In the spring of 1978, I was seduced by a river. I had come to Paris from Chicago to be a foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine. I arrived with no sources, no lovers, no family, no friends, no mission except to start fresh in a city all the world loves.
There had been a husband in Chicago, but he’d announced one day that he was leaving. I let him take the BMW, the butcher block table, the full-sized mattress, the Wassily armchairs, the walnut rolltop desk, the darkroom equipment, and a set of Wedgwood china. I kept the antique brass bed frame, a carpet, and much of the rest of the furniture. Four months later, he remarried. I recounted the story of our breakup over and over until it became as smooth and harmless as a stone worn down by the sea.
I was twenty-eight years old and free to be my own person in Paris.
Like so many Americans, I felt as if I already knew the city, as if I owned it. I had studied French history. I had read about Paris in novels and seen it in paintings. I had heard songs about April in Paris and loving Paris in the springtime and the fall. I had watched movies—oh, the movies—set in Paris.
But I was ill-prepared to dive into the culture of France. My French was so weak that when I did interviews, I had to write out my questions in advance, word for word, and record every conversation to guarantee accuracy. I rigged up a recording device on the rotary dial telephone in my office, a practice that probably violated French privacy laws.
No one told me about French manners and mannerisms. I didn’t know that you never discuss personal wealth, religious beliefs, or real estate transactions at proper dinner parties. Or that you should eat hamburgers and pizza with a knife and fork and never take seconds on the cheese course.
I didn’t know that wearing a lot of makeup or laughing too loud is considered vulgar. Or that floral prints would identify me as a foreigner or that the uniform for a late Sunday afternoon book party is a pair of well-cut black trousers and a tailored shirt in fine white cotton. Or that it is essential to say bonjour to shopkeepers, bus drivers, and people in elevators but impolite to smile at strangers. Or that “pas mal” (“not bad”) can mean “great!” and “I wouldn’t say no” can mean “I’d love to!”
The dollar was at an all-time low against the franc, so there was little money for distractions to relieve my loneliness. I hadn’t known to bring a portable typewriter for my new job. Newsweek’s Chicago bureau, where I had been working, was a convivial place with a stash of eggshell-blue Olivetti Lettera 22 portables; the Paris bureau was an every-man-for-himself world (the four other correspondents were older men) where self-sufficiency and seniority reigned.
I found two sources of support. The first was “Madame,” an elderly French tutor, who gave me conversation lessons every Saturday morning. Her dark apartment oozed Parisian charm, with its crystal chandeliers and fine art. Madame was thin and elegant, smoked filtered Gauloises, and wore Art Nouveau rings set with giant stones. She wrote my homework assignments in turquoise ink with a Montblanc pen.
And then there was the Seine.
People everywhere feel visceral connections with the rivers they love. Mark Twain had his Mississippi; Johann Strauss celebrated the Danube. Russians venerate the Volga, and Indianans sing about the Wabash. Many lovers of Broadway musicals know the words to “Ol’ Man River,” a tune from Show Boat. In Buffalo, where I grew up, my river had been the Niagara, a short, fast-rolling strait between two lakes that does not look, move, or sound anything like the Seine. When I was thirteen, I took ballet lessons in Fort Erie, just across the river in Canada, and I often walked home on the pedestrian lane of the international Peace Bridge. No matter how cold the day, how fierce the snowstorm, I would stop midway across the span to gaze at the river below, abandoning myself to a force of nature beyond my control. Although the bridge was eighteen miles away from the powerful Niagara Falls, the current already ran swift here. The Niagara taught me that a river can dissolve loneliness and catch the heart. And then, in Paris, I moved into an apartment close to the Seine. Most evenings I crossed the river during my walk from the Newsweek office, on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, in the Eighth Arrondissement, to the avenue de la Bourdonnais, in the Seventh.
My half-hour walk took me across the Pont de l’Alma, which links two neighborhoods in the west of Paris: the designer boutiques on the Right Bank and the bourgeois residences on the Left. Napoléon III ordered the city planner, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, to build a stone bridge as a celebration of France’s 1854 victory over the Russians in Crimea. But the bridge was too narrow to support the ever-increasing flow of cars and foot traffic. In the early 1970s, it was rebuilt in steel, simple and unadorned. It looks like an overpass on a U.S. highway.
Four stone soldiers stood sentry on the original bridge. Now only one remains, the statue of a bearded Zouave, a colonial soldier from a regiment created in Algeria in 1831 from the Zouaoua, a Kabyle tribe. Dressed in a tasseled fez, blousy pants, and a long cape, he stands with his left hand on his hip, his right holding the end of a rifle barrel. He is the city’s unofficial flood monitor. If his pointed shoes are submerged, the river is running high.
On the way home, returning to the habit of my teen years, I would stop midway on the Pont de l’Alma. Confronted with a city so familiar and yet still new and strange, I found comfort in the river’s calm and steady flow to its certain destination. Whatever the water level, the Zouave gazed with equanimity over the shimmering stream. At sunset, I watched the light fade from gold to pale yellow to silver and recede into darkness. The streetlights danced in the river’s reflection.
I took in the life of the narrow river: the bateaux-mouches filled with carefree tourists, the houseboats, the quiet grandeur of the structures on the upper level of the riverbanks, lined with horse chestnut and plane trees, and the proximity of the lower banks to the water. Downstream, the Eiffel Tower peeked out from behind the greenery. Across the river, apartment buildings on the avenue de New York came into view, as did the roof of the Art Deco Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris. Directly in front, the Passerelle Debilly, a green metallic footbridge built for the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle, carried people heading home from work. A half mile away from where I stood was the Pont des Invalides, and beyond that, the gold-colored statues and ornaments of the Pont Alexandre III.
If I listened hard enough, I could hear the voice of the river. In the 1920s and 1930s, when James Joyce lived in Paris, he walked miles up and down the Seine. He was almost always with a companion, as he was nearly blind by then. He would stop at times on the Pont de l’Alma to hear the water move so he could capture its rhythm in his writing. “There’s music along the river / For Love wanders there,” he wrote in the opening poem of Chamber Music.
Even when the Seine was still and silent, I stood on the bridge and reveled in the sounds of life surrounding me: the revving motorcycles, the honking cars, the bells of Notre-Dame announcing the time, the multilingual commentaries rising from the tourist boats, the loud chatter of American visitors who didn’t know that in Paris, one’s voice should be soft and low.
In A Moveable Feast, Hemingway described the Seine as a salve against solitude: “With the fishermen and the life on the river, the beautiful barges with their own life on board, the tugs with their smokestacks that folded back to pass under the bridges, pulling a tow of barges, the great elms on the stone banks of the river, the plane trees and in some places the poplars, I could never be lonely along the river.”
Neither could I. I overcame anxiety and loneliness and moved forward in my life, like the Seine in its course. The river allowed me to begin a journey of discovery—of Paris, of the French people, of myself. Its energy pumped deep into my veins; its light gave me strength.
“Everything is going to be okay,” I said to myself.
And over time, it was.
Excerpted from The Seine: The River that Made Paris. Copyright (c) 2020 by Elaine Sciolino. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.
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