Left: Ilnur Kalimullin / Unsplash; Right: Tara Donne
Ten years after studying literature in the City of Light, a devotee of Marcel Proust returns on a quest to enter the hotel he loved most.
Standing outside the Ritz Paris one brisk afternoon in February, my boyfriend and I took a selfie. We’re not really selfie people, but it seemed important to commemorate such a momentous occasion. We were about to enter the Ritz for a tour and a drink at the Hemingway Bar, and even though we weren’t staying the night, stepping inside the hotel was fulfilling a dream. For me, it symbolized the domain of Marcel Proust, one of my favorite authors.
I first read Proust in the original French during my sophomore year of college and was struck by his descriptions of the minutiae of everyday life, details that captured a time and place so different from my own. His most famous passage, about the madeleine tea cake, is a five-page meditation on how something as simple as the taste of a pastry dipped in tea can bring forth a flood of memories. Proust essentially pioneered the stream-of-consciousness style of writing, forever changing the course of literature by giving authors permission to delve deep into a character’s mind and reveal their innermost thoughts.
He was also an astute observer of people and wrote about their interactions from a sociological point of view, commenting on French society by describing the way his characters played their respective roles. His was exactly the kind of writing I aspired to. So I was elated to enroll in a study abroad program in Paris in 2008, knowing I would be able to experience the things I had read about in his books, seen in movies, and fantasized about since I was a child, when I dreamt about growing up and becoming a writer living in Paris.
Over the course of the year that I spent in Paris, I delighted in meandering the wide boulevards of the eighth arrondissement, where Proust had lived, and visiting the Belle Époque house museums that were time capsules of his era. Even though I dreamed of visiting the Ritz, I wouldn’t dare approach its doors. I was too intimidated by its reputation and afraid that all the elegantly dressed people inside—who I imagined were all clad head to toe in Chanel—would immediately know that I didn’t belong there, that I was just a poor student striving to fit in.
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Instead, my favorite thing to do on the weekends was to walk from my apartment in the 17th arrondissement to the Parc Monceau. In 1900, Proust moved with his family to 45 Rue de Courcelles, about a block away from the park, and today it looks much the same as it did back then. When the weather was nice, Parisians from the neighborhood would picnic here with friends, go running along the paths, or walk their dogs and play with their kids. I loved people-watching here, noticing the kinds of details that Proust would have written about.
One Sunday afternoon in springtime, I went on one of my frequent strolls, passing the clothing shops and smelling the familiar scent of fresh bread wafting out from the boulangerie. I entered the park through its tall wrought-iron gates and sat on one of the green wooden benches to write in my journal. I observed a group of teenagers enjoying a picnic on the grass nearby, noting that they seemed to have an unofficial uniform of skinny jeans, Converse sneakers, and black leather jackets. I tried to overhear their conversation, the way Proust used to eavesdrop on the aristocrats in his social circle. I imagined their family apartments on the blocks surrounding the park. They probably had the same parquet floors and ornate crown moldings that would have been in vogue in Proust’s day.
Though it’s not nearly as famous or grand as the Jardins du Luxembourg or the Tuileries, I adored the Parc Monceau. Going there made me feel like a local, like this one beautiful corner of Proust’s Paris was accessible to me. As long as I could be there to write and observe, I felt like I could take little steps toward literary enlightenment and hone the storytelling skills that a writer like Proust needs to have.
As my year abroad came to an end, and I kept filling more and more journals, waves of sadness washed over me. How could I leave? I was finally starting to feel like I belonged, although I still hadn’t managed to work up the courage to visit the Ritz. Sometimes, the sadness would bubble up in a burst of panic, but I was determined to live those last days as if I were just preparing to go away for a while. It would not be the last the City of Light would see of me.
In the 10 years that passed since my study abroad experience, I may have been far from Paris, but I never left it—or Proust—behind completely. I earned a degree in creative writing (which entailed reading all seven volumes of his In Search of Lost Time) and began a career as a freelance travel writer. That was how I found myself again in Paris, standing in front of the hotel I’d dared not enter years ago.
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A white-gloved doorman opened the door for me and my boyfriend and we crossed the threshold separating Paris from the self-contained universe that is the Ritz. Outside, the city might have been cold and gray, but inside the hotel was warm and welcoming, all plush carpets and heavy draperies. At the time, I was on assignment to write about the hotel’s top suites, so a member of the guest relations team greeted us and led us from the lobby to the Imperial Suite, stopping along the way to show us the elegant Bar Vendôme, the Michelin-starred L’Espadon restaurant, the shopping arcade designed to resemble 19th-century covered passages, and the Ritz Escoffier cooking school.
When the hotel emerged from a four-year, $440 million renovation in 2016, it kept many of the original spaces, but added one important outlet: the Salon Proust. Just off the main corridor, the new tearoom pays homage to the author who treated the hotel like a second home, hosting dinner parties during which he gathered the secrets of Paris’s artistic and aristocratic elite that he used as fodder in his books.
I’ll never forget walking those hallowed halls. It made me realize that other, formerly inaccessible corners of Paris were now open to me. Not because they were ever really closed off in the first place, but because I was seeing them from a different perspective—that of someone older and maybe a little wiser. I still wasn’t wearing Chanel, but I no longer cared about what anyone else thought of me. I may not have written a literary masterpiece, but I was fulfilling my own lifelong dream of earning a living as a writer—and that was all that mattered.
The Ritz Paris isn’t the only place visitors to the City of Light can soak up the Belle Époque atmosphere that Marcel Proust (1871–1922) reveled in.
The Musée Carnavalet, which is dedicated to the history of Paris, features a replica of Proust’s cork-lined room at 102 Boulevard Haussmann.
Proust never actually visited the home that is now the Musée Jacquemart-André, but it dates back to his era and is the kind of aristocratic home he wrote about. The same is true of the Musée Nissim de Camondo, which was once owned by a rich Jewish family, much like Proust’s family (his mother was Jewish).
Aside from the Parc Monceau, Proust used to play in the Parc de l’Elysée as a child.
Proust wrote about the Church of the Madeleine in the eighth arrondissement. Nearby you’ll find Maxim’s, a restaurant that still exudes Belle Époque glamour.
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