In the airport scene at the end of “Casablanca,” Rick (Humphrey Bogart) surprises Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) by telling her to get on the plane to freedom in Lisbon with her husband, adding, “we’ll always have Paris.” They had been lovers there when Ilsa thought her husband, a leading resistance leader, had been killed by the Nazis and she was a widow. But as the German army entered Paris, Ilsa gets news that her husband is alive, and arranges to rejoin him, leaving Rick to escape alone and bewildered. Much of the appeal of the movie is Rick’s wisdom in seeing that she belongs with her husband, even as he has pretended throughout the movie that he is cynical and self-serving.
“We’ll always have Paris” My first time there was in the year after college, when I was traveling on a fellowship given by a U.S. newspaper publisher. In college, during the Kennedy years of what we call the Vietnam War (before the LBJ years and the Nixon years of involvement in that conflict), the idea came to me that U.S. journalists could learn from the best thinking of a nation that had already lost in Vietnam. So I asked for the name of the best newspaper in France and wrote, in English, to the publisher of Le Monde, suggesting that he start a weekly translation into English of the best foreign reporting from his daily. Over half a century later the English edition is still appearing.
But when I first visited Paris, an explosion in the night brought a quite different issue to my startled attention. French army officers in Algeria were on the edge of revolt, as France was dealing with yet another colonial involvement. Algeria was even more challenging than Vietnam had been, because it was closer geographically (part of the North African escape route from Paris to Casablanca), had many French settlers (“pied noir”), and was considered part of France itself. I happened to be walking alone past the Elysee Palace, seat of the French President, when a bomb went off in the distance. Growing up near New York City had taught me that some sections of a big city were dangerous, but not because of bombs.
Dining in a Vietnamese restaurant near the Sorbonne, I was given a menu that offered soup made in three styles, that of Hanoi (then the enemy of the U.S.), of Saigon (the southern capital), and of Hue (the old imperial center). Prudently, I chose the style of Hue.
My attitude toward Paris had been shaped by the romanticism that Woody Allen expresses, then tries to distance himself from, in his movie “Midnight in Paris.” Each generation imagines a golden age in the past. For me (as for Allen’s leading man), it was the Twenties, the era of such U.S. expatriates and travelers as Josephine Baker, Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Dorothy Parker, Cole Porter, and Gertrude Stein, and of such other figures as Luis Bunuel, Salvador Dali, and Pablo Picasso. However, Allen in the end of his movie shows characters from the Belle Epoque imaging an even earlier golden age they’ve missed.
When I had a girl friend who had been raised in Paris but whom I met in California, we visited her native city, staying in the studio of a photographer friend. When we visited her parents in the Loire Valley, her father picked us up at the station, apologizing that his wife was still in church, “praying for my sins.” “Oh,” I said stupidly, “how long will that take?” It was our first meeting. He laughed at this faux pas, a remark that he may have taken as a witty compliment to his adventures.
Apart from visits, I related to the spirits of Paris mainly through movies, from “Children of Paradise” shot during the occupation (released in 1945) and “An American in Paris” (1951), to “The 400 Blows” (1959) and “Breathless” (1960), all the way to, as already mentioned, “Midnight in Paris” (2011). I have written about lunch with Ricky Leacock, himself an expatriate in Paris and a film-maker.
During one visit, I patronized a little restaurant on the Rive Gauche. On my way to a table, I repeatedly passed a box on the wall with cubby-holes for the rolled napkins of regulars. I didn’t stay long enough to be asked to leave my napkin there, but I dream of that box and of the café next door, famous since expatriates used to meet there in the 1920s.