The other evening my wife asked me: “once all this madness ends, and with unlimited funds, what would be your first destination?”
I thought for a bit. My adopted home town of Philadelphia came to mind, as did New York. Then there was San Francisco (which would include a drive up to Healdsburg, naturally) and several places in Europe: Bruges, Zermatt, Strasbourg (where I studied for a year), the Loire Valley, Sicily, and of course Champagne.
But I knew there was really only one answer:
As I have stated a few times on this blog, my first trip to France was at the beginning of my Junior year in college. I was to spend the year in Strasbourg, France, studying at the university there. My obsession with France started as a Freshman in high school when, at the suggestion of my older sister, I elected to take French as my foreign language.
One can not study French without learning quite a bit about France’s capital city and anyone who studies the language for an extended period of time wants to go there at some point.
When I went there in college, though, I pretty much hated it. I was only there for a few days that first time and I was there as a tourist, so while seeing the sites that I had studied and read about for so long, it was kind of cool. But it was crowded with tourists (and worse, Parisiens), it was expensive, and I got lost frequently. (That last point was added just to have a third–I have a terrible sense of direction and could get lost in a phone booth when they still existed, that is.)
It was another few years before I would make it back to Paris and on my second trip I hated it, too. This time I was there to work as a bicycle tour guide and the company for whom I worked was headquartered in the center of town (the office was in the 2nd Arrondissement for those of you playing at home).
As a guide, I would spend weeks at a time out on the road, visiting just about every region in France with groups of people who were on vacation and just looking to have fun. This meant riding my bike during the day and big dinners in the evening with several bottles of wine.
Once the trip was over, I would return to Paris, usually for about a week, and I would be alone. I was usually anchored to a desk, trying to figure out my accounts and “find” a few hundred euros for which I had no receipt nor recollection.
Over time, though, I grew to love Paris. There are many facets, obviously, to the city, but for me when I think of Paris, it’s the smell that first enters my mind. Every large city smells; it’s usually a rather unpleasant combination of rotting food, stagnant water, and human urine.
Sure, there are parts of the city where it smells like the men’s room at Yankee Stadium, but on any short walk in the city, there is a joyful blend of the florist on the corner, the café across the street, the cheese shop with forty (or more) different varieties. And of course the bakeries. Just about every block in Paris has a bakery and they all emit the most delicious smells of yeasty yumminess.
That is when I will know that this whole pandemic is over. When I am able to close my eyes, expand my nostrils, breathe in deeply, and smell Paris again.