Bare-chested fishermen idled on the rocks one afternoon and argued mellifluously. Bony children bobbed in the water, and tinny music drifted from a stall where glistening mahi-mahi was on offer. Not one head turned when cows stumbled into an empty beach cafe, scattering chairs and then wandering into the surf.
But the slow-motion beach scene isn’t the attraction at Weligama, an escapist paradise open to the Indian Ocean and an infinite distance from angst. It is outshone by a dollop of an island 200 yards offshore. Ringed by gleaming boulders and topped by a cloud-white villa, Taprobane is now a landmark inSri Lanka. Created in the 1920s by a Frenchman who claimed to be an aristocrat, the property was once owned by the writer Paul Bowles.
These days, Taprobane is a privately owned home marketed as a luxury retreat where, depending on the season, the keys to the five-bedroom villa go for $1,000 to $2,200 per night. A staff of five, including a private cook, keeps the Tanqueray flowing.
At the foot of a neo-Palladian gate, Taprobane’s jetty reaches only a short way into the water. Though elephants have been employed to ferry visitors, upon occasion, guests now their way to the house through the shin-deep surf.
On my own pilgrimage last spring, I slipped off my sandals and waded behind two porters with my bags atop their heads. Before I reached the elaborate gateway, a hand holding a towel appeared: “Madam, hello, madam,” someone said.
I was making the journey alone, but not because I craved solitude, or splendor. Booking Taprobane for one $1,700 night meant that I could explore the estate and parse the sensory landscape that made it so alluring to Mr. Bowles.
The Queens-born expatriate (who died in 1999) was a writer whom I knew, and who is still a touchstone for many travelers. A coolly charismatic figure who lived at a distance from his own culture, he made a lasting mark with dark, often disturbing tales about innocents who seek exotica and stumble into anarchy.
His best-known novel, “The Sheltering Sky,” is a cautionary tale for heedless adventurers: Distracted by their own small dramas, a young couple ventures into the Sahara. Adrift among strangers, they become prey.
Norman Mailer’s take on his vision became a trope: “Paul Bowles,” he wrote, “opened the world of Hip. He let in the murder, the drugs, the incest, the death of the Square … the call of the orgy, the end of civilization."
Elegant and self-contained, Mr. Bowles would have been the last to define himself as hip. Exquisitely detached from his surroundings, as well as from his characters, he spent much of his life on the move; such distinctions hardly mattered in Tangier, the Moroccan port that became his backdrop.
In 1948, when Mr. Bowles brought his wife, the writer Jane Bowles, to Morocco, Tangier was an international zone where villas were cheap, kif was plentiful and sex was a commodity. Decadence wasn’t the draw for the Bowleses, but their relationship was opaque, and each famously took gay lovers.
Though he nominally was in retreat, Mr. Bowles’s door was open; a generation of admirers made its way to Inmueble Itesa, the drab building where he lived for 40 years. I began visiting in 1986, while researching a book about Mr. Bowles and other writers in Tangier. Patient and often amusing, Mr. Bowles seemed a glamorous anachronism.
By then, his time in Sri Lanka (Ceylon until long after he left) seemed impossibly distant; it had been distilled into anecdotes about devil-dancing ceremonies and the quirks of his servants. Once, however, Taprobane had been a place that fulfilled his longing for extremes. Along with the void of the Sahara, he wrote, the fecundity of the tropics could propel him into “a state bordering on euphoria.”
His obsession was sparked by David Herbert, an aristocrat and close friend in Tangier. In 1949 (a year after Sri Lanka won independence from Britain), Mr. Herbert showed him an album with photographs from a family visit to Taprobane. Entranced, Mr. Bowles made an expedition to Sri Lanka in 1950; he found the private island to be “an embodiment of the innumerable fantasies and daydreams that had flitted through my mind since childhood.”
Two years later, Mr. Bowles arranged to buy the island from a local rubber planter. The cost for his “little parcel of paradise,” as he called it, was about $5,000.
Climbing through the island’s luxuriant jungle, I caught a whiff of Mr. Bowles’s bliss. Flame trees and frangipani-lined paths strewn with fallen blossoms. Screaming house crows, hundreds of them, were a counterpoint to the booming waves. The mineral smell of the sea receded, and the perfume of overripe fruit took over.
The showstopper is the villa, where verandas take the place of outer walls. Pure white, the pavilion is a study in light and shadow. In the octagonal center room, the ceiling rises 30 feet; bedrooms and sitting areas extend beyond. Visible in all directions, the seascape seemed infinite.
The major-domo here is Carman Abeyeunga, a compact man who, like his staff, is dignified in shorts and bare feet. Service at Taprobane is swift and unobtrusive; my bags materialized in a small bedroom that, at midday, was shuttered against the heat. With heavy Dutch Colonial furniture and a four-poster draped in mosquito netting, it was appealing in a Tatler-colonial way.
