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Paris Never Forgets

The City of Light turns misty and introspective in winter -- a capital of nostalgia for pilgrims in search of their own past.

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My earliest memories of Paris, where I spent my first nine years, focus almost exclusively on the wintry and the northern -- hot porridge dished out in chilly kitchens, the rough itch of woolen mittens and gaiters, the camphor and eucalyptus fumes that soothed my frequent colds, the outline of my father, muffled and deep-hatted like Jean Gabin in the film Quai des Brumes, walking across a bridge in dense, raw fog. Even my favorite childhood food -- the grosse cuisine bourgeoise that prevailed until the advent of upstart, spring-obsessed nouvelle -- was archetypal winter fare: slices of saucisson chaud posited on a bed of perfectly boiled potatoes; thick, dark stews; daubes, bourguignons, and civets; the garbures de legumes whose fragrance rises in the evening from the kitchens of so many French households.

As for my most vivid recollection of Paris springtime, it is direly negative. I am about 7, and the first ice-cream vendors have arrived at the Tuileries, where my despotic governess and I walk in the afternoon. For the first time ever, my pleas for ice cream, consistently denied me all these years as a medical hazard, are successful. I triumphantly order a pistachio cone, but as I reach out and grasp the gleaming treat, my hand so trembles with excitement that the cone drops to the ground . . . I'm refused another chance, and ice cream will not pass my lips until World War II and exile to the United States liberate me from the tyrant.

So much for April in Paris. Some years later, in my lunatic 1950s, I joined the thousands of young Americans who had come to live in Paris in search of higher culture and better sex than our Eisenhower era offered. The catalyst of my Parisian experiment was a dissolute, aggressively anti-American Frenchman who insisted on drinking until dawn, and that turbulent October-to-April episode is equally laced with hibernal scenes: sardonic nouvelle vague quarrels in my icy fifth-floor rooms on the Île Saint-Louis; nipping walks in the nearby Quai d'Anjou, by that amazing site where Notre Dame's flying buttresses loom spiderlike through the Seine's perpetual winter mist; the dank transvestite dance halls on the Rue de la Montaigne Sainte-Geneviève, where the Frenchman thought it fun to dance the tango until dawn.

Burning the candle at both ends, struggling to a job every morning, I sensed that this fellow's demonic pace spelled trouble, but took refuge in the motto of Saint Augustine's own wayward youth, "O save me God, but not quite yet." Sure enough, as the chestnut blossomed, budded April wrought its havoc: I collapsed, spent some weeks in Paris hospitals and Swiss sanitoriums, came back to the United States, and married the man I'm still bonded to 42 years later. I never again spent a whole winter in Paris, yet it is the season at which I always try to return for brief visits, for it is the chill, aquatic Paris winters that most deeply marked my childhood and my rocky coming of age.

My own Parisian rite of passage may have been extreme, but I know few well-traveled Americans whom the city has not marked with some powerful winter epiphany: my ghastly French lover, my first great meal, my first sighting of Sartre/Beauvoir/Lacan. Paris as the conjurer of a heightened selfhood, as the Mecca of high culture and sexual liberation, was a Yankee obsession for nearly 200 years. But then, a decade or so ago, the myth suddenly dissolved. By 1990, the French themselves were grumbling that "rien ne se passe ici," and young Americans seeking to get laid, get cultured, and find themselves in the process had begun to look on Berlin and, even more recently, on Prague as the ultimate finishing schools.

So Paris has finally come into its own as a capital of Western nostalgia -- somnolent, irrelevant, the opposite of a Scene -- and that is precisely why I now find it so blissful, particularly in winter. Hard-core Paris habitués of my generation are bound to be possessive, proprietary about those places in which memory runs deep. We seek out Paris in its most leafless, skeletal, solitary state, when we can quietly return to the more potent memory sites and say, "I lived by these trees, cried by this sidewalk, knew joy in a room on this street."

As for those winter weeks -- the Christmas season, the February break -- when the camera-laden hordes might again threaten to invade my memory palaces, I beat the traffic in a variety of perennially tranquil refuges, cultural and culinary, a few of which I cautiously share:

At the musée national des arts d'Afrique et d'Océanie, near the Parc de Vincennes, you will find a large and superb collection of "primitive" art -- displayed in France's most stunning Art Deco building -- which remains unknown even to most Parisians. My old neighborhood hangout, the dark, cozy Brasserie de l'Île Saint Louis at the northern tip of the island, still bears the same slogans on its windows as it did in the fifties -- ses bons vins, ses francforts, son café des artistes -- and claims a hearty and reasonable choucroute.

The charming Musée de la Vie Romantique, in Montmartre, displays a collection of memorabilia relating to the generation of George Sand, Eugène Delacroix, Alfred de Musset, and other stars of the French Romantic movement. At the "cantine," or café, of the Conservatoire Serge Rachmaninoff near Place de l'Alma, one of the city's most venerable music schools, the public is invited to lunch or dine on terrific blinis and Pojarski cutlets for amazingly low prices. The top floor of the Musée Carnavalet, in the Marais, is devoted to iconographies and memorabilia of the French Revolutionary era, and its Hubert Robert landscapes are particularly grand. For that most quintessential winter dish, civet de sanglier, and other sumptuous ancienne cuisine fare, try my favorite Parisian bistro, Chez Jean, near Gare Saint Lazare.

Finally, on the habitually serene second floor (French-style) of the Café de Flore in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, amiable waiters still allow you to sit at your table all day for the order of a single drink (my recent record is six hours). I often order an archetypal potion of Parisian-winter childhoods, hot chocolate, which is celestially unctuous, thick and dark, and leads me to recall a comment of the enthusiastic nineteenth-century traveler Oliver Wendell Holmes: "Good Americans, when they die, go to Paris."


Francine du Plessix Gray's new biography, At Home With the Marquis De Sade (Simon & Schuster), comes out next month.


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