For Louisa Deasey, the City of Light has been illuminating in more ways than one. Having lost her father at a young age, Louisa was offered the opportunity to get to know him on a deep new level after receiving a mysterious letter from Paris.
Denison Deasey had fallen in love with Paris in the post-war years, which Louisa found documented in an archived collection of his memoir and memorabilia. For the Melbourne-based author, the ensuing journey of discovery enabled her to see not only Paris, but her father and herself, in a new light.
A Letter From Paris is a beautiful tale of love, loss, longing, creativity and identity. A must-read for all Francophiles, this is a book that will take you through all the emotions, ultimately leaving you with a sense of sweet satisfaction usually only achieved by eating a box of Ladurée macarons.
Here, Louisa chats more about her Parisian journeys, both emotional and physical — and her favourite things to do, buy and eat while there.
Can you tell us a little more about how Paris became such an important part of your life?
I’d always seen pictures of Paris in our old family albums. It was sort of a mythic city to me, when growing up, and I had this idea there was something mysterious about Paris that would help me understand myself, and my family. Almost like braille, or morse code, I felt like if I could understand something about Paris, I’d understand myself.
My dad died when I was six years old, and the only sort of sense I had of him was inextricably linked to France. Namely, his time — and his relationship — with Paris. I only had a handful of photos of him, but I knew that he’d lived for years in France. I didn’t know when, how, where… I always felt like if I could get there, I would understand a part of myself.
What has Paris taught you about your story?
The French sense of honouring history is something I’ve never felt in Australia. We don’t talk about the past. We shun that sort of exploration of the importance of history, and particularly family history. Yes, there are lots of people who love their families here in Australia, but there’s a sense, in Europe, that family is everything. I always felt embarrassed caring so much about my lost history in Australia. But in France, it’s assumed that you need to know where you came from.
When I got to Paris in 2017, I was shocked at the history on every street corner – that sense of honour about how everything past affects and weaves into the present. It made me feel so close to my dad, and unafraid to ask about him. It made me feel ok about how I’d always been.
I think the reason I love Paris so much is because it returned both my dad (or my sense of him) and my sense of myself, to me.
How has seeing Paris through your dad’s eyes changed the city for you?
In 2017, I went to Paris with Dad’s French memoir. I’d recently found it at the Victorian State Library, having not known of its existence, and am currently preparing it for publication. Written about his time in France from 1947-1955, it’s both my own secret history and Australian history, and it’s a really unique take on post-war Paris from an Australian ex-serviceman with fascinating anecdotes (Dad spoke fluent French and German) as he loved to talk to strangers. You can just feel his excitement at being so far from conservative Australia (as it was back then!) in its pages.
The buildings he described living in and loving and meeting people in are all still there – Notre-Dame, La Coupole, the apartment where Michelle Moos, who’d hidden resistance fighters and welcomed dad with cigarettes and secrets, even the Hôtel Floridor (where he stayed in 1947, and lived for a year in 1951). I could do my own private history tour, with his words to guide me! But also this feeling that things he’d described about Australia are no longer here, but in Paris, it’s all been preserved. Again, it’s that sense of valuing history I love about France.
I always knew Paris would mean something to me, but I didn’t know the specifics. I feel like dad is there – a part of him is there, because he loved it so much. And so now I want to go there every year, in a way it’s like I recover part of my parental line, when I go there.
What’s your personal favourite Parisian memory?
The first morning I woke in March 2017, in my little Airbnb in Le Marais, knowing I was going to meet Clémentine and Coralie, who’d been so integral to my finding my dad’s memoir, and my own history.
My second favourite is my birthday on that trip, when Clémentine, Coralie and her aunt and cousins met me in Saint Germain for celebratory drinks. I will never forget how beautiful and welcoming they all were.
I also loved my first sighting of Notre-Dame — it was always like my compass, walking home to Le Marais, when I was constantly getting lost.
What’s your preferred time of the year to go?
I actually love Paris when it’s cold! It suits the atmosphere. I’ve been in November, March and July, and November was magic but freezing. March is beautiful because the sun is just starting to peek out, and the people are beginning to smile and unfurl, the Tuileries are lovely with little blossoms starting to bud… I’d say anywhere between March and May is perfect.
Where’s your favourite place to stay?
Last year I stayed at the Hôtel Sèvres Saint-Germain, which was wonderful. They upgraded us without even telling us (!), but even without the upgrade, it’s in a magical spot (just a few steps from Le Bon Marché), the lobby is dreamy, the night porter keeps watch 24/7 so you feel really safe, the staff are lovely, and the rooms are really spacious for Paris.
