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Monthly Archives: May 2014
Oh, the Île Saint-Louis. The tiny island in the middle of Paris, so small there isn’t even a metro stop on it (there is, however, one on the larger Île de la Cité just up the Seine, where Notre Dame and Place Dauphine are). I adore its narrow streets, crooked houses, and the feeling of being in an oasis…where everything happens to be more expensive (relative to the rest of Paris) because crossing bridges is involved. It’s fairly touristy, or at least it feels more touristy than other parts of the city, probably because everything is condensed into just a few short blocks, with only one street down the middle. And while there is some staggering architecture, most of the island remains unchanged from how it looked in the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was redeveloped from a cattle pasture to housing for wealthy Parisians of the day under King Louis XIII. Today it’s mostly famous for the Berthillon ice cream shop on Rue Saint-Louis en l’Île, and the lines are always down the block.
Other Paris Details of Note: Well, it happened yesterday: I passed the one month mark, which means my time here on this adventure is officially half over. I’d be lying if I said that didn’t terrify and depress me all at once. Where did the last 30 days go? How did they slip away so quickly?? How do I slow down the next 30?
When Annie was here last week, we were wandering around the Montmartre one evening after dinner, delaying going back to my apartment because the night was just so pretty, and as we crossed Rue des Abbesses, we looked back towards Rue Caulaincourt and were both blinded from the sun. The light in this town is unreal, even (or especially) at close to 10 at night. You can make a case that Paris is more beautiful in the rain (and it was overcast and gray here for days, which my moody, writers-block-suffering self secretly loved) but then moments like this occur, and it’s hard to deny how magical and glorious that golden light is. This morning it finally seems like the city has shed the gray, and the sun is pouring into my apartment.
Other Paris Details of Note: Yeah, I said writer’s block. Up until yesterday, when I broke through 60k words, I was having a hell of a time with it. Rule #1: Write every day seemed to be an optional guideline for a while there. I’m certainly still getting out and walking every day, averaging 6 kilometers (oh my god, look at me, thinking in metric) a day, which I am promptly undoing with all the bread products and desserts (hello, Mont Blancs at Angelina) and Camembert. And I’m practicing my French with the locals! And taking a million photos! But when I came back to my apartment and sat at my desk, it was like I’d left the story on a bus stop somewhere; it just wasn’t there. I hadn’t written anything substantial in a week. A week! And then yesterday I somehow got 1500 words down in an afternoon without even trying. My mom reminded me of something my dad always said: “It’s the rests between notes that make the music.” Trying to remember that.
When Jamal and I were in Paris last year, we stopped for lunch at Le Bonaparte in Saint-Germain, not knowing or realizing how trendy or even photogenic the café was as we tucked inside. It was freezing that day, and we were grateful for a warm place to eat. I saved the receipt and found it packing for this trip back in April: €6 for a small Orangina, €13 for onion soup. One of those meals you don’t repeat too often, except for when I did with Annie last week (oops). And wouldn’t you know it, the onion soup was bland and tasteless, they don’t have frites on the menu, and a bottle of water is €6. Thankfully, both times I’ve gone I’ve had amazing company, or I’d be too easily distracted from how lackluster the place is overall. I shouldn’t be surprised: in a city with so many restaurants, you’re bound to get a bad one every so often. You’re pretty from the outside, Le Bonaparte, but I’ll take my tastebuds (and wallet) elsewhere.
Continuing my streak of having people in photos, last week I went to the Tuileries (yes, again) to read and this lovely little old lady sat down next to me. She pulled out a bag of stale baguette and I thought, “Oh great, here come the swarms of birds.” You’re not supposed to feed the birds in the parks here, there are signs around the jardin saying as much, but she didn’t seem to care. And maybe it’s Parisian birds specifically, but the nuisance swarms I was expected never showed up; they were all well mannered and didn’t get greedy. I watched her for close to half an hour, eventually giving up on my book entirely and taking photos. She had some sort of bird magic, the little sparrows swooping right to her hand to take a piece of bread. It was one of those little Paris moments that was unexpected and delightful but that you won’t find in a guide book or on anyone’s itinerary.