The room was suitably adorned with clubby family photos that belong to the British-born entrepreneur Geoffrey Dobbs, who bought Taprobane from a Sri Lankan mogul. A retired publisher and a high-profile figure in Sri Lanka, Mr. Dobbs has converted two colonial houses in Galle into boutique hotels and helped shore up a tourist industry enfeebled by a civil war and a tsunami.
By all accounts, Taprobane was less-than-haute in Mr. Bowles’s day. There was no running water or electricity and “the house would have delighted the heart of Charles Addams,” in the words of Arthur C. Clarke. After a 1957 visit, he wrote “windows had been boarded up, plaster was flaking away, and though the place was perfectly livable there was a general air of neglect.”
Any lugubriousness was a plus for Mr. Bowles. In his memoir, “Without Stopping,” he described the scene when his wife first set foot on the estate. Mrs. Bowles, he wrote, instantly understood its appeal: “I can see why you like it,” she shrugged. “It’s a Poe story.”
Jane Bowles felt besieged in her husband’s house. “I had prepared her for the nightly invasion of bats … but she had not expected so many, she said, or that they would have a three-foot wingspread and such big teeth,” he remembered.
Mr. Bowles savored the exoticism. In a 1955 letter to his editor, David McDowell, he wrote: “The house is self-sufficient in eggs, orchids, lobsters, crabs, and that’s all.” He continued, “Think how much we should have to spend for our daily supply of orchids if they didn’t grow here.”
Hungry to explore it all, I grabbed my camera and maneuvered down the island’s south face. I leaned carefully over a 20-foot drop to photograph the surf as it smashed into hulking boulders.
The sun was still fierce, so I headed into the tangle that canopies the walkways. Like the house, the gardens were created by Maurice de Mauny Talvande, a French commoner who declared himself a count. When he managed to acquire Galduwa, as it was then called, around 1925, he rechristened it with the name that the ancient Greeks gave to Sri Lanka.
Now, every step here reveals a curiosity — green pods cradling blood-red seeds or white blossoms erupting from the depths of crimson flowers. Heart-shaped leaves are veined in startling white, and orchids leap across walkways at eye level.
Mr. Bowles, who used cannabis to tweak his consciousness in Morocco, sensed that his garden had a life of its own. In another letter to Mr. McDowell in 1955, he described “the strange psychological effect this powerful world of vegetable life can have on the person who opens himself to consciousness of it … it’s a rather unpleasant sensation on the whole, to feel very strongly that plants are not inert and not insentient.”
Mr. Bowles intended to separate himself from the world here, but he seldom was alone. Late in 1954, he arrived at Taprobane with Mrs. Bowles, as well as his lover, the Moroccan painter Ahmed Yacoubi, and their friend Mohammed Temsemany. It was not a happy ménage: Struggling with the heat and with writer’s block, Mrs. Bowles drank heavily; she returned to Tangier after two months.
Throughout, his estate was a draw for strangers who seemed to regard it as public property. Tourists from Weligama or Colombo or as far away as Bombay “hallooed and pounded” at the gate, though Mr. Bowles posted a sign warning that drop-ins would be turned away.
Over time, he developed the sense of being an interloper in Sri Lanka. By his account, visitors began advising him that he was lucky to live in a house that was part of their history, and newspapers called for Taprobane to be declared a national monument.
Along with financial worries and his wife’s loathing for the place, that shift spurred Mr. Bowles to sell his one-off paradise. In 1957, it went to the Irish writer Shaun Mandy.
It’s hard to say whether anything of Mr. Bowles remains at Taprobane.
Taprobane did offer reminders of Mr. Bowles and his love for the tropics, however: I thought about him as I walked barefoot on the cool floors and floated in the lukewarm surf.
Sleep came easily at the villa; the banging of the waves obliterated the usual static, and not a single bat disturbed my dreams.
I woke early, opened the shutters and saw that my terrace was deserted. I was free to do yoga, or watch the sea birds or read in perfect peace.
Instead, I walked out to watch the 10-shades-of-turquoise ocean, where barely visible boats disappeared into the horizon.
I remembered what Mr. Bowles had said about what lay beyond: At Taprobane, he wrote, “there’s nothing between you and the South Pole.”
When is Paris not just Paris? When it’s a window onto Dakar, Senegal; or Morocco; or Mumbai, India; or Moscow.
The city successfully markets itself as a playground in which to sample France’s vast traditional cultural and gastronomic output, from wines to cheeses to literature and fashion. But that’s only half of France’s heritage. So while tourists often flock to the City of Lights to see famous French sites — Notre Dame, the Louvre and, of course, the Eiffel Tower — that are clustered, for the most part, in the center of the city, they may miss a global metropolis that offers a sampling of many different cultures.
