The magic started right away, on the RER train to Paris from the airport, when two men carrying huge bunches of lilacs got on and sat next to us, their fingernails rough and grimy, chapped hands clutching the ragged ends of the lilac branches. They let us smell the flowers, us lilac-deprived New Yorkers, groggy from the flight.
It continued when we got to our hotel on the rue de Verneuil, just steps from where I used to live, and it turned out that the hôtel particulier across the street used to be Serge Gainsbourg's. The wall encircling the private garden was covered with graffiti and stencils of Serge, Jane, Charlotte, and others. I had to rub my eyes.
I finally saw rascasses in the flesh, on ice, at a little market just behind the Place de la Madeleine. You can't find them in the United States, but I always read about them in recipes for bouillabaisse, that spicy, rusty fish soup from Marseille. The market also sold olives so pungent I smelled them from four stands away, great big rounds of brie de Meaux, faintly pocked, handfuls of bright yellow ranunculus for just three euros, and roasted beets, cooled and waiting in their jackets for shoppers to take them home.
Everywhere we went, I saw people holding small bouquets of lilies-of-the-valley, just in time for the sudden advent of spring, or May Day, I suppose. They were even affixed under a plaque of a police station in the sixième. An efficient little police bike stood under the bouquet at attention, while sharply-dressed policemen milled about inside the station, cooling their heels.
Oh Paris, with your darling streets named after grammarians and revolutionaries and mathematicians. I spent the entire first day agog, head turned upwards in wonder, mouth agape. I lived there for a year; I mean, I know that city, and still it left me speechless.
We had hot chocolate at Angelina, and watched little girls and boys stand in front of the pastry case in wonder. The chocolate came in a sweet little jug along with a pot of thick cream to dollop on top. We had to split it four ways, of course. It was too rich otherwise. But it was delicious.
If you don't already know about the cheese course at Astier, in the 11th, consider this your nudge. When you're in Paris, have dinner there. Skip the desserts, they're nothing special. But whatever you do, don't skip the cheese. The waiter, winking, will bring you this straw platter covered with...can you count how many cheeses? With a few knives and a nub or two of bread, settle in until he comes by again, cluck-clucking, to take the cheese away and bring it to another deserving table.
We were lucky with the weather: a few of those perfectly moody Parisian days, in which the sky is a soft shade of gray, like old kid gloves, and the light falls just so and it never quite rains, so that each street and corner you discover feels like a gift and a temporary reprieve; and then a few days of bright, brilliant sky, where the sunlight illuminated the creamy colors of the buildings and I practically got tears in my eyes from all the beauty around us.
The magic infused every bit of this perfect little trip. It was something that filled up our souls and made us promise to do it again next year and the year after that. It may have even made me feel like I reclaimed Paris from my ghosts of the past. Now it's all about the future, our next trips, the ones we daydreamed we might take one day with our children: a bunch of women and their kids in a rented apartment somewhere, going to Angelina for hot chocolate and the Place des Vosges for soccer and the Jardin du Luxembourg for a puppet theater. It's just a dream for now, but if the magic makes it happen, I think it's a tradition I'm going to love.
More photos here.