Communiqué and Musings from the Most Romantic City on Earth
I have shared my travel notes over the last two years because the places we went were new to us and filled with revelation. Not so Paris…we have been there so many times, it is familiar. It holds the number one spot in our hearts — always has and always will. Each time we go, I worry I will fall out of love…but after so many years, Paris, like Allen, is stuck with me.
So here are just some thoughts you might relate to, and experiences you might want to have yourselves when you are next there….
This year we rented an almost perfect apartment in the 7th. It is the neighborhood we are most familiar with, as one set of children lived there for two years, and I started my travel writing from there in the fall of 2007 when we lived there too. The apartment is in a quintessential Haussmann-style building on a quiet cul-de-sac. We heard the children at recess from the school at the end of the street, but heard no traffic (a miracle in Paris). It had perfectly shaped rooms embellished with over-the-top molding and light pouring in the windows front and back, but its furnishings were, well, “as is.” What fun it would be to redo it — when I win the lottery! This is the first apartment we have ever rented that I covet for us.
We love renting an apartment rather than staying in a hotel, because, even for just a week, we get to live in Paris…going out in the morning for a baguette, running errands in the neighborhood, hanging out in our living room in the late afternoon reading, not having to go out for every meal, not having to go everywhere and see everything. So here are some highlights of living in Paris for a week….
One out of three of our “have-to-reserve-way-in-advance” restaurants was terrific. We savored Rech, recently taken over by Alain Ducasse and dubbed by several critics “simply the best fish in Paris.” We agree, and it was friendly and unpretentious (but not inexpensive). As a fan of Mark Bittman, I should not have been surprised that two old favorites, Violon D’Ingres and Apicius, let us down. Bittman recalls how, not so long ago, you never could go wrong in Paris, but now there is better food all over the world. But here is the irony: although the food did not impress us, the ambiance and service did. The venues of these restaurants were quite old-style formal, and yet the staff could not have been more friendly and warm. Although prepared to speak English, our waiters, at once realizing we wanted to speak French, slowed down their Parisian parler-vite and enunciated clearly just for us. The stuffy, condescending French stereotype is gone. I wished I liked the food more.
We did a lot more window-shopping than actual buying. Just looking at the gorgeous antique shops in the area around rue de Beaune filled me with ideas for furnishings in Aspen. Imagine five-foot tall columnar but curvy dark brown baskets — wide at the chest and hip and slender at the waist. They were loosely woven, and light emanated from inside. Three cylindrical light bulbs were strung down their centers. There were four of these clever floor lamps — two would have provided the additional light we need in our Aspen living room and plenty of panache. When we asked the proprietor where they were from and what they had been used for on the past, he gave us that classic French shrug and said they were of unknown origin — perhaps Malaysia or somewhere else in Southeast Asia, and he had no idea what they were used for. This sounded promising. How expensive could two shapely basket lights with no provenance be? When we were told E. 22,000 for the set of four, I asked if he would consider breaking up the set. I can’t believe I actually asked instead of telling him he was out of his mind. No, they would not break up the set. But what would I have done if he had said yes? A quick and graceless exit…
And for the apartment in Paris I do not own… When I do get to buy that apartment I will buy the most beautiful contemporary china I have ever seen from Muriel Grateau…it was a mere E.3,000 a place setting.
More practical shopping was on rue Cler, where we stocked up from our favorite fishmonger, butcher and greengrocer, and also at the Grand Épicerie, the food hall of the department store, Bon Marché. The prepared food is irresistible…we always buy more than we can possibly eat. And if you are in Paris, a visit these days to Bon Marché is a must…with a complete makeover, it is by far the chicest looking department store I have ever seen. Allen even likes it, as it is where he stocks up on very reasonably priced (really) lightweight sweaters…the house brand called Balthazar.
But the most bizarre shopping story is the following: I had a recent clipping from the Wall Street Journal plus an article in a 2015 book, 100 Places in France Every Woman should Go, about a new hot area — the Rue Jeune. It was located just north of the previously hot northern Marais area. Famous architects were working with the developer to gentrify shops, restaurants and food stores. It was already in the works and more old buildings were being bought to continue this successful restoration. I had a map from the WSJ article; I had the addresses of the new shops; and when we got there (“Are you sure you are reading the map right?” Allen asked.), there was nothing — a few un-special streets with a sleepy cafe or two and some boarded up storefronts. We thought maybe the map from the Journal had been misprinted. There was no one around to even ask. So after exploring the adjoining blocks, still with no luck, we made our way down into the old hot northern Marais we knew. So odd…
Coincidentally, the very next day we read a long article about the Rue Jeune in the International New York Times: it turns out we were in the right place but the developer went broke, left his debtors and partners in the lurch, and everything closed down. According to an architect, “ He arrived in a Ferrari, which it turns out was rented, wearing Berluti shoes and a Dior suit. He had lawyers. We put confidence in him.”
