Foreword, from La La Land
My aunt used to live in Paris
I remember, she used to come home and tell us these stories about being abroad
And I remember she told us that she jumped into the river once, barefoot
Leapt, without looking
And tumbled into the Seine
The water was freezing
She spent a month sneezing
But said she would do it again
Here’s to the ones who dream
Foolish as they may seem
A bit of madness is key
To give us new colors to see
Prologue, A Visit 13-Years in the Making
Sometime in 2016…
“We’ve had twelve years of foreplay; it’s about time we see each other, don’t you think?”
Months later …
“Happy new year to you too. I wish you a happier 2017 than 2016. I also wish you the opportunity to travel to Paris!”
Some days later …
“Are you free on the weekend of …. ?”
“I am no longer free because you are coming?” (Isn’t that just the most perfect line for a story?…)
Day One, Uneaten Croissants in the 16th
“It’s good to have you finally here.” And somewhere in his greeting, I believe he mentions the twelve years of foreplay again.
I look at him, and a smile runs away from my face. His audacity has always humoured me. We’ve been nothing more than just friends, but he’s invariably poking in a bit of picaresque when he can, which is so typically French. He was learning back on his futon, looking at me through mischievous eyes. His gaze was intense, provocative, sexy, and slightly languid, like Paris itself one could say.
I’ve never been in this apartment before but somehow it seems familiar… I think I’ve actually dreamt about being here. And I have divined where the expansive, bright window to the street is. I recall tip-toeing to peak out and take a glimpse of the marvelous city outside.
I walk over to the window now, open it, and look out. The air is brisk and pleasant. It’s early Saturday morning and the street is still quiet. I have just landed a couple of hours before, more or less at the same time that the terrorist attack took place at the other airport, I learn from my friend.
As if daring me not to stare straight at it, beaming right at me is one of those ornate 19th century, quintessentially Parisian buildings, the kind one sees in postcards and illustrations, which My Little Paris is known for. The pretty rooftop seems to be calling out to come crawl up onto it with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a good book or a fashion magazine in the other. I imagine myself sitting up there and wasting the day away, wistfully enjoying the grey skies and watching Parisians pass by down below, being part of the city yet being detached from it as well. I cannot help myself and I gawk at the façade, trying to get a glimpse into each and every window within my view, guessing how people are coming back to life today, what dreams they may have, what adventurous plans they will engage in, or simply what their daily routine might look like today … things that maybe in Paris may seem a little less mundane … and that on this day they might share with me, the unobtrusive observer.
I reluctantly pull myself away from the scene and tip-toe, stretching to see what lies ahead to the right. I know what’s there – my friend has sent me pictures. But even so, oh my! To have this as one’s daily view is quite impressive. I wonder if I could ever be blasé about it…. la Tour Eiffel feels close enough to touch with my fingertips. She beckons me; and if it weren’t because it’s hard to stand there leaning out of the window, I could just dillydally here all day with the fresh breeze in my face and Paris below my feet, looking at her, conjuring up enough day dreams to fill a book.
“My neighbors and I respect one another.” My thoughts are abruptly interrupted and come to a screeching halt. Opps..he must have noticed my lingering observation of the building across the street.
Slightly embarrassed, but not wanting to show it, I enquire, “And what does that mean?”
“Oh, you know, like in New York. One doesn’t look into someone else’s windows.” The French don’t beat around the bush, do they? By the way, if you’re interested, there’s an intriguing book, titled Ventanas de Manhattan, by Antonio Muñoz Molina, which is precisely about the all the different lives “hiding” behind the windows of New York.
As my friend keeps talking, my mind wanders to East 81st Street. A lot of things have happened since we shared the same address. I got married and divorced. Both my parents have passed away. I’ve moved from the US to Europe, back to the US, and then back to Europe. I am not the same person who moved to NYC to become independent.
I look at him. He now has longer hair. It suits his eccentric personality and somehow brings out his blue eyes… Back in that other cosmopolitan city, we both had lived on the same floor. I try to remember how we met. My first thought is that it must have been in the elevator…but that would be too cliché for us… no, I correct myself, it was one day as he was taking clothes to the dry cleaners across the street and I was arriving home. Now I can recall his face, his flirty smile, and how he stopped me to chat with him and made me laugh as he kept the door open for me. That chance encounter lead to a friendship; and I remember being entranced by our philosophical conversations. And now, here I was sitting in his Paris apartment, half a world across the globe, almost thirteen years later.