And then a spider flew from no where and landed on my lap, so I decided that was enough nature for one day.
Other Paris Details of Note: I’d like to formally request that Rule #4 (Cheese) be amended to add BUTTER. Even the €1 grocery-store butter is out of this world, with thick flakes of salt sprinkled throughout, and I’m already figuring out how many blocks I can bring back in my suitcase. Speaking of being fat, I had my first eclair the other day (you may be wondering how it’s possible that I’ve gone 27 years and four trips to Paris without ever having had an eclair. So am I.) and I’m worried for my waistline now. I was happier not knowing how delicious they are.
Happy Memorial Day to all my American friend and family!
My brother asked me what I’d done with all the people in Paris; I’ve been intentionally leaving them out of as many photos as I can. But I couldn’t help but snap this photo the other night: just a quiet evening in Place Dauphine. The man in the trench coat was riding his bicycle and stopped to greet his friends, who convinced him to stay and have a drink. I love the lady in the window right above the awning, giving me a dirty look.
Earlier this week, I met my friend Ted from French class for lunch at Place Dauphine. He’s in town on a trip organized by the school and we took the opportunity to meet and gossip about our French class (kidding). They were filming an elaborate commercial of some sort at Le Bar du Caveau, which we got to watch from across the courtyard while we ate. I’ve been to Place Dauphine three times now (stopping by accidentally for visit #3 yesterday with Annie) but haven’t yet eaten there. Fourth time’s a charm, no?
There’s a quote by the author Richard Holmes that I read in “Paris Was Ours,” an anthology of essays by expat creatives who move to Paris that Jamal got me for Christmas one year, that made me laugh when I first saw it:
Writers of course are always slightly ashamed at not being at their desks, especially in Paris, where they might be out – having a good time, mon dieu.
But now, having been here almost three weeks (THREE. YOU GUYS.) I can safely say it’s one of the most accurate things I’ve ever read. I’m always ashamed when I’m not at my desk or scribbling away in my notebook. Stopping for tea at Ladurée? GUILT. Browsing a store on Boulevard Haussmann? GUILT. Staring at the Eiffel Tower for half an hour? OH, THE SHAME.
So to combat this feeling, I’ve been going on what I like to call “book research walks.” A fancy way of justifying all the flâneur-ing I’m doing is to visit sites important to my novel, that way I can hardly be called out for not being productive. It’s book research! I’m gathering ideas. Why, I had to go to Saint-Germain (and visit City Pharma, the two story discount pharmacy mecca of French beauty products, ahem) at 8:30am! That’s where the gallery my characters work is located, bien sûr! The upside to this is that there was virtually no one else out that early, given that the area in Saint-Germain around Rue de Seine and Rue Bonaparte are where a large collection of art galleries and supply shops are, and they don’t open until later in the morning. I like having streets (or what feels like full neighborhoods) all to myself.
Other Paris Details of Note: I finally got to hang out and eat the most amazing carrot cake with Süsk & Banoo, and I can assure you, they are out-of-this-world delightful company to be around. So funny, so nice, so cool. To be honest I was a bit star-struck upon meeting them, and I’m sure I geeked out more than a few times. And speaking of blog friends, Annie is coming to visit today and staying for a few days. Oh, blogging. You wonderful friendship builder.
I bought a Louvre membership my first week here, knowing it would pay for itself after three visits. The €35 I spent was the best investment I could have made: amazing trove of art aside, I get to skip the outrageously long line that snakes throughout the main courtyard by the pyramid in favor of a separately sectioned-off line, without a metal detector, and with a separate door. Passing through each ticket check-point is as simple as flashing them my membership card (I’d show you, but the picture they printed on it is totally dopey; she never told me when she took my photo, so I sat there smiling for a good two minutes. The results are less than spectacular). The dirty looks this garnered me from exhausted tourists stuck in yet another queue were worth the price alone; I’m important! I’m efficient! Out of my way, frustratingly ever-present Asian tour groups!
