finally put my French degree to use.
I should have known better.
I had changed. I was a mother, overwhelmed. I needed a break. But the idea of leaving our son made me ill. Then there was the flying itself. During my Spring and Summer, it was exciting. This time, I argued we should get off the plane before takeoff. We could have a nice vacation closer to home. This was the first of several panic attacks. It was a post 9-11 world.
Thanks to my husband, we carried on.
I was not the same, and neither was Paris. Believing otherwise was an error. If only I’d dropped past expectations, I (and my long-suffering spouse) would have been better able to enjoy this rare getaway.
Still, we found our own version of the city. We weren’t fussed about the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre. Rather, we chose a road slightly less tourist-travelled. The Roue de Paris. The outdoor flea market at Montreuil. Even the National Archives.
We rode a Vespa in the traffic chaos around the Arc de Triomphe. Sat in a park in the Pereire neighborhood, where locals ate and drank and watched their children play. No itinerary. Just everyday Parisian life. Exactly what 16-year-old me would have loved but had not been ready to appreciate.
And so, we come to Winter. I don’t know if I’ll see Paris again. If I do, I don’t think the city will recognize me.
I no longer have that dark hair like Nina from the book. My husband and I quote The Simpsons: “Time has ravaged your once-youthful looks.” We laugh.
With age comes confidence. Wisdom. There’s still some fear. When you’re on the other side of forty, however, you prioritize differently. You’ve seen loss, and know that life is short. The opinions of others mean less. You have a list to check off.
Day-to-day is busy, but there’s more space. Room to breathe. To remember goals set aside, once upon a time.
This is my current season. The first three led me here.
Now, I’m an author. With a novel starring Paris.
Remember that Ferris wheel? The Pereire park? The Vespa? My younger self who craved adventure? They’re on the pages.
Paris has been there for all of it. Me at my worst and best. In all our colors.
Maybe one day I’ll see the Eiffel Tower’s lights again. Maybe I’ll even try travelling solo. If I get the chance, it would bring my year to a fitting close.
It’s a time of confidence and wisdom, but there’s more to learn in this final season. New experiences to charm me. Spring, Summer, and Autumn have passed. Here’s to a long Winter.