He’s a teacher now. We were both in finance back then. The role befits him like a smooth, pliable glove. His deep voice – something I did not remember – is sensual. No wonder his female students all have crushes on him. There’s a only a trace of an accent, but one would never say it’s French. His English is impeccable, as it should be for an English teacher. Yet, he cannot be more Parisian. His family has lived here for generations. His great-grandfather made the lamps of the Pont Alexandre III. You can see them when facing the Grand Palais from the Quai d’Orsay. I won’t share which side, but they are there. Or so he tells me.
In my little studio on the Upper East Side, he would pop over unannounced all the time. We had a common friend, another neighbour, who took his cue and also came over unexpectedly often. Kimmie and her little black dog, Lulu, were also our companions.
At first, it flustered me a bit; but I later grew used to it and enjoyed having both or just one of them over. I’ve always wanted those types of friends à la-Briget-Jones-Diary or like those depicted in Love Actually that say what they think, do things impulsively – like coming over on a whim, making themselves right at home – and with whom we build bonds that are unbreakable even if we disagree, especially if we disagree.
Back then, he and I would sit on my futon for hours, talking. He was going through a crisis that eventually lead him back home, to Paris, and to his dream job. We used to also go out on the town, although less frequently. One of my last memories of us was at a bar with a French couple, friends of his who were visiting the city, and my Taiwanese friend from my MBA program, who had been visiting me. I had had on a bright, chartreuse green sweater and tight, bell-bottom jeans. I remember the bar we were in, some tucked-away gaunt on the Upper East Side; it was dark with red walls and we were the only people there, but we had philosophised the night away, trying to fix the world I’m sure…
“So, I’m thinking we don’t eat breakfast at this point and wait it out for lunch, which by French standards is not too long from now.”
I’m brought back from my reverie from another world, another life. “Sure, sounds great.”
The croissants and pastries that he had purchased for us remain on the glass coffee table untouched. By now, I’m sipping a warm cup of coffee with milk to keep me alert – he has had to rush down and cross the street to the corner shop to purchase the milk for me. I’m famished, but I’d rather wait for a hearty lunch than make do with a typical flaky and unsatisfying, French breakfast, about which I’m not keen at all and would cause my blood sugar to go up unnecessarily.
We continue to chat, a little uneasy at first after all these years, although we’ve never really lost touch. As the conversation progresses, it starts to get fluid and comfortable; yet, there’s an underlying current of excitement as we get to know each other all over again. Or maybe I’m confusing it with the fact that I’m back in Paris in a real Parisian apartment.
He calls the restaurant, the little bistro that he’s been patronising since he was a toddler with his family he tells me, and makes a reservation for half past twelve.
“What plans do you have, what would you like to see or do?” he asks.
“I don’t care, I just want to walk the streets of Paris, eat good food, and be a local. Plus, I’m here to see you.”
“Good then. Let’s go.”
Le Scheffer is perfectly charming, with a bunch of tiny, square tables with red-and-white checkered tablecloths. There’s almost no room between table and table, but everyone seems to somehow manage to get in and sit down without knocking anything over or bumping into one another. On the walls, there are art-deco posters with scenes of Paris life or famous artsy Parisians.
We’re a little early for the French lunch crowd. But slowly it starts to fill up with couples, older ladies, and elegant gentlemen. They know him well here; so we are warmly greeted, and it feels cozy. I decide I could eat here every day.
Before looking at the menu, we order a bottle of red wine; neither of us are connoisseurs but it turns out to be a great combination of body and flavour, with no acidic after taste, and perfect for our meal selections. The waitress cannot figure out if she should give me the menu in English or French, as I keep confusing her by addressing her in some French and talking to my friend in English. She finally settles on the French version, while I preorder some escargots as an entrée. I’ve been longing for them since the last time I was in France a couple of years ago. On every single trip to or through France, it’s my must-have dish, whether they are in season or not. I chose a duck confit as my plat principal; and my friend orders a salade de fromage and les côtes d’agneau (the dish of the day).
“You know, in New York, there’s a bar dedicated to Josephine?” I say, as I look up to the poster of Josephine Baker hanging on the wall to the left behind him.
He looks back and remarks, “Ah, yes, that Josephine.” (What other Josephine could I be talking about? … Like there’s another one in French- pop – history, right?)
“I used to go to it all the time. It is on 42nd Street. It’s owned by Jean-Claude Baker, ‘the thirteenth of her adopted Baker’s dozen’,” I try to enlighten him, but our conversation quickly changes subject as we are trying to catch up on all the things we’ve missed these past thirteen years.
