To moor myself to life and maintain order in my world, I create traditions and rituals. Some of them are small: my daily salutation, “Good morning, world!” or my weeknight dinners with a fully set table. Others are larger: Thanksgivings and Christmases in New Orleans, and my summer migration to Martha’s Vineyard with boxes of books, foodstuffs, and the inevitable crate of squalling, screeching cats. The most important and inviolable ritual in my life, however, is one that happened by accident.
It began in January 1998, when I took my mother to Paris for her eighty-fifth birthday. The trip fell seamlessly into a break in my academic calendar, and in the downtime after the intensity of Christmas and New Year’s festivities—a perfect chance to regroup and reenergize in my favorite city. Plus, my mother loved Paris, and it gave us a chance to travel together.
The trip was a rousing success, and we planned future ones, but after my mother died, in the spring of 2000, I figured there would be no more. As I wondered what to do with myself as a now orphaned only child, a small voice reminded me of her words when we’d returned: “I’d like to spend more time in Paris!” I booked my ticket, made hotel reservations, and launched what would become a tradition that has marked my life for the past two decades: my annual mid-January trip to the city to celebrate my mother and, through her, my father. (My oh-so-very-nuclear family had taken our first trip together there in 1962 and returned many times both joined at the hip and individually.)
My Parisian sojourns now focus around my favorite district, the centrally located and vibrant 6th arrondissement. With the help of my New Orleans antique dealer friends Patrick Dunne and Kerry Moody, I’ve found the perfect roost in the antique-filled Hôtel des Saints Pères. It’s just a croissant nibble away from the heart of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area, which combines the bohemian flair of the 5th arrondissement Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne, and the upscale luxury of the nearby 7th. Saint-Germain has its legendary cafés: Les Deux Magots (named for statues of Chinese sages, not vermin) and Café de Flore anchor the neighborhood, and the rue du Dragon one block over offers a myriad of small restaurants.
After stocking up on a few supplies at the Monoprix general store (including a set of the terry-cloth mitts that the French use instead of washcloths), my next stop is the florist around the corner to find a hyacinth and some anemones. The former scents my room for my stay, and the latter are my favorite flowers. Then I head to the bookstore L’Ecume des Pages to grab the latest editions of the French graphic novels called BDs (bandes dessinées) that I am addicted to, and to perhaps acquire one of the glorious fashion and design books out on tables in the front room. Following a quick stop at the nearby kiosk for my usual haul of magazines and a copy of the weekly guide L’Officiel des spectacles to catch me up on what’s going on in town, I settle in, call my friends, and get my plans together.
My neighborhood is special: Saint-Germain in the 1950s and 1960s was an African American Parisian enclave. I remember the thrill of sitting on low stools in a basement club called L’Abbaye with my folks there in the 1960s and feeling very bohemian. It was run by Gordon Heath, a singer and actor my father had known from New York. James Baldwin occasionally stayed at a hotel nearby, and my friend and tour guide to Black Paris, Monique Wells, once told me that the jazz poet Ted Joans used to hang out at the café Le Rouquet on my corner. A native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the fashion designer Patrick Kelly, who was a buddy, lived on the rue des Saints Pères. One year an unexpected meeting in front of Café de Flore literally stopped traffic while we did an oh-my-goodness-you’re-here happy dance. I think of him and his button-bedecked clothing designs every time I pass his former apartment on my way to get chocolate at Debauve & Gallais, a shop that dates back to 1817.
No trip for me is complete without at least one meal at the iconic Brasserie Lipp, around the corner from my hotel. I’m inordinately proud that I worked my way out of the American-filled back room into the front section and eventually into the coveted celebrity row. I speak fluent French, so that helps, but I truly cemented my status there one lunchtime when I had a full-on French meal, solo. I began with red caviar and blini and Champagne, moved on to sole meunière and a half bottle of a light Alsatian pinot noir, and proceeded through salad and dessert. Then, I ended with a demitasse and an Armagnac.
I used to be a partisan of the flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt in the northern reach of the city, but ever since I discovered the much smaller open-air one at the Porte de Vanves to the south, I devote Saturday or Sunday morning or both to the place where I have purchased everything from seventeenth-century hand-tinted illustrations of African scenes to Baccarat crystal to a glorious copper daubière, which I have since used to make the rich French stews (daubes) that gave it its name.
All around the city, I also make time for the small and lesser-known museums, like the Carnavalet, the museum of the city of Paris; the Louvre’s Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a fashion lover’s dream; and Balzac’s house. (I love that he had a basement back door to escape from his creditors.) Another January must is the Musée d’Orsay, on the Seine, whose recent blockbuster shows have included a Degas exhibition and Le modèle noir de Géricault à Matisse, about Black models in art. Many hours I spend visiting friends, shopping the January sales (another plus of the winter visit), people watching from café seats, and just soaking up the city I adore.
The centerpiece of my annual celebration is a dinner in my parents’ honor at Mansouria, Fatéma Hal’s Moroccan restaurant in the 11th arrondissement. There, any friends who happen to be in Paris on my mother’s birthday know to join me where we celebrated her eighty-fifth. I have had as many as thirty folks, but some years it’s only two or three friends. No matter the number, we delight in the assortment of Moroccan salads, and I always order the chicken tagine, with olives and preserved lemons.
The morning of my mother’s birthday is reserved for seeing my French sister, whom I have known since I spent a year living with her family during my junior year abroad fifty-five years ago. We meet at the Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg, where I placed some of my mother’s ashes long ago, sneak a crumb of bread to the ducks, take our annual picture, commune with the wintry calm of the place, and say a hello to Mom’s spirit. Then we adjourn to the café Le Rostand across the street for cafés crèmes and catching up. All too soon, it’s time for me to pack up bags, books, and acquisitions and head home for another year. I have only missed my annual ritual twice—once because life intervened, and this year because of COVID. Even if I have to buy a hazmat suit, I will be on a plane come 2022; it’s time to get back to the City of Light.