Not to jump to conclusions, but this quotation is a wonderful commentary on societal conventions in France. We have had many experiences that back it up. Years ago we were in Paris for a long weekend, having left our two-year old son with my parents at the then very posh Marbella Club on the Costa del Sol. We interviewed a lovely young woman as an au pair to live with us for her gap year. However, her parents wanted to vet us, so we agreed to meet for a coffee. I was carrying a bag from Valentino (not for me — I had just picked up something for my mother!) and the parents were very impressed with the bag, and that we were all staying at the Marbella Club. We thought all was going well, until they asked where we were staying in Paris. We told them — a small Left Bank hotel for nostalgia’s sake where we had stayed in college. We sensed a tremor. When we got home we received a tear-stained letter from the young woman saying her parents had a change of heart: anyone staying on the rue Serpentine in the student quarter would not be the kind of people they wanted their daughter to live with.
And another is this: if you have ever seen a French resumé, you will know that the customary format is the reverse of ours. FIRST comes your schooling because if you have gone to Science-Po you are in like Flynn, and there is a descending order for the other universities. Your actual accomplishments in the work world are of secondary importance.
And one last story: 35 years ago Allen had a small company in Paris. He and his French partner, Jean Paul, were running in the Paris Marathon, and at the starting line they ran into their banker.
“Bonjour, Monsieur Bourcier,” they exclaimed.
He embraced them both, and said to Allen, “ Allen, you must call me Francis.”
“Well then,” said Jean Paul, “I will call you Francis too.”
“ No,” said the banker, “you call me Monsieur Bourcier!”
You might think this story could not happen now, but when we were in Paris for four months in 2007, at the end of our stay I suggested to my tutor who came twice a week and with whom I discussed all kinds of intimate girl stuff, that we knew each other well enough to call each other tu instead of vous. She blushed. I had made her so uncomfortable. “I can’t,” she said. And this from a woman who tutored at the American embassy and professed to adore everything American.
Who can really “get” the French? When we are there, we talk about the contradictions all the time. According to an article we read in The Economist, the French are the most depressed people on earth…more so than people living in extreme poverty, more so than the stereotypical Scandinavian. It was postulated in the article that the French consider it much more sophisticated to be gloomy. Where else are high-schoolers required to memorize the poems of Rimbaud — his contemplations of suicide? Yet the French love to joke and play with words.
Despite their frustration with the constant shut-downs and strikes in Paris, when our children lived there they tried to follow the French maxim, “We work to live, not live to work.” And yet, because it is so difficult to be entrepreneurial in France due to the rules of bureaucracy and culture, young people are flocking to the city with the sixth largest French population — London. On the other hand, Paris has just displaced London as the number one tourist destination in the world — the most beautiful city on earth hosts over 30 million tourists a year. The mismatches are endlessly fascinating to me.
Speaking of tourists, every time we are in Paris and have exhausted ourselves walking but cannot bear to go inside, we jump on a Bateau Mouche or Vedette and spend an hour with our feet up cruising the Seine, no longer listening to the narrative, just gazing at the beauty passing by. Energy restored.
And speaking of energy — the Fondation Louis Vuitton in the Bois de Bologne is brilliant — filled with excitement and light. Not only has Frank Gehry outdone himself in imagination, but the building is a joy to be in as well as to marvel at. ( I recently read that the latest grammar gurus say it is okay to end sentences with prepositions.) The exhibits- both the temporary and permanent collection — were thrilling. The temporary is called Les Clefs D’une Passion (sigh) and includes the Matisses, Monets and Rothkos everyone knows and loves. The permanent contains the most provocative (in a good way, not meant to turn your stomach) contemporary art I have ever seen. It was highlighted by Douglas Gordon’s film of two Israeli violinists performing Mozart’s Symphonia Concertante with the Polish National Orchestra. It was shown simultaneously on several walls of a very dark irregularly shaped space with alternating black and mirrored walls. From the Gagosian catalog: “Gordon films the musicians on this personal journey, isolating intimate moments at which their passionate love of music seems to move between them.” The music, the disquieting setting and the convergence of the Israeli and Polish musicians created such an emotional, poignant statement that I wept.
The whole thing is a MUST see. We bought our tickets online, so walked right in, but for those who did not and were standing in the sun awaiting their entrance, a young man provided beautiful white parasols for protection. They have thought of everything. By the way, if you are wondering how the French allowed this wildly modern building in the Bois, it took legislation to get it approved. Although it seems huge, it only takes up the footprint of an unsightly bowling alley that stood on the spot, and it was restricted in height by the trees of the park — its multiple roofs that look like sails just peek over the tree line. And when you stand outside on the upper terraces, you too can peek over the tree line to see Paris in every direction. In 2046 the building will become city property. Lucky Paris.
A final vision of the Paris we love: there was a stronger police and military presence than we had ever noticed before — we presumed due to the horrendous Charlie Hebdo attack. I could not decide if I felt safer or a bit more anxious — and was probably a little bit of both. But one policeman just delighted me. He stood at the entrance to a small park looking very stern in his full battle gear with his machine gun slung over his shoulder. Tucked into his body armor were two fresh baguettes.