We bring each other up to date from our chance meeting in 2004 to to-day; we cover my parents’ untimely deaths, my complicated life with my ex-husband, the existential crisis he was going through when we met, and his now content life as an almost-forty-year-old bachelor in Paris. I begin to feel like not a day has gone by since we last saw each other and like I’ve always been part of the scene at this little neighbourhood bistro.
“What’s the name of the coffee with milk that the French order after lunch?” I know it’s not a café au lait. That’s a mayor faux-pas in France.
We each order a noisette to finish off our meal, while we linger at our table a little longer. The restaurant is now packed with couples and groups of three or four, all involved in lively conversations. I’m falling in love. With Paris. And with life. There’s not quite another place in the world where I could feel like this, this content to be alive. At least, not today.
“You know, I wanted to go to the Sorbonne when I was young,” I say. “An old friend of my parents’, who had lived through World War II had studied there. He would tell me magical stories of Paris and his university life. And he used to fuel my dreams of living here.”
(Roger and I had been on a first-name basis, although over 60 years separated us. I have always loved talking with the elderly, as their stories – of bygone eras that are brought to life and become palpable through their memories – are fascinating to me. Roger was a tiny, old man with white hair when he came into my life. His wife, Maria, a friend of my mother’s, was a lawyer with an aristocratic background, much younger but just as erudite as her husband. Her tales, however, were nowhere as captivating as his. I remember him fondly, wrapped up in cloud of sweet smoke coming off his pipe, and telling me stories on our back patio at home in Chipiona. Paris back then seemed a million miles away, but as he talked about the second Great War, most of which he had spent in France, of sipping coffee on the sidewalk of a Parisian cafe, of listening to Marlene Dietrich sing Lily Marleen, of walking amongst the artists in Montmartre, of Manet, Picasso, of the Louvre…and of the Sorbonne, I had been transported to the grand avenues, I had envisioned myself elegantly dressed, spending hours at a little cafe, sipping coffee whilst sitting on a wickered, bistro chair, I had dreamt of walking the hallways of the university with my paint brushes in my case….)
“What happened, why didn’t you come?”
“I think I was too young and too scared to move away from home back then.”
“You’re still in time to do this. And most importantly, you’re free to do so.” He continued, “Why not live your dream? Why not study at the Sorbonne and live here?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want to study art now. I want to pursue other goals I think…”
Well maybe we can convince you to move here, I believe he said. Or maybe I imagined he voiced that. If the weekend continues like this, Paris, I think to myself, doesn’t have to work too hard to persuade me.
“Are you ready to go?” I nodded. “L’addition s’il vous plaît,” he told our waitress.
“Bien sûr, monsieur.”
He gallantly paid for our lunch and he said his goodbyes to the staff. We walked outside to a cool afternoon under a cloudy, melancholic sky. It was starting to drizzle and neither of us had an umbrella.
“Do you mind walking in the rain?”
“No, not at all.” Maybe I would even end up dancing like Gene Kelly. What a glorious feeling that would be, in Paris.
“What do you say if we just walk around and I show you my neighborhood, where I’ve grown up, gone to school, and still live?” It wasn’t really a question.
We walked up Rue Scheffer and turned left on Rue Cortambert, as he pointed out the pretty facades and shared that a friend had lived here, and another had lived over there, and he used to play in the apartment on the top floor of that building at his friend’s house…
What is it about a place that envelopes you and creeps into your being? Some people love New York City; I have a few friends, including my host in fact, who are fixated on it. But for me, I think I’ve always been a Parisian at heart.
I saw the open door to what seemed like a quaint church and wanted immediately to enter and explore. But I felt that I would be imposing on my friend’s tour if I seemed too pushy to go in. So, we started walking away, when some meters down the street, I stopped.
“Do you mind if we go in?” My tourist alter-ego trying to inch its way into this affair and getting the best of me, of course, no matter how much I was determined to repress it.
“No, not at all. This is my neighbourhood church, where I used to go since I was a little child. But I’m no longer religious.” …. sometimes it is very rewarding to be as annoyingly curious as I am.
Religion, spirituality, and existentialism became a recurring theme throughout our weekend. Ah.. philosophical dialogue, tu m’a manqué. Since my father died, except with my best friend who lives in another timezone making our daily rapport less immediate, I’ve not had profound discussions with anyone on a regular basis. So this was a welcome breath of fresh air.
