I love my neighborhood. The energy is infectuous. True, there are so many tourists on the main drag of Rue des Abbesses and all around Sacre Cœur, but on any of the side streets you’ll find absolute quiet, with tiny local bars, quaint houses, and even some grit and graffiti. I love it up here, the little village the hill. The light is gorgeous and the narrow, steep streets are great workout and almost (almost!) justify the nutella crêpes I insist on eating regularly.
Jamal left this morning (SADDEST OF SAD FACES) and while we did a fair amount of wandering around other parts of the city (and country, actually! Photos from our trip to Normandy coming on Friday), we mostly hung out in Montmartre. It’s the best here. But it’s better when he’s here, too.
Last week I attended my second auction at Sotheby’s. Oh, did I not mention the first one? Back in May I went to an afternoon sale of Objets d’Art et Mobilier, where I got to wander around the building taking notes, feeling positively giddy that they let anyone (literally, anyone) attend any auction they want. Even silly American writers who aren’t going to bid on anything and are there for book research! I doubt they would have let me in the door had they known the premise of my book is that, in a nutshell, an employee was able to make off with fourteen pieces of art over the course of two years from their private sales division and no one caught on. Ahem. I promise I wasn’t casing the joint.
The first auction was to get my toes wet in preparation for the big evening sale I attended last week, Art Impressioniste et Moderne. I wanted to figure out how everything worked with the first, smaller sale, and get all my googly-eyed staring out of the way, so that I could attend the big auction and look cool, casual, and like I belonged. I’m not sure I was successful (when people are tossing around €8-12 MILLION on art, it’s hard to act unfazed), but having now attended two auctions I feel like a bit of an insider. The main attraction of the Art Impressioniste et Moderne sale was a painting by Amadeo Modigliani. Here’s a video Sotheby’s made prior to the sale about the painting of Paul Alexandre, Modigliani’s first patron:
Contrary to what I expected, and I think what the general perception of auctions in pop culture has lead us to believe, the auctioneer never moved at lightning speed. There was ample time for each lot, to allow for bids made by phone for the clients who were either international or wished to remain anonymous, bids in the room, and bids made online. Yes, you can bid on almost any Sotheby’s auction online. The auctioneer made having to juggle all those factors look effortless, unhurried. He was patient with each of the phone representatives (of whom he knew every name) as they tried to talk their clients into bidding higher. He slipped back and forth between French and unaccented English fluidly the entire sale. He cracked jokes! People in the got up and left whenever they felt like it, or crossed the aisle to talk to fellow bidders. I imagine the art world is small enough that everyone sort of knows everyone. Buyer’s representative, gallery owners, collectors, they all see enough of each other at these auctions that they almost become social events.
Auctions don’t play a major role in my book, but I needed access to the building to get enough of the details right, and while they let the general public attend auctions, I don’t know if they would have let me just wander in without a reason. So I took as many mental notes as possible; the stairs were different than I imagined them. The offices are all contained on one floor. The layout is different, the lobby doors swing open both ways and are heavy as hell. All of those little details that I wouldn’t have known had I not gone, and that I wanted to get right for the story.
It was one of the neatest experiences I’ve had since being here, and I really recommend going to an auction, if you can. Despite the myths surrounding them, there is no way you can scratch your nose or cough at an inopportune moment and end up buying a $3 million dollar sculpture. Everyone has to pre-register to bid, and they don’t hand out paddles to any old schmo.
Other Paris Details of Note: JAMAL arrives this afternoon! We are driving to Honfleur tomorrow morning, on the Normandy coast, and staying for the weekend. It’s considered “one of the cradles of Impressionism” and was the birthplace to painter Eugène Boudin. I can’t wait! (Also, Driving on French highways. Going to be an adventure!)
There are many great identifying debates in this world where people take a hard line; you’re either a Democrat or a Republican, a morning person or a night owl, an introvert or an extrovert, love cheese or you’re wrong. Chief amongst these choices is the wholly Parisian struggle of Right Bank (Rive Droite) or Left Bank (Rive Gauche). With the Seine river dissecting the city almost evenly into two parts, Parisians are firmly in one camp or the other (or so I’m lead to believe. This has not been confirmed because I’m too afraid to conduct a random survey of Parisians). The Right Bank, which was historically the wealthier side of the city, has the Louvre, the Champs-Élysées, the Jardin des Tuileries, the Arc de Triopmphe, Montmartre (eventually, once it was incorporated), and Canal Saint-Martin. The Left Bank, which was the haunt of many a literary hero (Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Joyce and Sartre) has the Eiffel Tower, the Musée d’Orsay, Saint-Germain and hundreds of little galleries, the Jardin du Luxembourg, and the Musée Rodin. It’s an age-old question to which there is seemingly no right answer. Take a side (bank), and you’re giving up a ton of amazing arrondissements and sites. I’m staying in Montmartre again this trip, and I think I’m mostly a Right Bank girl. Except for the Eiffel Tower. And the Rodin gardens. And the Orsay. And Saint-Germain. Oh god, don’t make me pick sides! C’est impossible a choisir!
