The first time I saw Paris I didn't get it. It was the summer of 1961 and I was on my way from New York City to Leopoldville to cover the Congo. I had but one day in Paris, and the New York Times, for which I was working, had booked me into a dinky and quite charmless hotel, and no one bothered to take me around or explain the city to me. Not that I would have had much time for it: I was too caught up in the heat of my ambition, my first foreign assignment, and a war zone to boot. If anything, so recently removed from covering events in Nashville, Tennessee, I was most stunned by the sight of the city's ladies of the night, whores walking the streets just like normal citizens—what kind of country was this? I was too ambitious, too driven by work to have any interest in a city which seemed to reflect the past; rather, I was obsessed with the present, with stories from dangerous places that would make the front page. But then, over the next year and a half when taking a break from the Congo, I would fly to Paris and begin to sense the richness of it all.
My pleasure in Paris was tentative, almost embryonic at first, for I was just beginning to appreciate its contours and almost hidden pleasures, and why it was so different from the world—and the cities—that I knew best. In America new was always better than old; in Paris old was always better than new. In the New World big was always better than small; in Paris there was a quiet celebration of all things small. In the New World time was of the essence; but in Paris life was of the essence—one should rush through absolutely nothing, most particularly lunch.
In 1966, on my own for six months in France, I took a small apartment on the rue de Bourgogne in the Invalides. I began the day by working for two hours on a small novel about Vietnam. Then, more often than not, starting in the late afternoon, I would walk the city. The walks became a serendipiter's delight: for I was experimenting at all times. I did not just use the guides, Michelin and others, in my search for restaurants, most particularly bistros, but I put myself at the mercy of the city itself, going into neighborhood places, drawn as much as anything else by instinct, and almost always handsomely rewarded. I came gradually to love Paris and, I hope, to understand it as well, and to see it for what it was, a city occasionally oblivious to the present, the best of a living past skillfully midwifed into an uneasy accommodation with the 20th century. With that the deed was done. I have loved going back ever since and, above all, stumbling into neighborhoods and watching the special quality of the light as it hits familiar places at different times of the day.
And so I have finally come to understand that while I am hopelessly American, accustomed to (and dependent on) the relentless pressures and fierce energies of the New World, that there are moments when I want to escape to a different place with a beauty and a beat of its own. And when that happens, when I want to disappear from who I am, and where I live, the place I think of is Paris.
DAVID HALBERSTAM was the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 16 books, including The Amateurs, The Summer of '49, The Fifties, and Playing for Keeps.
About Paris and France
This former home of French kings epitomizes royal elegance in the style of Old Europe. Get facts, photos, and travel tips for Versailles, a World Heritage site in France.
Discover the arts, foods, crafts, and vistas that make this one of Europe's most inspiring regions.
Test your knowledge of Paris with this quiz from National Geographic's Ultimate City Guides.
Subscribe to Nat Geo Traveler
Available in print and for iPad®! See destinations come alive with 360-degree photos, videos, and more!