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Pedestrians outside Prohibido, a bar at Rue Durantin and Rue Tholoze in Paris. (KATIE ORLINSKY/NYT)
Pedestrians outside Prohibido, a bar at Rue Durantin and Rue Tholoze in Paris. (KATIE ORLINSKY/NYT)

The art of getting lost in the City of Light Add to ...

To reach the Boulangerie Mauvieux, whose baguettes had been named Best in Paris by some prominent baguette committee just one day earlier, I should have been winding my way up rue Coulaincourt. Instead, somehow, I was on avenue de Clichy – still in the leafy 18th arrondissement, but too far east of my destination.

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So I snaked through side streets, climbing up toward the Sacré-Coeur Basilica and then down steep roads lined with run-down storefronts, fruit stands and travel agencies whose windows were filled with sun-bleached posters and dated 747 model planes. Every five seconds, I directed my eyes down – there was dog poop to avoid, after all. I knew I would find the bakery eventually, but at that moment I was lost. And I loved it.

I have been visiting Paris since the age of 9, and have got lost enough times to know that it's a distinct feeling, as much as a temporal fact. Yet, unlike the panic that sets in elsewhere, getting lost in Paris is one of my purest pleasures. It's a sensation buoyed by adrenalin and curiosity – a limbo between the comfort of what's familiar and the thrill of what's unexplored.

I'm positive this is because I've long identified with Baudelaire's flâneur, someone who strolls the city, simultaneously immersed in and detached from it. Ah, the pursuit of observation in a setting so densely designed, and so packed with all the quintessential archetypes (the bearded fishmonger! the lanky smoker artist! the impeccably dressed toddler! the fringe-bootied gamine!). Is it any wonder the eyes don't fatigue before the body does?

Whereas other metropolises, such as New York or, to a lesser extent, London, have transformed so radically that a flâneur from the mid-19th century would feel utterly disoriented today, the preservation of Paris creates a singular bridge between past and present. I suspect this is what Woody Allen sought to capture with Midnight in Paris. Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and the film's menagerie of historical characters were a manifestation of losing oneself in a place layered with decades upon decades of creative output.

I'm certain our feet touched the same cobblestones.

I read on a Paris Walking Tours website that there are 6,100 streets within the city (which, as you probably know, is divided into 20 arrondissements, or neighbourhoods, that spiral out from the centre). I've not counted how many I've traversed, but from the Bois de Boulogne to the Bois de Vincennes and the Parc André Citroën to the Parc de Belleville – all located near the outer limits of the city – I've covered a lot of ground.

There is something counterintuitive about getting lost with intention. Increasingly, however, I realize there's an art to perfecting the perdu Parisien (this is not an actual expression, but its alliterative appeal is irresistible). Experience, for instance, has proved that getting lost isn't enjoyable with time constraints; setting aside two hours is reasonable, although longer is ideal. And, as with anything else in life, breaking the rules first requires knowing the rules. I started to feel confident about getting lost only once I had my compass bearings, recognized major thoroughfares and landmarks (including but not limited to monuments, department stores and train stations).

Still, though, the Left Bank – a haven for established arty types – inevitably trips me up. All those clusters of streets that converge and curve and wrap around each other make advanced-level brainteasers seem like child's play. Stubbornly, I refuse to carry a map. For one thing, they are helpfully framed in every bus shelter; for another, should I wish to return to Boulanger Gontran Cherrier in the 18th, where breads are enlivened with squid ink, miso paste and arugula juice, I must commit the route to memory.

In the midst of a Parisian ramble, it occurs to me that Paris triggers a level of sentiment that I would feel for a person. When I stumble across a wall covered in a graffiti mural near the Quai de la Seine or turn a corner to discover a new view of the Panthéon, these are moments that are as tingly special as a first kiss.

Alas, here comes irony: The serendipity of getting lost (even when intention is involved) is a one-time deal. Once it happens in a certain spot, the chances are significantly reduced that it will happen again. So, to counter this, I avoid retracing my steps and make time to go deeper and deeper.

Yet I inevitably switch into autopilot as I head back toward my own neighbourhood in the 1st. There's a wonderful sense of achievement that comes with mastering Paris, street by street, and through the cycle of seasons. But for me, it's also punctuated by a fleeting sadness as I wonder: Will there come a point when I get lost no more?

 

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