They will always have Paris and so will we. That little flashback at the heart of Casablanca, deploying only an apartment, a car and a train in the rain, seals the city into the imagination as a world of dizzy love and memory, heartbreak and unmatched desire. I encountered Paris in books, movies and song snatches long before I saw her in the dawn. Fresh off the boat-train at Gare Saint Lazare, like an adolescent astronaut trained in a simulator, I still scarcely believed the reality I bounced into that freezing, dark morning. The light climbed the spider-spaceship of Notre Dame and a girl in a scarlet coat sat on a bollard beside the Seine, listening to a Walkman. She was Aphrodite beautiful – her face turned to the sunrise, and she was crying. She seemed a glimpse of the soul of the place – exactly as a romantic steeped in Victor Hugo, Sartre, Orwell and Duras would had projected her.
This city’s winter mornings are dank with a mist of smoky smells, the tang of fog and coffee. The sun rises and the miasma withdraws as if a waiter had wound back an awning. Brightness cuts down between the deep gutters of Montmartre stream, sluicing away the spills, butts and bottle-tops of last night’s dreams. Here, your simplest French actually works. Un grand café crème, un croissant, un klop – a fag: Paris and smoking were two of my three obsessions, the third being the stunning and ineluctably intellectual Parisiennes, studied in fashion adverts and Simone De Beauvoir’s Les Mandarins, and now they stride out.
This winter they are wearing noir: black tights, black leather jackets. The frank way they look you up and down is part of the eternal dance of eyes in a city where no look goes unfelt or unmarked. I watched a salute between a gorgeous young man on a bicycle and the city’s most successful novelist. He soared towards us as if escaping a silver screen in a street near St German. She checked him out, grinned and gave an amused, appreciative moue of a nod, a minute applause for the show. I was in love with her and I envied the man gleefully, right down to his scarf.
With a scattershot clapper of pigeons’ wings the bouquinistes unlock their carts on the banks of the river and lay out their volumes, maps and pictures. We are Lautrec-scarf-wearing figures in a Renoir or a Monet now as Shakespeare and Company opens the door to the world’s most famous bookshop, hot china containing café noir chinks on zinc counter tops and someone who has not slept orders oysters and dry white. As the barman Giovanni tells the bewitched young American, David, in James Baldwin’s peerless ‘Giovanni’s Room’, she is beautiful, this old whore, Paris, as she turns in her bed in the morning.
One steaming, frozen winter day, with the girlfriend who taught me the life value of good food, I explored the Buttes au Cailles, an outpost of cooperativism and socialism to the east of the Place de la Concorde. The dizzy exhilaration of choosing what to wear, what to eat and what to drink! From pain choc to Guinesse (always sounds better in French) to tartare, to tarte citron to moules and Macon blanc.
On the cusp of another Parisian spring, with a lover who had dumped me after I had bought the Eurostar tickets then decided to come anyway, I had one of the weekends of my life based in and out of a trendy Art hotel near La Comedie Francaise: the sex, the lamplight shining through bracing rain, the steak frites, her jewel-green coat, the art of the Musee D’Orsay, mon Dieu – mercy, mercy bien. Paris rewards her slaves well.
I am not ignorant of the Banlieue, the suburbs beyond the ringroad (Alain Juppe made his cabinet watch La Haine to begin to understand the lives of the excluded poor) but if I were free and resourceful I would live in the heady clamour of the streets Ivoirien, Senegalese, Moroccan and Algerian streets near the Gare du Nord.
All the great cities have their seasons: Berlin in the cold, London in early summer, Autumn in New York, Venice at Christmas, but only Rome challenges Paris for new love’s season. They split the difference. Rome can have eternity, and for eternity Paris has the end of winter, and the breaking bud of spring.
Read Horatio’s winter notebook on Sicily here