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Sunday, November 25, 2012 - Page updated at 06:30 p.m.

Lost and found in European wanderings

The New York Times

It’s common enough to get lost in European cities, with their narrow, winding streets that seem to have been traced by dazed sheep long before mass tourism; those confusing signs in strange languages; and locals who sometimes make a point of pretending not to understand, even when they do. But wandering aimlessly can be a goal in itself. How else would one stumble upon that extraordinary bakery, that antiques shop full of peculiar dolls, that amazing bistro.

I’ve been fortunate to have been a foreign correspondent for most of the last 30 years — in Europe, Southeast Asia, Russia, the Middle East, and now back in Europe again, in Paris. But no one ever really stops being a tourist, I’m convinced, looking for that unique memory or connection that makes an iconic city seem personal, at least for a little while.

In cities like Paris, Berlin and Prague, I have been happy to find places where the urban buzz and crush of big crowds fades slowly away. Places where I can lose myself, that is.

That can happen in a park or garden, and in the middle of a city, too. But usually, for me, these moments of connection come from a confrontation with the past that produces a shock of comprehension, a sense of what an earlier world called “the great chain of being.”

A fond memory: wandering around Versailles at closing time — well, past it, actually, with the sun setting over the gardens — and stumbling upon the Hameau de la Reine, the bizarrely beautiful hamlet Marie Antoinette had built for herself. It was also a working farm, a place where she could pretend to be an ordinary milkmaid.

At the time, I wasn’t sure where I was, and there was no one around. It felt both private and stolen: the beauty of the gardens; the absurdity of these mock-humble buildings in such rarefied surroundings; the tragedy of the queen, dressed as a peasant, with her milk buckets of Sevres porcelain painted with her coat of arms. It’s hard enough to get one’s mind into the habits and patterns of someone so distant, so privileged and so thoroughly despised by history, her head cut off in the Place de la Revolution, which was renamed Concorde only as a gesture of reconciliation.

Haunting images in Prague, Berlin

There are places all over Europe where my memories and history collide. On a winter evening in Prague, after months covering the Kosovo war, I wandered through the crammed, broken-toothed headstones of the Jewish cemetery, where the rabbi who is said to have created the Golem — a clay monster to protect the Jews of Prague — is buried. Prague is an eerie place, a Jewish city without Jews, with ghosts and golems emerging from behind the now brightly painted facades of what is Europe’s most beautiful and haunted city.

In Berlin, another haunted city, which I first visited in 1981, there is the much-criticized memorial to the Holocaust by Peter Eisenman, the stones at odd angles like the cemetery in Prague. The memorial is wrongly criticized; one simply has to go there and see how Berliners, not just tourists, use the place. Sitting on the stone slabs, no one can forget what they represent. Even amid so many visitors, deep in the maze of those slabs, some of which rise far above your head as the earth tips away, you can feel very lost, very alone and grateful to experience a different Europe, a different Germany.

Culinary memories

But historic sites aren’t the only places where I have lost myself. A well-run restaurant can do the trick. Given this theme of history and beauty, I would suggest taking a long wander through the gardens of Paris’ Palais-Royal, where Napoleon was said to have had his first sexual experience, with one of the prostitutes who frequented the spot. Then leave the world behind and have lunch with a loved one at Le Grand Vefour, at the northwestern edge of the Palais-Royal. One of the capital’s oldest restaurants — said to date from 1784— its walls are fashioned of boiserie, mirrors and lush paintings of game, fish and flowers under glass. It is not only among the capital’s prettiest restaurants, it also has two Michelin stars and is run with discretion, elegance and even some charm. Have something extraordinary like turbot or St.-Pierre (John Dory), or the restaurant’s famous foie gras ravioli with a truffled cream sauce.

Of course there will be a bill to pay, and as in all expensive Paris restaurants, your neighbors may speak your own language. But for a few hours, you can happily lose yourself in an utterly artificial world that also marks a moment of high civilization.

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