Photograph by Scott Stulberg, Corbis
From the November 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler
I first moved to Paris as a French literature undergraduate on a Princeton summer work-abroad program. Living with an aristocratic French family in shabby 16th-arrondissement splendor, I sipped the simultaneous thrills of inhabiting the past, surrounded by 18th-century family portraits, armoires, and settees, and rewriting the present in a foreign tongue. My providential presence provided the twentysomething heir of the family and his exuberant fiancée with the perfect excuse to concoct elaborate picnics and parties, and by the middle of the summer, I had a new answer when people asked me what I was doing in Paris: “J’étudie la bonne vie française,” I’d say—I’m studying the good life, French style.
When I moved back for a second summer on the same program, everything was different. This time I had the confidence to tackle the city on my own, and having just graduated, I felt exhilaratingly untethered; life stretched before me like a grand boulevard of possibilities, all intriguing alleys and archways. After a withering week looking for lodging, I discovered a dream place on the fashionable Rue de Rivoli, just opposite the glorious green Jardin des Tuileries. I was supposed to stay confined to the former maid’s rooms in the interior of this sprawling apartment, but after a few days the owners left for a month on the Mediterranean, and that evening I found a way to unlock the door into the main salon. Towering French windows opened onto the Tuileries deepening into twilight, and as I gazed in wonder, the summer Ferris wheel’s lights began to blink like fireflies and the majestic sounds of an open-air orchestra swelled on the breeze.
Hungry in a way I’d never been before, I gorged on Paris. I watched Molière at the Comédie Française and the Ballet Béjart in the park; I idled among the secondhand shelves at Shakespeare and Co., eavesdropping on poets and poseurs; I immersed myself in Manet and Monet in the Musée d’Orsay; bobbed on a bateau mouche along the Seine; got lost in the ancient alleys of Montmartre and the Marais; stood stunned in stained-glass silence in Notre-Dame; savored the open-air theater from a sidewalk café on the Champs-Élysées; conjured Hemingway on Rue Descartes and Les Deux Magots café; and found my own dinner table at a boudoir-size bistro around the corner from my apartment, where I knew I’d arrived when the owner brought me my bifteck-frites and demi-carafe of house red wine without a word.
One evening I was walking home from work and came upon two college students from Alabama who were clearly lost. I helped the young women find their way back to their hotel, which turned out to be the hallowed Ritz. In gratitude their parents invited me to join them the next two nights, first for the famous duck dinner at the opulent Tour d’Argent—“one of the most expensive restaurants in Paris,” my envious colleagues told me the next day—and then for the flashy, fleshy fete at the Moulin Rouge, which somehow led to a Champagne-fueled soiree back at the Ritz, until the bells rang in the rosy dawn.
It was that kind of summer. I fell in love a few times, but of course, my real love was for Paris. I would wander its streets inebriated with the inexpressibly elegant avenues and facades, the arching bridges and graceful streetlamps, the laughter spilling out of bistros and bars, the musicians in the metro, the soft-lit windows in the grand apartments on the Île Saint-Louis, where I yearned to join the soigné citizens and their sophisticated repartee.
One morning halfway through my stay, I took my apartment building’s rickety old filigreed elevator as usual from the fifth floor to the hushed shade of the ground-floor entryway, then stepped through the massive wooden doors into the street—and stopped. All around me people were speaking French, wearing French, acting French. Shrugging their shoulders and twirling their scarves and drinking their cafés crèmes, calling out “Bonjour, monsieur-dame” and paying for Le Monde or Le Nouvel Observateur with francs and stepping importantly around me and staring straight into my eyes and subtly smiling in a way that only the French do.
Until that summer, I had spent most of my life in classrooms, and I was planning after that six-month European detour to spend most of the rest of my life in classrooms. Suddenly it struck me: This was the classroom. Not the musty, ivy-draped halls in which I had spent the previous four years. This world of wide boulevards and centuries-old buildings and six-table sawdust restaurants and glasses of vin ordinaire and poetry readings in cramped second-floor bookshops and mysterious women smiling at you so that your heart leaped and you walked for hours restless under the plane trees by the Seine. This was the classroom.
In that moment, the seed of my future sprouted. Rather than write about literature, I would write about life in the world, beginning with a graduate course in la bonne vie française.
Editor at large Don George is the author of The Lonely Planet Guide to Travel Writing and the editor of numerous travel anthologies, including A Moveable Feast and The Kindness of Strangers.