Reflections on a Paris Left Behind

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Even Hemingway struggled with this city, working on a memoir of his poor early days, “A Moveable Feast,” off and on for years, before it was finally published after his death. Christopher Hitchens once called it “an ur-text of the American enthrallment with Paris,” identifying an unthinking nostalgia “as we contemplate a Left Bank that has since become a banal tourist enclave in a Paris where the tough and plebeian districts are gone, to be replaced by seething Muslim banlieues all around the periphery.”

Sometimes, reading about Paris in newspapers, magazines and on Web sites devoted to tourism, I feel the clichés piling high enough to touch the Eiffel Tower — or even the still-hideous Tour Montparnasse, which for decades has given skyscrapers a bad name here.

All the clichés are still there, if that’s as far as you’re willing to look, from the supposedly haughty waiters to the baguettes and croissants and the nighttime lights on the Notre-Dame de Paris, shimmering with a faith now largely abandoned.

After more than five years living here as The New York Times’s Paris bureau chief, having experienced some of the best and worst, from a state dinner at the Élysée to a long, cold march down a blocked highway to Orly airport during one of France’s many strikes, I leave with regret, softened by a return to a more cosmopolitan London than the city I left 25 years ago. We all try to make our own Paris, of the flesh and of the mind. As the Canadian Morley Callaghan once wrote, “it was a lighted place where the imagination was free.”


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