France’s former colonial ties with many countries have created vital immigrant communities from North and West Africa and from parts of Asia. The result is a mix of areas to explore in less tourist-centric outer neighborhoods: the 18th, 19th, 20th, 10th, 11th and 12th Arrondissements.
In the Goutte d’Or neighborhood in the 18th Arrondissement, for example, you’ll find West African women in long dresses of bright wax batik fabric buying vegetables at shops with names like Paris L’Afrique. At Passage Brady in the 10th, you’ll find yourself in a street of Indian restaurants and shops; or, in gentrifying, multicultural Belleville, a mélange of cultures including one of the city’s East Asian communities.
While waves of immigration transform many global cities, there are few road maps to explore them in a country so wedded to its heritage that it maintains an academy dedicated to preserving its language. Here is a quick lesson on mezze Paris and a few suggestions of places where you can immerse yourself in a different world.
Long before Africans came in large numbers to Paris, a different group settled in the north. There was a time when rural migrants from Brittany and Basque Country were considered foreigners, of a sort, when they settled in Paris’s outer neighborhoods in the 1800s, according to Prof. Andrew Newman of Wayne State University, an expert on immigrant Paris.
Many of the neighborhoods in which they settled later became home to immigrants from across southern and Eastern Europe after World War I. Although North Africans (from Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco in particular) started coming to the 18th and 19th Arrondissements as early as the 1920s, Professor Newman said, “Migration from throughout the empire — especially Francophone West Africa and the Maghreb (North Africa) — began to visibly reshape the city in the years following the Second World War, when France instituted a ‘guest-worker’ policy.” Many men worked in postwar construction and manufacturing, and some of the women as domestics.
The Algerian War of Independence, he added, “spilled into the streets of Paris in the early 1960s.”
“At the Pont Saint-Michel, in the city center,” he continued, “one can find a memorial plaque to the 17 October 1961 massacre of Algerian demonstrators (including women and children), many of whom were thrown in the Seine to drown.”
The tension between France and its immigrants more recently came to light nearly a decade ago, when riots overtook the Clichy-sous-Bois banlieu, or suburb. Like many banlieues, it consisted of undistinguished working-class apartment blocks surrounding the city, home mainly to people of North and West African heritage who find themselves labeled immigrant. This duality — French, or not truly French — is distinct from, but could be compared with, America’s own struggles with otherness, here mainly explored through a newly sharpened racial identity in the wake of Ferguson.
Because I wanted to better understand the landscape of ethnic expression and repression, I explored some places that have found playful ways to approach the topic of identity through culture and art. Among them: the artist-proprietors of Le Comptoir Général, a hip multipurpose space that bills itself as a “Ghetto Museum” in the 10th Arrondissement, off Canal Saint-Martin.
First you walk up to a gate with a friendly bouncer; then go through a courtyard, dimly lit at night; and finally enter into a hallway that begins with a photo gallery of former President Nicolas Sarkozy shaking the hands of African autocrats. Throughout the rooms, you’ll find a wry mix of décor — placards for African barbers; walls of food products from the Continent; and books, records and artwork for sale. The crowd at Comptoir Général is young and multicultural. The staff members have used their own straddling of French and West African cultures as a way to embrace and gently poke fun at both, as well as to welcome others in.
Places to experience global night life include the Brazilian spot La Favela Chic and the reggae and West African music venue Olympic Café. A standout restaurant is Comme sur une Île in the 20th Arrondissement, run by a Mauritian chef who blends Indian, French, Chinese and Creole flavors. The vegetarian platter recently included an exquisite assortment of tastes and textures, with small half-moons of eggplant in a chickpea batter; a shrimp dish in a light, flavorful tomato sauce was another winner.
The inner arrondissements, closer to tourist destinations, also have some cultural and culinary offerings. Chez Hanna in the trendy Marais (Fourth) has a sit-down menu, but for lunch grab an inexpensive and marvelous take-away falafel, perfect to eat on a beautiful day in one of the nearby public squares. Le Petit Dakar, a Senegalese restaurant, is nearby, and charges prices appropriate for sit-down fare in its location (dinner entrees 16 to 20 euros, or about $19 to $24, at $1.21 to the euro). In the comfortable room filled with posters and books about Senegal, you’re seated and served roasted peanuts with a coconut shell to place the husks in. They serve up a fantastic appetizer platter including huge prawns and roasted vegetables that may make an entree seem unnecessary. But the dishes — like the national dish, a fish stew with okra and roasted vegetables — are flavorful and the servings are large enough that you can split them. Another place worth visiting while doing the more conventional Paris tourism is Restaurant Akash, a well-appointed room with delicious north Indian food. I dined there with a vegetarian who said that the ethnic dining options in Paris provided much needed variety if one doesn’t eat meat.
