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, for Paris is a moveable feast.
Nearly everyone has a story about Paris. My ex-boyfriend, for instance, said that Paris is where he first fell in love with food. When he went there for the first time in his early 20s, it was his first time out of Canada. In Paris, he said, he experienced the best he’d ever had—the best cheese, the best wine, and the best pastries. By the time I got to France, some two years ago, I was decidedly more jaded, but the city was still a lovely surprise. You see, I never used to want to go to France. It seemed typical, obvious, as if everything had been discovered and all the beauty sucked out of it by swarms of tourists and unfriendly Parisiens. But, despite myself, I was excited to go. Even on my first trip to Paris for New Year’s 2010, I was excited to finally see the shingled roofs, cobbled streets, and grey skies. And this year, at the beginning of May, there was even more anticipation. I had five days in Paris, and I was going to prepare; I had my train tickets from Nice, and I booked myself a sweet studio with Air BnB. I knew my area, Les Gobelins in the 13th arrondissement, and I had a few expectations (but not too many—a trip killer, in my opinion). I watched films set in Paris to get me into the mood—Caché, Les 400 Coups, and Midnight in Paris.
In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson’s Gil is obsessed with the City of Lights. Paris in the rain. I’m no fan of rainy days, really, but he’s right—no grey skies are more beautiful than Paris’s. It’s especially nice if you can just stay inside your little studio while it’s blustering outside. Then you can eat a bit of baguette and Roquefort from Biocoop as I did my very first night. Or you can go old school, as I did my second day, with a chilly mint julep at Bar du Central. Extremely nice to put one’s feet up after a day of sightseeing at the Centre Pompidou. At Bar du Central I met up with an old friend (and current Sorbonne scholar), as well as a Russian niece-of-a-friend to discuss life, London, and her translations of Teffi.
Nadezhda Teffi, a Russian émigré writer, lived much of her life in Paris. In fact, when we met, my friend above was trying to arrange a meeting with some of Teffi’s old literary contacts. There’s so much nostalgia in Paris, and a lot of literary history. In that same Midnight in Paris, Gil is tired of being a Hollywood screenwriter; instead, he’s eager to imitate the Paris-based writers he so admires: Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, Stein. Paris seems the natural place to be a writer, with plenty bookstores to keep your reading current, and cafes to keep your writing sharp and caffeinated. Indeed, I was mad keen to check out fabled Shakespeare and Co., which was lovely, homey, and full of good stuff for the reader of English.
Another landmark, though not one related to book browsing, is Angelina, famous for their ultra-dense hot chocolate. I skipped the inside and got a hot chocolate pour emporter, taking it out to les Tuileries across the street. And it’s Paris after all, so you can also also buy box after box of chocolates on every corner. It is my souvenir of choice (to give and receive). My personal favourite is La Maison du Chocolat. Lucky for me, you can get their chocolates far beyond France these days.
Aside from chocolate, what dessert could be more sweetly French than the macaron? On my second-to-last day I went to L’Atelier des Chefs, where me and several other ladies (along with master chef Cédric) whipped up four batches of macarons—lemon, raspberry, strawberry and pistachio. Even though I like macarons only so-so, I was determined to take a cooking class in the most important food city in the world. I’m only sorry I couldn’t bring these sweets back with me (too squishy). I had to opt for a taste of Pierre Hermé instead. Equally delicious, I tell you.
French food goes beyond the sweets, and beyond the classic coq au vin and beef bourguignon; France’s food takes its influence from the Caribbean, Africa, and the long-standing Jewish population. The food is diverse, as are the people. And all food is celebrated, it seems, from the spiciest tagine to the creamiest Béchamel sauce. That’s all well and good, but what really warms my heart is Paris’s pastry. I love a city where pastry is king. It had been a while since I’d eaten a kosher pastry, but this one hit the spot; I highly recommend the fig strudel at Florence Kahn in Le Marais.
Spicy food, spicy politics–don’t forget what else was happening while I was in Paris: the election. I’m only sorry to admit that I didn’t realize what was happening until it was over. I went out to dinner with friends and they, kindly, explained to me that the socialists had won. To give you a taste of what a big deal this was, this is what every newsagent looked like the day after:
After elections drama, I was pleased with my quiet last day, which involved a morning stroll through Père-Lachaise, cemetery to the famously deceased: Jim Morrison, Colette, Isadora Duncan and, apparently, the mythical Heloise and Abelard. The grave below, perhaps not a famous man, is the most interesting one I saw. A little bit creepy, but definitely distinctive. That’s good, of course. If it were boring, it wouldn’t be Paris. Bien sûr.