I stayed in an amazing Airbnb apartment in 2017 because I was there for a month and wanted to cook and prepare lots of my own meals, but I fear Airbnb has gone downhill a bit since then.
I’d like to stay in Montparnasse, next time.
What are your top shopping addresses?
I love the 6th, 7th and 8th arrondissements. Le Bon Marché (above) is an incredible department store in the 7th (the way the French do luxury is second to none) and I love the little boutiques around the 6th.
I’m also a little obsessed with French pharmacies! My favourite is Pharmacie de la Mairie at 9 Rue des Archives in the 4th.
Elsewhere in Le Marais, you can find wonderful secondhand stores, as well as high-street boutiques; I recently found a vintage red cashmere jumper for €20, and bought some great pyjamas at the chain store Oysho (74, Rue de Rivoli 75004). I remember wondering what it was that made even the most basic French items seem special, and it’s the detailing. The French love a detail that enhances a woman’s shape; the pyjama pants had these little panels on the front that made them fitted. It’s these little details in French clothes that set them apart.
Oh, and one more thing: Buly 1803 (6, Rue Bonaparte 75006; above), in Saint-Germain. Ooh la la! I started following Jamie Beck’s blog before I went to France for a month, and she’d written a post on this organic beauty store and their products. The packaging is like something from a gallery – I think they commission the artwork for the packaging years in advance. The store is like a cross between an ancient apothecary and a museum! You must visit it. I bought the face cream and Pommade Concrète hand cream.
What has been your favourite Parisian souvenir?
A candle from the original Diptyque store (34, Boulevard Saint-Germain 75005). They have scents there that you can’t buy anywhere else in the world.
I bought ‘Tilleul’ as it reminded me of something very kind Clém had done for me, and when I came back to Australia, I burned that candle while I was working on A Letter From Paris. I always think of that trip when I smell that scent now. It makes me so happy.
Do you have any ‘Secret Paris’ addresses you can share?
Hmm. Well it’s not too secret, but the pool from Three Colours: Blue is called Piscine Pontoise, which is in the 5th. It’s open in the evening, which is nice. Just know that the French don’t let you swim without a swimming cap — but that’s okay as they sell them in vending machines by the pool!
What’s the best thing to do in Paris if you’re on a budget?
I’d get my pen, notebook, something to read, and park myself in one of the bistros in Saint-Germain during Happy Hour, where I’d sit on a drink for an hour or so while watching the people go by.
Also walking. I’ve never enjoyed walking around a city as much as in Paris. I walked from Montmartre to Le Marais one day. With a big detour around the Seine. It’s a feast for the senses.
Speaking of feasting, let’s talk food … What’s your ultimate Parisian breakfast?
Eggs on a freezing cold morning at Café de Flore as the waiters buzz around you and all you have ahead of you is walking, writing and meeting friends.
What about lunch?
A baguette while sitting on a green chair in the Tuileries, because I love the contrast of a cheap, simple meal on the grounds of what was once a palace!
And if you had a hankering for apéro …
Oh, maybe an overpriced cheese plate and champagne at Le Café Marly, overlooking the glass pyramid of the Louvre.
Or else La Closerie des Lilas. It has a lot of ambience, and literary history. Beautiful champagne, tasty snacks, and a piano player. It feels reminiscent of Hemingway’s Paris.
Do you have a preferred dinner spot?
Le Petit Saint Benoît is a bistro in Saint-Germain that dates back to 1901 and still has its old-school menu, gingham tablecloths and old zinc bar. It’s tiny, and it challenges my claustrophobia, but has a wonderful atmosphere.
There are so many restaurants I still have on my wishlist. I’d love to try Le Procope, which was the first café in Paris. It also has classic French dishes – coq au vin, etc – and is another restaurant that is rich in literary history (the philosophers of the Enlightenment used to hang out here). And Brasserie Lipp, too, another Hemingway haunt.
What else do you plan to do on your next trip to Paris?
Go back to the Musée d’Art Moderne. I trekked all the way there in 2017 only to find all the main collections were being relocated. So I had a wonderful time touring the … gift shop! It re-opens this October.
I’d also like to make it to the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson, as I love photography.
If you only had one day in Paris, you’d …
I wouldn’t plan anything. I find the most wonderful spots in Paris when I’m just wandering around … along the Seine, across the Seine … It’s a cliché but walking Paris is so inspiring, particularly for anyone creative. The attention the French pay to beauty, and to detail, is comforting and soothing.