Also in central Paris: L’Institut du Monde Arabe (Institute of the Arab World), a museum that also houses a rooftop Lebanese restaurant with a stunning view. The current exhibits include a multimedia roundup of contemporary art from Morocco, including visual art, fashion, film and architecture, plus a live demo/crafts tent serving tea that can accommodate 500. At the same time, the Louvre coordinated efforts with the Institut to exhibit “Medieval Morocco: An Empire From Africa to Spain.”
Eastern European and Jewish
The city’s most bracing history is literally written on its walls. Throughout Paris, you can see plaques commemorating Jewish citizens sent to their deaths by authorities during the Holocaust, plus theMémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation on Île de la Cité, marking the more than 200,000 people deported to concentration camps. But Jewish culture, including active synagogues, remains a stalwart of Le Marais. The Librairie du Temple sells Hebrew and French texts; and the deli Sacha Finkelsztajn was founded in 1851. I had a latke with meat, warmed up, that was appropriately greasy and utterly divine. The Marais is also trendy, gay-friendly and has a large North African population — a true cultural crossroads, and one built for a leisurely stroll.
The Jewish culture of Paris overlaps in places with the Russian and Eastern European communities in the city. Russians, in particular, have deep historical ties to the city. French and Russian nobles intermarried, and thousands of Russian soldiers moved to the city after France surrendered the Battle of Paris in 1814. (Some linguists believe the restaurant term “bistro” comes from a similar-sounding Russian word for “quickly” — the soldiers’ cry to the less-than-snappy waiters to pick up the pace.) The Russian-Parisian writer Sergey Kuznetsov, who moved to Paris from Moscow, said: “People came to work and study and integrated. They do not have closed Russian communities.”
Current political tensions could produce a new wave of Russians seeking places to live, he said: “the rich and refugees.” The Russian government is funding a new cultural center, one with many architectural critics of its design, near the Eiffel Tower. There are some enclaves, in the 16th Arrondissement, near the Russian embassy; and sites of interest including the main Orthodox church in the 17th and the pricey Café Pouchkine, which has several locations, including a new one on Saint-Germain.
East Asian culture and food are found throughout Paris, though, as with New York, certain neighborhoods can be described as “Chinatown” or more broadly, Asian areas, as colonial history means the Vietnamese influence in Paris is as prevalent as the Chinese, or more so. Part of the 13th Arrondissement is variously described as the Quartier Asiatique, Petite Asia or the Quartier Chinois (Chinese). There’s a McDonald’s with Chinese-language signs, which wouldn’t surprise anyone who’s been to New York’s Chinatown but is a bit of a novelty in France, and a Buddhist temple in a parking garage on Avenue d’Ivry. This district has the Olympiades Shopping Center and a big Tang Frères supermarket of Asian goods, and it’s the center of Lunar New Year celebrations (Feb. 19 next year).
Mr. Kuznetsov put together a dinner at one of Paris’s Vietnamese restaurants, a family-run, wallet-friendly hole-in-the-wall with delicious fare called Dong Phat, in the Seventh on Rue Malar. With eight of us present, we were able to satisfy the palates of vegetarians and carnivores, seafood-lovers and -haters, delighting in dishes like nems au porc (fried spring rolls with a dense ground pork filling) and noodle soup with prawn dumplings.
One of those present was the American author and filmmaker Daryle Conners, who had just wrapped shooting a short in Paris called “J’Arrive.” She lived in Paris for several years in the 1980s and has spent 25 years going back and forth. Ms. Conners points out that many Vietnamese restaurants, sometimes called French-Vietnamese, for the colonial influence that produced the banh mi sandwich on baguette bread, are known for their specialties. Her list: Best Nem (Au Coin des Gourmets, 5, rue Dante); Best Pho (Pho 14 in the 14th); Best Vietnamese Ravioli (Minh Duc in the Fifth); and Best Bo Bon (Xinh Xinh in the 13th). “Paris has so many good Southeast Asian restaurants, and they’re almost all very basic neighborhood places,” she said.
So how does multiethnic Paris fit into the national character as a whole?
“France is beset by a contradiction,” Professor Newman said.
“Strolling the streets, riding the Métro, or at work, the observation that France is a culturally diverse, global society is so routine it seems almost too banal to mention,” he added. Still, Professor Newman said, politicians across the spectrum often invoke — and capitalize upon — the questionable image of a culturally homogeneous France.
My trip happened to coincide with European Union parliamentary elections, won by the far-right National Front party, which has stood against immigration and recently called for an end to dual citizenship. The day after the elections, on the flight home, I happened to sit near a woman of black and European heritage who’d grown up in both the United States and France. She said ruefully that this was not the France she knew while growing up. Yet today, in addition to conflict, the tenacity of ethnic cultures-within-cultures adds vitality to modern France. The richness of the city’s global culture is one of its greatest assets — and an essential part of a contemporary Parisian adventure.