Recently, I’ve been spending a ton of time on la Rive Gauche. Specifically, the pocket of the city right behind the Musée d’Orsay and west down toward Saint-Germain that hugs the quai along the Sein. It isn’t quite the neighborhood of Saint-Germain, as it’s still the 7eme arrondissement. I love it there. It’s quiet, leafy, and the architecture blends beautifully from the grand Haussmannian buildings to the crooked streets and artsy shops off Rue de l’Université. It’s magic back there, and always under-populated with tourists, who prefer the main drag of Boulevard Saint-Germain a little farther south. These are just a few photos.
Other Paris Details of Note: Yesterday I hit a big milestone: 70k words. In a moment of exhaustion and self-doubt, I thought, “What if counting quantity is perhaps not the best indicator of legitimate progress?” But then I remembered that no book is ever written in the first draft, and I have to have something down on the page to work with. And besides, if numbers and milestones weren’t important or a decent way to track progress, marathon runners could say, “You know, I don’t need to run all 26 miles. I ran my best for the first five. I’m done now.” People like quantifiable victories. This is a huge one for me.
My favorite thing to do on a Friday night here is the same thing I like to do at home: go to the museum. Most people go out, go drinking, don a cute outfit. Me? I grab my Louvre membership and walk over at around 7:30. On Wednesdays and Fridays the museum stays open until close to 10pm. Aside from the neat feeling that I am being sneaky being allowed in there so late, the crowds are virtually non-existent, and it’s amazing. I headed (of course) to the Richelieu wing on this particular trip, and stumbled upon a room of Rubens, 24 giant canvases in an enormous, domed room, with! with! people from an art class (unconfirmed if this was an École du Louvre class or not) sitting all around and sketching. It was enchanting to watch them work.
And that giant hall of statues with multiple levels and trees inside and the pitched roof? There is another one mirroring it directly across from it. The scale of this place is overwhelming.
JAMAL arrives this Friday afternoon (!!!), and our activity for that evening includes…going to the Louvre, where I get to bring a free guest after 6pm. I’ve mentioned already that this membership was an economical purchase as well as a necessary one, and it is: it’s paid for itself twice over already.
In case you were curious as to how they keep the grass in the Tuileries so expertly trimmed and free of weeds, allow me to introduce you to Berenice and Gaston, Official Goat Lawn Mowers of the City of Paris. Okay, full disclosure, I made up their names and titles. I don’t know whether they were male or female goats, or whether there is such a thing as the Official Goat Lawn Mowers of Paris, but just go with it, because when you stumble upon two goats eating in the middle of the most tourist’ed park in the city, your brain kind of runs amok with glee. I was minding my own business one gray afternoon, cutting through the jardins on my way to Pont Royal to cross into Saint-Germain, when I heard a strange baa’ing noise. The Tuileries, as you’ll remember, have a certain magic when it comes to animals, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d see goats (GOATS!) on leashes. The best part was that since they were off to one side, away from the main pathway leading to the Louvre, hardly anyone else was around to witness this fantastic agrarian marvel.
Berenice, the white goat, kept baaing that weird throaty rattle goats have, until a handler came over and fed her a nice long dandelion weed. In between her baaing I kept hearing a crazed, childlike giggle, and only when I looked around did I realize the sound was coming from me. Oh, city kids. We are delighted by the simplest things. Who knew I loved goats?
Today marks a special occasion: there are only 100 days left until the wedding! The weeks leading up to my departure for Paris were a mad rush of finalizing wedding-related details, stuffing invitations, securing a DJ, etc., so that Jamal didn’t have to deal with them in my absence. Once I return home in July, all that’s left to do is have my dress fitted (really sorry to my seamstress in advance for all the croissant-weight I’m carrying) and, well, pay the final balance on everything. Weddings are so sneaky, you pay a deposit to every vendor and then two weeks before the big day, boom. So expensive! So unnecessary! I have a post I need to write about why I am a dead-beat bride, but I’ll save that for another time. Here’s a sneak peek: I’m not excited about the wedding. I’m excited about the marriage. I don’t want to be a bride. I want to be a wife.
