When I was recently in Paris, one of the spots my niece and I used to meet was the Place Saint-Michel on the Left Bank. It was close both to where I was staying and a stop on her train line. Plus, there's a fountain and usually some sort of street theater going on, so even if one of us was late, no on was bored. It was my niece's suggestion.
What she didn't know was that I have old memories of the Place Saint-Michel, both the fountain and the surrounding Latin Quarter. Standing there waiting brought back old memories from the first two times I was in Paris.
My friend and I were 18 and we had planned an ambitious trip backpacking across Europe. We started in London, went up to Scotland, across to Ireland, over to France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, the south of France, Spain, back up through France, over to London and home again.
As you might imagine, much of that trip is quite blurry. I remember visiting my uncle in Germany, staying up all night in the train station in Siena, Italy, and going topless in Biarritz, France. I also remember parts of Paris quite well.
I don't remember where we stayed, some cheap but decent hotel, I imagine, but it must have been near the Place Saint-Michel because we hung out there quite a bit. We had French food and some of our first alcoholic beverages nearby. We sat outside, watching the passing parade and felt very grown-up.
I have no idea how long we stayed or what tourist sights we saw, although I know we spent some time in the Egyptian rooms of the Louvre, as my friend was quite interested in mummies and cats. Then it was off to the next country.
What was interesting, though, was that at the end of our trip we went through Paris one more time on our way to London and then the States. We were much more bedraggled, tired, and quite homesick. We did not do so much sightseeing, but in our quest for the familiar, we stayed at the same nameless hotel and we ate at the exact same restaurant.
It was my friend's nineteenth birthday, and we toasted to that, to each other and to our trip. Being in a familiar place, even in only a small way felt like coming home, although we were still a day or two from actually getting there.
Curiously, every time since then that I have found myself in Paris, I usually try to spend at least a few hours on the Left Bank. I haven't eaten in that restaurant again, but I notice it. I think back to our great big adventure. We were young and the whole world stretched out in front of us.
Although many years have passed since then and the possibilities of life are no longer limitless, being back in Saint-Michel gives me a tiny taste of what that felt like.