Jessica B. Harris annual vacation in Paris – Garden & Gun

Jessica B. Harris annual vacation in Paris – Garden & Gun

To moor myself to life and maintain order in my world, I create traditions and rituals. Some of them are small: my daily greeting “Good morning world!” or my evening dinners with a fully covered table. Others are bigger: Thanksgiving and Christmas in New Orleans, and my summer hike to Martha’s Vineyard with boxes of books, groceries, and the inevitable box of squealing, screaming cats. However, the most important and inviolable ritual of my life is one that happened by accident.

It started in January 1998, when I took my mother to Paris for her 85th birthday. The trip went smoothly into a break in my academic calendar, and in the downtime after the intensity of Christmas and New Year festivities – a perfect chance to regroup and get new energy in my favorite city. Plus, my mom loved Paris and it gave us a chance to travel together.

The trip was a huge success and we were planning future ones, but after my mother died, in the spring of 2000, I figured there would be no more. As I wondered what to make of myself as now an orphaned only child, a small voice reminded me of her words when we returned: “I want to spend more time in Paris!” I booked my ticket, made hotel reservations, and launched what would become a tradition that has shaped my life for the past two decades: my annual trip in mid-January 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 together at the hip and individually.)

My Paris stays now focus on my favorite district, the centrally located and vibrant 6th arrondissement. With the help of my friends from New Orleans antique dealer Patrick Dunne and Kerry Moody, I have found the perfect place to stay in the antique-filled Hôtel des Saints Pères. It is just a croissant nap away from the heart of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés area, which combines the bohemian flair of the 5th arrondissement of the Latin Quarter, near the Sorbonne, and the exclusive luxury of the nearby 7th arrondissement. Saint-Germain has its legendary cafés: Les Deux Magots (named after statues of Chinese sages, not pests) and Café de Flore anchor the neighborhood, and rue du Dragon a block away offers a myriad of small restaurants.

photo: Frank Heuer / laif / Redux

A pick-up at Café de Flore.

After filling a few supplies in the Monoprix store (including a set of terrycloth gloves 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 smells like my room for my stay, and the latter are my favorite flowers. Then I go to the bookstore L’Ecume des Pages to grab the latest editions of the French graphic novels called BDs (comics) which I am addicted to, and perhaps to acquire myself one of the glorious fashion and design books out on the tables in the anteroom. After a quick stop at the nearby kiosk for my usual pull of magazines and a copy of the weekly guide The official shows to catch me up on what’s going on in town, i settle down, 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 parents 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 travel guide to Black Paris, Monique Wells, once told me that jazz poet Ted Joans used to hang out at Café Le Rouquet on my corner. A native of Vicksburg, Mississippi, fashion designer Patrick Kelly, a buddy, lived on rue des Saints Pères. One year, an unexpected meeting in front of Café de Flore literally stopped the traffic while we were doing an oh-my-good-you-are-here happy dance. I think of him and his button-down clothing design every time I pass his former apartment on the way to buy chocolate at Debauve & Gallais, a store dating 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 am immensely 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 really cemented my status there one lunchtime where I ate a fully French meal, solo. I started with red caviar and blini and champagne, went on to tongue meunière and a half bottle of a light Alsace pinot noir, and continued through salad and dessert. Then I ended up with a demitasse and an armagnac.

photo: UlyssePixel / Alamy Stock Photo

Winter at the Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

I used to be a fan of the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt in the north row of town, but ever since I discovered it much less outdoors at Porte de Vanves to the south, I set aside Saturday or Sunday morning or both for the place where I have bought everything from seventeenth-century hand-painted 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.

Around the city I also give myself time to the small and lesser known museums, like the Carnavalet, the museum of the city of Paris; Louvres Musée des Arts Décoratifs, a fashion lover’s dream; and Balzac’s house. (I love that he had a back door in the basement to escape from his creditors.) Another must in January is the Musée d’Orsay on the Seine, whose latest blockbuster shows have included a Degas exhibit and The black model from Géricault to Matisse, about Black models in art. Many hours I spend visiting friends, shopping the January sale (another plus at the winter visit), people watching from cafe seats and just enjoying the city I love.

photo: Photononstop / Alamy Stock Photo

Views of the Eiffel Tower and the 6th and 7th arrondissements.

The centerpiece of my annual celebration is a dinner in honor of my parents at Mansouria, Fatéma Hals Moroccan restaurant in the 11th arrondissement. Every friend who happens to be in Paris on my mother’s birthday knows how to join me, where we celebrated her eighty – five. I’ve had as many as thirty people, but some years it’s only two or three friends. No matter the number, we welcome the range of Moroccan salads and I always order the chicken tagine with olives and canned lemons.

The morning of my mother’s birthday is reserved to see my French sister, whom I have known since I spent a year with her family during my teenage years abroad fifty-five years ago. We meet at the Medici Fountain in the Jardin du Luxembourg, where I laid some of my mother’s ashes a long time ago, sneak a crumb of bread to the ducks, take our annual picture, communicate with the winter tranquility of the place and say hello to mother’s spirit. Then we interrupt to the café Le Rostand across the street for cafes, creams and pick-up. Too soon it’s time for me to pack my bags, books and groceries and go home one more year. I have only missed my annual ritual twice – once because life intervened, and this year because of COVID. Although I’m going to buy a hazmat suit, I’ll be on a plane in 2022; it’s time to return to the City of Light.

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