We walked into the foyer of la Chapelle de la Communauté des Soeurs du Saint Sacrement and went up the stairs on the left. It’s not an elaborate church. But the interior is full of light making it seem very modern and welcoming. The floor is rustic, covered with red and beige tiles depicting scenes of birds and flowers. And the nave is populated with golden-coloured, wooden benches. We each walked a few steps inside, but turned around quickly to not disturb the few churchgoers that were there after lunch. Normally I would’ve been taking pictures at different angles, not caring about anyone else. But here, I just looked around and enjoyed the peaceful silence.
“The nuns still live here,” he informed me, as we were leaving after our brief peak inside. I nodded and smiled in acknowledgment. Maybe it was the lack of sleep, the red wine, and the intoxicating feeling of being back in Paris, or all three-in-one, that I was becoming shrouded by this neighborhood, my friend’s life here, his memories. It created an intriguing sense of belonging in a part of Paris I had not been acquainted with before.
“It’s so beautiful,” I kept saying about almost every building, every street, and every corner on our walk.
I have never previously strolled around the Seizième Arrondisement. It’s above all, elegant and sophisticated. With its embellished, 19th-century buildings, sprinkled with some art-deco here and there, its large avenues and tree-lined streets with names of writers, poets, and influential people, statues of important historical figures, and the Bois de Boulogne, it’s the quintessential, upper-middle class Parisian neighbourhood, the homologue of the Upper East Side, where he and I had met. Yet Paris is Paris, and honestly one cannot compare the City of Lights (and Enlightenment I would add) to any other place.
The afternoon culminated with a creamy chocolat à l’ancienne for me and a beer for him at a corner cafe on a tiny plaza. We sat outside on the sidewalk, at a little round table with two faux-bamboo, wickered chairs, and watched people go by, like a true Parisian. (Roger would be proud of me.)
The drizzle had stopped long before, but a chilly wind was starting to pick up, so we headed back to his apartment to warm up and take a break. After another warm beverage at home, I took off on my own, leaving my friend to grade some papers.
My first stop was Trocadéro on my own to properly greet the grand lady.
It had been about five years since the last time I set foot in Paris and saw the Eiffel Tower. What does one think standing there admiring the symbol of France, surrounded by a crowd of people, yet being alone, feeling strangely lost, and at the same time unbelievably at home somehow?
My mind wandered to the past three, toughest years of my life. The first times I had been to Paris had all been with my parents. On the last occasion together, I was old enough to remember. And now, the memories were fresh again.
My parents and I had been in transit from the US to Spain and were stranded in Paris because of a bad connection. Tired and all, as my father stayed in our hotel to sleep from the red-eye flight, my mother and I had braved the cold morning and walked to the Champ de Mars. That’s just on the opposite side of where I now stood. We had gone up the tower, admired the view whilst shivering in our summery clothes that were appropriate for Seville, but definitely not for Paris in May. She and I were so much alike. My beautiful mom. We loved travelling, seeing new places, fueling our curiosity, reading, eating new things, trying out new recipes, cooking together, and talking for hours about everything. On that serendipitous layover, we saw Les Invalides, we visited the Louvre, and I vividly remember going inside Notre-Dame and being awed by the stained glass windows. She loved art – as I do – and was a collector.
“No, she only bought from local artists. Some are now well known in Spain. But nothing on the world market.” I shared with my friend, one day during my stay.
He had asked me as we walked around his neighbourhood and discussed his father’s art collection, which includes a Pissarro that is locked up somewhere.
“What use is it to have a Pissarro and not see it every day?” I asked, hoping to stimulate a thoughtful discourse.
“I don’t know. But you know, it’s an investment, maybe to keep it safe,” he responded.
Coincidentally, a few days ago, I heard an art critic on the radio say that art doesn’t exist if it cannot be seen and admired.
On my friend’s advice, I ended up visiting the Musée de Marmottan Monet. This used to be a private collection, and it’s now open to the public as a museum. There was a special exhibit of Pissarro and there is an extensive permanent collection of Manet and Monet amongst other Impressionist artists.
But I digress … as I stood there facing the Eiffel Tower, part of me couldn’t believe I was there in the flesh. I tried to capture the entirety of what stood in front of me, to store it into my memory and not lose any little detail of what I was seeing, experiencing. But another part of me felt like it was living a daydream, like all this was unreal.
I thought back to when my friend first invited me to visit him and Paris. I always knew deep inside I would make this trip happen.