Anyway, needless to say, I am excited to be marrying Jamal, who, I might add, arrives in Paris next weekend. Finally! Six weeks is a long time to go without seeing your fiancé, but I’ve been managing. Okay, no offense, Jamal, but I’ve been doing just fine keeping myself occupied and distracted. Ladurée! The Eiffel Tower! Butter! CHEESE! But last week, I had lunch in the Jardin du Luxembourg by the Fountain de Medicis (for the second time in as many days, I might add) and I saw this wonderful elderly couple on my way out. They were holding hands and just sitting there, not a care in the world, not an itinerary to stick to, and it made me really, really miss him. I thought, “That is what I want.” I want to be 80 years old and in Paris with Jamal and just sitting there, soaking it all in. Promise me we can do that? (You know, unless when we’re 80 we can’t afford to come to Paris because we’re still paying off this wedding because somebody just had to have short ribs on the menu.)
Rule #7 dictated that I should “Buy fresh flowers for your apartment, a fresh baked croissant on your morning walk, and a glass of rosé at any café you stumble upon. Parisians understand how to live a really beautiful, decadent life. Take note.” While I haven’t been stopping and having a glass of rosé too frequently, and I’ve calmed down a bit on the croissants (we’re at one or two a week, now), I have been taking the first part very seriously; I’ve bought myself peonies every week that I’ve been here. On Saturday mornings (and one Friday morning, when Annie was here, instead) I’ve taken the metro to the École Militaire/Invalides neighborhood in the 7eme, had breakfast at a sweet little café and enjoyed a big cup of tea and a good book, and then picked up a bunch of 20 or so peonies. They make the apartment smell divine and add so much color to the space. They are truly magnificent flowers, and I’m so happy I’m getting to indulge in them during their short timeframe.
On my last Saturday morning adventure I went to Rue Cler, a market street near the Eiffel Tower, with tons of cafés with outdoor seating, vendors selling fresh produce and rotisseries, and even a knife sharpener, who wheels his cart up and down the street, sharpening knives while you wait. And then, of course, there are the stacks and stacks of peonies at the flower shop. I’ve gone back since just to wander, and the table was full of dark red, pale pink, and magenta peony buds, stacked a foot high. I wish I’d gotten a picture.
Other Paris Details of Note: You know what’s really in here? Scooters! Two-wheel push-scooters, everyone has them. Grown women, young kinds, college boys. They bring them on the bus, into bookstores, and they zip around you on the sidewalk. It’s wild. They were popular at home about 10-15 years ago but have since become seriously uncool. Not here! I gave mine to my nieces, I might have to steal it back.
A few weekends ago I did something I haven’t done yet here: I went out at night by myself. I know, how scandalous. It stays light here until 10pm these days, so there is no fear of me wandering the city in the dark. Well, there was, it was a real fear I had, that I would be on deserted streets alone and oh my god, what would happen?? My cousin Stacy, an experienced solo world traveler gave me some invaluable advice before I left: Find your comfort zone first, and then go beyond it. My comfort zone was being back in my apartment by 8pm for the first few weeks. I was getting everything done that I needed to during the day, and spending the evenings listening to the crowds of people heading into the Moulin Rouge (for an 11pm show!) or one of the bars around here, thinking, “It’s okay. Not yet.”
And then, one lazy Saturday where I spent the entire day inside, I decided I was ready to go outside my comfort zone. So at 9pm I headed to the bus and got off at the Louvre, before walking down the Quai François Mitterand to the Île Saint-Louis and back to the Pont Royal to watch the Eiffel Tower sparkle in all its magical, enchanting glory at 10pm. That sight is otherworldly; as if the cityscape weren’t gorgeous enough with the lights reflecting in the water and La Tour triumphing over it all in the background, she literally starts sparkling every hour, on the hour for five or ten minutes once the sun goes down. And yes, I cried.
I walked around taking photos in the blue night, laughing at myself for being concerned about being out alone at that hour. 10:30 and the sky is still inky blue (in fact, some of those photos don’t even look like they were taking so late at night!) there are still throngs of tourists in the courtyard of the Louvre where I waited for my bus back home, taking photos, having picnics on the steps, laughing and enjoying the evening –including a family with two young children under the age of two, both of whom were still wide awake. If they can do it, so could I!
And I think that living in Philadelphia my entire life –and spending the last four in a gentrifying neighborhood– makes it impossible for me not to compare the two cities while I’m living in Paris. In Philly, waiting for a bus as a single female at that hour wouldn’t be the safest thing to do, and the bus would maybe have one or two other people on it, depending on the route. The bus I took home that night? Standing room only, full of old couples dressed up coming back from dinner, young kids starting their night, and tourists aplenty. The public transit system here is so much more advanced and people are so dependent on it because it works and is convenient and thorough (three things our own transit system back home is not). What had I been so afraid of? The unknown, of course. And when I got home at around 11:15 I still had to fight through the crowds of tourists to get to my front door. Abandoned, empty streets and scary muggers lurking in doorways? Where do I think I live?
Anyway, the fruits of my nocturnal bravery were worth the anxiety I had before taking the plunge. Those photos are some of my favorite ones that I’ve taken in the past month that I’ve been here.
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?