Summer 2018 / Time Travel

Poems From Paris

by Don George

Commissioned Artwork

LEAVING PARIS (1976)

Painting by Colette Hannahan.

You are going to America

to a land you called home.

You are leaving Paris behind

— the old streets you wandered

as the sun washed the oranges and peaches

and the onions, and the lettuce spilled over the street

where the villagers bellied and prattled and squalled;

the cheap café on Rue de Rivoli

the rich always passed by,

and where you knew a cold beer

and jambon pays salved the worst days;

the foolish weekends on the Normandy beach

where you almost came to believe

your own lies when they lodged deep

in blue eyes and brown skin and blonde hair;

the wise nights when you were alone

and paced the Île Saint-Louis and the Marais

waiting for the glare and hurry of day

to become the cool and lucid green of the platanes.

Then there was an older, wiser girl

who you didn’t have to be in love with to enjoy,

and good, passioned politics and arts

whenever you wanted on Rue Montmorency,

and warm, full wine and frites in the Quartier Latin

with all the wild eyes and hands and reeling vows

and the fire-eater cornered by,

but you could get away whenever you wanted

to the Seine and meet new lovers there

— yours and others — and because you were simple

you laughed at good and bad

and even when you were alone

and your footsteps echoed through the streets

everything was all right;

because you were young

and just discovering the world

so even when there was nothing

to be in love with

you loved silence and solitude;

because that was life as it will never be again:

when place and rue whispered only to you

and the dusk-soft lamps took your hand,

when a midnight croissant and beurre in a candled café,

the perfume of dark hair after Musset,

promised a dream without end

— like the first love you lose

forever;

because that was your Paris

and now you are leaving it

like the gray bookstalls on the quai

that holiday no one came:

a beautiful book, your book,

closed

without you.

~~

RETURNING TO PARIS (2018)

Painting by Colette Hannahan.

You have returned to Paris,

to the place that changed your life four decades before.

You have three precious days to find the young you,

so you trace your former ways, making pilgrimages

to the Marais, Notre-Dame, the Musée d’Orsay.

You visit your old neighborhood and sit at a sidewalk café

and marvel at how Paris is so different today:

so many new faces and races in the passing parade.

You spend a long night wandering

the Île Saint-Louis and the Seine,

remembering the demoiselle from Mougins

and the bright-eyed Parisienne,

the first who infatuated you,

the second you opened your heart to.

You remember the lost American sisters

you guided back to the Ritz,

and how their parents presented a dizzying gift

 dinner at La Tour d’Argent

and stage-side seats at the Folies Bergère,

how possibility beckoned everywhere

that summer of endless walks and talks and seaside ease,

lamplit nights and youthful dreams.

Then you were restless,

wondering where life’s path would lead.

Now you have traveled that winding way

 but where has it led, and what does it mean?

On your last night you are determined

to go somewhere suffused with past sense.

But as you enter the cobbled,

tree-shaded Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine,

cast in the grainy gloaming, you find a Renoir scene:

a dozen tables with patrons exclaiming, laughing, and toasting,

calling for more Champagne, more fromages, more escargots.

Impetuously you take a seat,

order a kir royale and savor the tableau.

The couple on your left celebrate the resurgence of the revolution,

the foursome in front ardently debate cinema’s evolution,

and all around the air sings

with the merits of this Bordeaux and that rosé,

the proper way to prepare poulet,

the best beach for next Sunday.

One kir royale leads to another,

and you ask the waitress Virginie for a pitcher of rosé

and her recommendation for an entrée.

The tables around erupt with advice

 the charcuterie, the paté,

“You must try the duck Parmentier!”

Eventually you order frites and faux-filet.

Bravo!” your neighbors say,

and you are swept on a wave of bonhomie,

suddenly sailing a conversational sea

 French and American politics,

immigration, climate change, the allure of Paris:

son histoire, sa beauté!”

After two hours, the film critics rise and nod au revoir,

and the regulars clap you on the back and proclaim

A la prochaine fois!” — “See you again!”  as they leave.

Now you sit alone, willing the night not to end,

and Virginie brings you a complimentary pear digestif.

You take a grateful sip and suddenly

you understand the gift of this journey 

that summer four decades ago, these past three days.

You open your journal and scribble away:

This is to be young — whatever your age — and in Paris,

to immerse yourself in a celebration of life, art, light, sensuality,

elegance, intelligence, beauty, and philosophy.

Sitting in this enchanted place, in this enchanted city,

I am filled with one more Parisian epiphany:

There is no young me

out there waiting to be claimed.

I am the young me;

we are one and the same.

He has always been here,

and always will be —

deeply alive and in Paris, just as Paris

is deeply alive

and in me.

Don George

Author of "The Way of Wanderlust: The Best Travel Writing of Don George," and of "How to Be a Travel Writer," the world's bestselling travel writing guide, Don George is a legendary travel writer and editor. He is currently Editor at Large for National Geographic Travel.

View Profile

Never miss a story

Subscribe for new issue alerts.

By submitting this form, you consent to receive updates from Hidden Compass regarding new issues and other ongoing promotions such as workshop opportunities. Please refer to our Privacy Policy for more information.