The sound of a shattered dish silences the bustle of the noon rush at Rêves de Pain, a boulangerie-pâtisserie in Paris’s third arrondissement. Amid the delicate, colorful pastries lining the glass cases, a small boy with cherry-red spectacles, his eyes welling with tears, looks down at the pieces scattered across the tiled mosaic floor. A counter outside attends to street customers and a terrace offers views of Place de la République, its central bronze monument unveiled in 1883, a tribute to France’s Third Republic. Redesigned as a pedestrian plaza in 2014, République is at first unrecognizable to the long-absent visitor. But Rêves’s interior, an odd mix of marble and mirrored walls, with an ornate, 19th-century ceiling mural — a scene of a naked woman surrounded by cherubs — is hard to forget.
Within 30 seconds, the boy is smiling and the shop resumes its rhythm. I’m seated at a triangular highboy table, enjoying the tableau and a perfect café au lait. I’ve waited nearly a decade for this.
On my first trip to Paris, in 2006, a visit to this old boulangerie (formerly called Brocco), marked the unofficial start of the trip, when jet-lagged and starving, my college roommate Rachel and I stumbled into the first place we saw, for a coffee so good it transformed me into a habitual coffee drinker. Its swirling aroma — perfectly balanced to both woo and welcome the uninitiated — was a far cry from the Dunkin’s regular I had occasionally turned to on all-nighters. But then through our disorientation, all attempts to relocate the shop failed, giving it a mythic status in our travelogue memories. This is one of the many things I intend to rectify the second time around.
Newly 21 and on spring break, we had stayed at Hôtel Picard, a two-star, 28-room Marais hotel, which I selected in honor of my favorite Star Trek captain. We shared a bunk bed, coin-operated communal showers, and paper-thin walls that yielded sleepless nights thanks to the influx of amorous rendezvous. Our minuscule budgets went toward “sophisticated” new wardrobes and souvenirs for everyone back home, and we visited every obvious tourist attraction. We packed in as much as possible, as cheaply as possible, and left no time for reflection. It was a great trip. Yet, in retrospect, I knew I had not given Paris my all. I had been overwhelmed by the sometimes-daunting beauty of the city and the aloof, yet fashionable whirl of its inhabitants. I pushed aside any feelings of regret for the rest of my busy 20s, when all that lingered from the trip was a caffeine habit and a well-worn jacket from a thrift store on the Left Bank.
My 30th birthday seemed like the right time to revisit a destination a little more complicated than favored in my memory. Rachel has since married, and like many millennials entering their 30s, I am only slightly more financially stable than I was on my first trip, and a lot less settled than I’d predicted I would be. But I’ve made enough progress to be able to forgo the bunks for a reasonably priced, 4-star hotel with a bathroom en suite.
The Golden Tulip Little Palace Hotel overlooks the quiet Square Émile Chautemps and Musée des Arts et Métiers, which houses Foucault’s pendulum from Umberto Eco’s novel of that name. The Marais’ architecture — fluctuating between the colorful, ornate doors of row houses with charming storefronts below and grand entrances of mansions such as the Gothic Hôtel de Sens or the 17th-century Baroque Hôtel Salé — tells the story of the neighborhood’s transition from marsh to aristocratic center, then into a gradual period of decline after the Revolution and finally to a restored bastion of bohemian style and cultural home to the city’s Jewish and gay communities in the second half of the 20th century. Its cobblestone streets, boutiques, and avant-garde galleries are easier to appreciate this time, perhaps because I’m not merely passing through to my next destination.
Skipping the Louvre and Musée d’Orsay, I instead revisit the newly expanded Musée Picasso Paris, housed in the Hôtel Salé. Most of the last decade saw the museum closed because of internal conflicts and delays for the expansion. The crowds work their way efficiently up the multi-leveled palace showcasing Picasso’s various periods and influences, seemingly at random, through mostly stark rooms with occasional architectural flourishes such as wood beams resembling the masts of a ship, or the dark paneled anteroom, its dim-lighting giving the sculpture within, “Man With Sheep,” a perhaps unintended illicit feel.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what has changed at Musée Picasso other than its feeling brighter and more spacious. I pass a baby staring intently at the colorful jumbles from inside a BabyBjörn. I can relate. The museum’s new organizational narrative may confuse the novice and seasoned art connoisseur alike, yet still probably satisfies the Picasso enthusiasts among both, thanks to its collection of more than 5,000 works.
Like my time at the museum, the pace of my trip is slower this time. I’m more cognizant of the living city. While the medieval lanes and old charms of Paris remain unchanged, they’re juxtaposed with fresh street art — a mixture of wheat paste murals, stenciled graffiti, and handwritten messages. As I move east through the Marais and closer to the 11th arrondissement, “Je suis Charlie,” “La liberté d’expression,” and images of bloodied pencils are ubiquitous in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and related attacks of January. Unlike the Paris protests of 2006, which we casually observed but barely made it into to my e-mail reports home by means of Internet cafés, this time it’s hard to ignore that both the city and I have experienced complicated changes.
I skip the expensive journey up the Eiffel Tower and instead spend a solid 90 minutes atop the Arc de Triomphe watching the sun set and the lights of the Eiffel gradually perform — a view I had missed on my first trip. I relax while student groups and tourists rush through with selfie sticks (a post ’06 invention) to get that iconic pose with the Eiffel in the distance.
The only long line I subject myself to is the 45-minute wait to climb Notre Dame’s towers. It’s sprinkled with US travelers. A 20-something couple, complete with backpacks, sneakers, and the slightest Texas twang, chat with a solo traveler in her mid-30s from California who, like me, attempted a subdued Paris street style: black riding boots and a military green trench. The 30-something regales her 20-something compatriots with tales of the benefits of Airbnb. They listen intently. All seem relieved to have found one another. “There was a protest by the catacombs when I was there. It was entertaining . . . something political or medical, I think,” she says. I cringe slightly, knowing that we are probably not so different.
Despite the wait, my cohorts don’t spend more than five minutes atop the cathedral. I lag behind staring at the many stone faces — the pensive chimera with angelic wings, serpentine grotesques, and rain-thirsty gargoyles below — until, miraculously, I find myself alone, the cathedral’s large, leather-clad bouncer otherwise engaged in a cellphone conversation.
At first glance, Paris and its eternal beauty seem the perfect control in the experiment of traveling in your 20s vs. your 30s. And yet, this trip was a reminder that a city is alive, and like people, it changes. Sometimes noticing these changes requires catching your breath.
And despite my determination for quantity on my first trip, I found that over the past nine years, my memory weeded out the grandeur, favoring the sensory like that smell of fresh-baked pains au chocolat or the gargoyles’ faces — the things I choose to revisit the second time around.
This time I take pleasure in the details: the trees surrounding the Eiffel manicured to right angles, the girl skipping down a Marais street holding hands with her “Pépé!,” the unexpected beauty of a red vacuum in the trash in front of a perfectly matching door on rue Quincampoix, the taxidermied fox with the sign “NE PAS TOUCHER MERC I’’ at an antiques store on the north side of Centre Pompidou. Or, enjoying that second café au lait almost a decade later, warm and delicious as ever, as I ponder which of these images will be with me 10 years from now.