Unlike a lot of other things in Paris, the Louvre is one destination I would recommend not visiting first thing in the morning. Wait until the afternoon, and you’ll have a much more enjoyable time. On my first visit, I skipped the Denon wing where the Mona Lisa is housed and the insane crowds that go along with it. Instead, I headed to the Sully wing (Peintures Françaises, XVII-XIXeme siecles) in the other direction, where I had full galleries to myself. On my second trip, I caved and went to see La Joconde in all her tiny glory. I also saw a tourist take a photo of a direction sign for the Mona Lisa, as well as another tourist take a photo of a Mona Lisa poster in the gift shop. (Nothing, however, beats the time I saw someone on the Champs-Élysées taking a photo of a McDonald’s sign. Tourists! We are the worst!)
The sheer size of the museum is impossible to explain; I could go every single day I’m here and still not see everything. For now, I’ll settle for going once a week.
I seem to end up in the Jardin des Tuileries a lot. I’ve been there, accidentally and intentionally, probably more than any other spot in the city in the two weeks I’ve been here (TWO WEEKS. WHAT. STOP). It’s expansive and yet, like I’m learning about so many other parts of this amazing city, completely isolated and quiet in parts despite being a major tourist hotspot–it leads directly to the Louvre on one end and the Champs-Élysées on the other. Maybe it’s its size (overwhelming) or that everyone seems in a rush to get somewhere else by walking through it, but I’ve found the most wonderful, tucked away corners to sit and just be. I also think I stumbled upon two teenagers having sex against a tree yesterday in one back section, but I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.
I know one of my rules was to keep the tears to a minimum, and I really have been! Aside from crying going into my 36th hour without luggage when I got here, the only other time I’ve welled up was for a completely different, opposite reason. Remember this photo of my daddy in the Tuileries? On one of my morning walks last week, I happened to enter the gardens in the middle, and ended up smack-dab in the exact spot he must have been standing when that picture was taken. I stood there, and without even realizing, started crying. Happy, delighted, bittersweet tears. I had a –and I hate what a cop-out this word is, but– moment that is hard for me to explain. Not because I couldn’t dig to find the words, but because I think moments like that are just hard to put into words at all.
Thankfully, it was pretty chilly and windy that morning, so I could pretend my eyes were just watering, not that I was having a happy-cry in the middle of a public garden like a gauche Américaine.
Other Paris Details of Note: I broke 55k words today. While 10k in two weeks is the most I’ve ever written, it’s less progress than I somehow expected to make here. I’m being hard on myself, I know. I’m still treating myself to some celebratory macarons today, fear not.
The light in this city is unlike anywhere else in the world. I left happy hour with Christine and some new friends one night last week to walk to the bus stop (right next to the Arc de Triomphe, it’s a miracle I didn’t miss my bus for all the gawking I was doing). It was nearing 8:45pm, and the sky was burning gold. In the ten minutes I waited for the bus, the light shifted to all these beautiful shades of red and purple and dark blue. I wish I could have captured it better, but I was too in awe to take as many photos as I should have. And that’s okay, right? I’m allowed to be present (it’s one of my rules!) and enjoy the moment out from behind my camera.
Other Paris Details of Note: I’ve discovered the neatest thing: the demi-baguette. Which is exactly what it sounds like: a half a baguette. I was buying a full size baguette almost daily and, though I am deeply ashamed to admit it, rarely finishing the whole thing, even if I had the remaining portion for breakfast with Bonne Maman jam. But! A half-size baguette? A baguette they literally cut in half and give to you for 48¢?? The perfect size! This has radically changed my life, and I mean that in the sincerest way possible.
Behold my restraint: I didn’t go to Ladurée until last week, after I’d been here for four whole days! Like everything else in this city, get there early. I walked by the Rue Royale store one afternoon around 4pm and the line was down the block.
Behold my lack of restraint: I also went yesterday morning to the Rue Bonaparte store in Saint-Germain. And both times, I ate the whole box (only eight macarons) in one sitting. Non, je ne regrette rien!
There are multiple locations throughout the city, some with attached tea salons where you can sit and have a petit goûter. That’s been on my to-do list; I hear their French toast is amazing (side note: do they call it French toast in France? Or is it just toast?). I’m a creature of habit with my macarons, though on a whim I tried the Marie-Antoinette flavor (the teal and tan colored one in the box) and, well, it was love at first bite. It tastes like earl gray tea.