Paris terror prompts reflection on the City of Light

Paris Skyline
Paris Skyline Getty Images

When I first heard of the terrible events that enfolded in Paris Nov. 13, I had just gotten off a plane from London. I immediately joined the rest of the world in mourning such a senseless loss of life, as well as the loss of security for Parisians in their own city.

Over the years, I have been to Paris some 15 times and it is a city that I have grown to love dearly. Once the horror and shock subsided, I started to reminisce about my favorite moments in the City of Light. The images came quickly, in kaleidoscopic fashion.

I thought about my first visit when I was in my early 20s. The closet-sized bedroom in my small hotel on the Left Bank had no television, but who cared? My bedroom window had a view no TV show could hope to equal – the glorious rose window of Notre Dame Cathedral, majestically perched on the Ile de la Cite in the River Seine.

On that same visit, I splurged shamelessly on a dinner cruise aboard a bateau mouche on the River Seine, and fancied myself Audrey Hepburn frivolously clinking champagne glasses with Cary Grant in the film Charade. Paris has a way of doing that to people.

I fast-forwarded to my most recent visit, when a more mature version of that 20-something me still stood at a hotel window marveling at the view. This time it was from a two-story suite at the Shangri-La Hotel and the view was of the twinkling lights of the Eiffel Tower. Times and my economic circumstances had changed, as had my feelings for Paris. That first blush of youthful love had morphed into something much deeper and more lasting.

I thought of all the many special moments I had had during the years between my first and last visits. There were hours spent poring over tomes at Shakespeare & Company, one of the world’s greatest book stores, and as important to a bibliophile as the shops along the Rue St. Honore are to the fashionista.

As for fashion, I remember attending my first (and only) Paris fashion show at Hotel Le Bristol, and then bumping into Nick Nolte in the elevator looking a little worse for wear — him, not me.

Not to say that I haven’t had my own moments. I had to smile when I recalled a slightly boozy lunch I had with New York food writer John Mariani at Joel Robuchon’s Atelier, and an even boozier dinner with a group of friends at a charming café in Saint-Germain-du-Pres.

If Paris is, as they say, a moveable feast, then I’ve done a lot of moving and feasting during my times there.

Some memorable moments didn’t include food, unless you count eating crow. I remember the time I arrived at the Gare du Nord train station, ticket in hand, for a trip from Paris to Comte on the wrong day. Not only did the charming conductor let me stay, but the charming man whose seat I had taken told me not to worry, he’d take another one (so much for the presumed hauteur of Parisians).

The ghosts of those who made Paris their own have always haunted me, from Victor Hugo and Coco Chanel to Marlene Dietrich and especially, Ernest Hemingway. My obsession with tracing Hemingway’s passage through Paris took me from the Luxembourg Gardens where, as an unknown, he hunted pigeons for his dinner, to Les Deux Magots Café where later, as the toast of the town, he often lunched with the likes of Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso.

On another visit, it was Napoleon’s footsteps I followed, from Fontainebleu and Malmaison (homes he shared with Josephine) to his final resting place in the Hotel des Invalides.

Oh yes, and I can’t forget my pilgrimage to Pere La Chaise Cemetery in search of another resting place — the grave of Jim Morrison.

On yet another trip, I put the ghosts aside and walked with the living — in this case, the chef at the Intercontinental Paris Le Grand Hotel —to the bustling Rungis market to select produce we would be using for a cooking class at the hotel later that afternoon. For weeks after that trip, I bragged to everyone I knew that I was a French-trained chef.

I have spent an entire day perusing the exquisite art in the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay. I’ve also spent an entire day sitting in a café in Montmartre or on the Champs Elysees with a loaf of bread, a wedge of cheese and a bottle of wine. That’s the beauty of Paris – art comes in many forms.

There are the Luxembourg Gardens where I discovered the joys of watching children launch their tiny sailboats, and there is the shop on the Rue de Rivoli where I discovered my signature perfume that never fails to remind me of the city.

The shop is just a few blocks from my favorite Paris hotel, the Meurice. I flashed back to a lunch there with a friend where I complained that I liked the restaurant’s décor better before Philippe Starck modernized it.

The older one, I remarked, was more in keeping with the grand literary salon the Meurice had been in the 1920s. I loved the hotel’s stories — especially the one about how eccentric artist Salvadore Dali, a frequent guest, would ask the staff to capture flies for him in the nearby Tuileries Gardens, for which he paid them 5 francs a fly.

Come to think of it, Dali wouldn’t have griped about the modern décor. He would have loved the chair Starck designed for the restaurant in the shape of a woman’s shoe.

I thought of the people who had always made Paris a special place for me, from Colin Field, the legendary British bartender at the Ritz Hotel whose way with a shaker had to be seen to be believed, to my friends Claudia and Frederic Hubig-Schall, whose wonderful bistro, Astier, in the 11th arrondissement, is one of my favorites.

In the wake of this terrible tragedy and the assault on the city, I feel the need to paraphrase Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca, and say, “I’ll always have Paris.”

Je t’aime, Paris, and I’ll see you soon.