Carnet de Voyage: Love at First Sight

Carnet de Voyage: Love at First Sight

Travel notes from the real France. Carnet de Voyage is a weekly personal travel story in France sent in by readers. If you’d like to write a story for Carnet de Voyage, head here for details on how to submit.

“I have to come back here!” my mother Jutta declared, taking another sip of Taittinger champagne from a glass tumbler. 

It was a September evening in 1993, the final day of our epic mother-daughter journey across Europe. Clad in our pyjamas, we raised our glasses and gazed out the window of the Hotel Louis II in Paris’s 6th arrondissement. I’d thrown open the louvered shutters in our tiny second-floor room for one last look at rue St-Sulpice, below.  

“Isn’t there another little bottle in the minibar?” Mum asked innocently. Why yes, there was. 

Our reason for celebrating was our success at retracing my German-born mother’s path during World War II, when she became a displaced person. After fleeing her Central European birthplace in 1945 as a teenager, and being homeless for many years, she eventually met my dad, an American Army sergeant, and emigrated to the U.S. Now a 62-year-old American citizen, she’d flown back to Europe with me to seek what remained of her past. 

After bittersweet visits to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany—finding places where she’d lived and worked as a refugee—we arrived in Paris. I had recently visited the City of Light and added it to our itinerary, thinking Mum would like it. 

Who can resist crab-shaped bread? © Kathleen Paton

Little did I know how prescient I was! Following our fresh experiences across Europe, the “here” that she just “had to come back” to was Paris. We would subsequently return four more times to the intoxicating French capital that she instantly adored. 

On this first trip, we dined at Brasserie Balzar, where Mum took a shine to our dark-eyed waiter and said, “Don’t you think he looks just like the actor Louis Jourdan?” In a vintage shop on rue de Rennes, she found a beautiful blouse for 100 francs that fit her perfectly. After going to the movies on Boulevard St-Germain, we enjoyed stewed rabbit in mustard sauce. We browsed for Provençal linens at La Samaritaine department store, both choosing the same tablecloth. She was enchanted by the Luxembourg Gardens in the rain—and announced she wanted to see them again in better weather. 

And so, I brought her back to Paris the following June, renting a modest vacation apartment on rue de l’Ecole-Polytechnique. This time I took her to the troisième étage of the Eiffel Tower, using my basic French. We visited the fabled Louvre, and traversed the Seine in a bateau mouche, admiring the Parisian landmarks from the upper deck. On the Île St-Louis, I picked up a delicious takeout chicken sandwich that we agreed tasted much more “chicken-y” than ordinary American poultry. The Luxemburg Gardens did indeed look prettier in the sunlight. And of course, we returned to Brasserie Balzar to check up on Louis. 

Jutta at Ma Bourgogne © Kathleen Paton

Three more trips over a dozen years expanded our Parisian horizons. Mum was entranced by rue Mouffetard, where we shared lunch at Le Mouffetard and a server kindly remarked, “I thought you were sisters.” She accompanied me to memorable performances at the Palais Garnier and Opéra Bastille, never flagging in her attention or energy into her 70s. One time I asked her to run for a bus, and after we jumped on board, she exclaimed, “No more running!” 

Near Boulevard Montparnasse, we dined on savoury choucroute garnie at a cozy Alsatian eatery. We purchased old prints from vendors along the Seine, and sipped wine in the Marais. All around the city, we tried on stylish shoes, roamed outdoor markets, and nibbled on exquisite pastries. During each visit, we revelled in the endlessly captivating offerings of her beloved Paris. 

On our final trip, I booked a guided walking tour to five upscale chocolatiers. By then Mum was 78, but she never complained, patiently learning about cocoa percentages and luxe confections. At the end of the three hours, she remarked, “I think our tour guide wanted to hang out with us!”  

Mum is now 91, and her days of international travel are behind her. But we cherish our photos and travel journals, our souvenirs and our memories. We still reminisce about standing in the window of the Hotel Louis II in our pyjamas, drinking champagne.  

As the man said, we’ll always have Paris. 

Kathleen Paton is a retired editor and copywriter based in New York City. For more than 30 years she has travelled throughout France—most recently to Paris and Antibes—and has invariably found the French to be polite, helpful, and welcoming. 

Lead photo credit : Kathleen and her mother on rue Mouffetard in Paris © Kathleen Paton

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  • Lori Spitzer
    2023-05-24 05:11:38
    Lori Spitzer
    What a lovely memoir. Thanks for sharing it!