February 2011: Paris trance


 Ernest Hemingway once said, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.” This is especially true for Toan Nguyen. 

A French citizen until he was 18, the C’ville Coffee owner feels a special connection to France’s capital city, which he’s incorporated in his North Downtown home.

The hub of his home’s activity, the living room is a kind of shrine to Paris. A map of the Metro system hangs on the wall; a metal replica of the Eiffel Tower sits next to the computer; nearly 50 books on the city take up two shelves on the room’s massive bookcase. Then there are the 70 albums of photos Nguyen has compiled, documenting his family’s trips to places like Hawaii, Maine, Quebec, Italy and, of course, the City of Light. His prized possession—a large-scale 3D map of Paris, framed behind plexiglass, with multicolored lines drawn on its surface to indicate the streets he’s traveled—hangs on a northern-facing wall. Nguyen estimates he’s walked nearly 600 miles of the city. 

“To me, I love walking there because it’s like a little village,” he says. “Each quartier, each quarter, has its own feeling.” 

It’s a feeling Nguyen one day hopes to experience daily. His 10-year goal is to own an apartment in Paris. “It has to have an incredible view of the Eiffel Tower and have a terrace,” he says. “That’s one way…I can give a perpetual gift to kids and grandkids. You know, my love for Paris.”


“My father was ambassador to Laos. He was educated at the Sorbonne and my mother was educated at the University of Paris. So, they met in Paris, they got married in Paris. And my oldest brother was born in Paris. So, there’s a lot of connection.

“Paris is so on a human scale. When you walk around New York, you feel dwarfed by these big, massive buildings, whereas Paris is very human. You can relate to the architecture.

“Paris is 21 miles by 21 miles, so it’s like 440 square miles and they managed to cram in 6,000 miles of street. That’s like from here to Los Angeles and back.

“A lot of people love Paris, but it’s still a foreign place. To me, it’s always been the center of our family’s universe because of all the history we’ve had with it. 

“I grew up in Brussels (in Belgium), which is like a mini-Paris. So, when I go back [to Paris], it’s like going back to home.

“My daughter is a UVA first year and she’s majoring in French. So, you know, her living in Paris and back have made her love the language and the culture.

“Paris is like the ultimate city when a city grows up.”