Now, I was really here, on a cool, early evening in March, surrounded by tourists taking selfies or posing for pictures and a bunch of street vendors trying to sell their tricks and their wares. The humming of the city and the music being played by the street artists didn’t bother me; they kind of lulled me away to a fantasy, as I stood there in my little space with what I imagined could be the spotlight shining just on me…
It’s hard to believe that this tourist attraction, and such an iconic architectural wonder, was once viewed with aesthetic skepticism. It was even given the moniker of the ‘metal asparagus’! Yet, today it couldn’t be a more iconic symbol of one nation and people.
It was getting late and chillier though, so I finally began to retreat and walked back towards la Place du Trocadéro. I felt like I was in a film – all I needed was a song playing in the background – as every few steps, I turned around to catch another glimpse. I wanted to never to stop this moment, to never leave, to be able to see her just a little bit longer. To be a true local.
Reluctantly, I left and walked round a bit to eventually go back up the hill, where I again crossed paths with a majestic Benjamin Franklin and headed home.
“Everything in Paris is near,” my friend said later on that evening as we discussed the plans for the next day.
I’m not sure I would agree, especially when one sees the city from Montmartre.
Day Two, A Fugacious Bike Ride
“I’m going to give you the grand tour of Paris on my bike!” And with that, the night before, I went to bed naively thinking it would just be another day in the city.
There are days in life we wake up thinking we know who we are, but somewhere during those 24 hours, we realise we aren’t exactly who we thought we were …
In my case, a fugacious bike ride on an early Sunday morning on the sleepy streets of Paris could be named as the culprit.
We had gotten up early as planned, showered, got dressed, and went downstairs, helmets in hand, in the tiny glass elevator barely wide enough for one, much less two. The bike was waiting for us, unlocked, just down the street.
“You keep it unlocked? Here in Paris?” I ask with incredulity. It wouldn’t stand a chance in Spain.
“Yes. I’ve never had it stolen in all these years since I’ve been back. And besides, if I put a chain on it, the dogs pee on it, and it’s not nice smelling that when I bend down to take it off.” Sensible of course.
“You’re wearing the perfect shoes.”
“Of course. What do you think?!” In my anticipated elation, I wasn’t trying too hard to not sound priggish, I’ll admit.
I had had enough foresight to pack my black, short boots, the kind that in Spain the moteros wear. The bike ride had been part of the grand scheme of things all along. So, now I was perfectly outfitted for the adventure, although I really had no clue of what I would feel.
He got on the bike, whilst I adjusted my helmet and then hopped on the back. We took off slowly driving up Rue Vineuse and quickly passed good ole’ Mr. Franklin – we were becoming regulars he and I. A group of what we tried to guess were Spanish or French senior citizens, with their tour guide holding up a thin pole with a little flag on top indicating the path to follow, slowly made their way across the crosswalk in front of us, as I was adjusting to being on the bike. The light turned green and off we went.
Oh! How can one describe the fresh, crisp breeze in one’s face, the early morning silence, the almost empty, sleepy streets, and the elegant scenes we were passing by without sounding utterly sappy?
I was so immersed in the daydream that I didn’t realise I kept sliding into my friend and was risking falling off. At a stop at one of the lights, I finally readjusted my position, squeezed my thighs as if I were on a horse, and regained some sort of backseat composure. I packed my hands into my friend’s jacket pockets and started to sway with the movements and enjoy the view on both sides. The air was brisk, but not cold; yet I was glad to be sheltered from the wind by my friend’s body. Every few seconds, it seemed, I kept switching my head from side to side, trying not to miss anything we are driving by.
After some turns here and there, we were in Montmartre.
The streets were just barely coming to life and the cafes were not even open yet, creating the sensation that Paris belonged only to us. As we passed la Place du Tertre, a couple of artists were starting to trickle in to set up their stands. The scene couldn’t have been more picturesque, right out of a movie.
Everything was peaceful and invigorating. And on the bike, I was exhilarated. We rounded our way to the Sacré Coeur, first from behind, and later from the front. The doors were firmly closed, but we had had no intention of going in. We stopped to admire the city from the cliff. From up here, Paris is immense, a little overwhelming. I almost could not comprehend the view, as there was so much humanity spread out in front of us. Too many lives waking up. Too many stories being unfolded. Too many old souls from times past wandering through the maze of streets below us…
After what seemed like a very long moment, my friend turned the bike around. I continued to hang on with my hands inside my friend’s jacket pockets, now with my gloves on, and silenced a few squeals of delight as we sped through some streets with hardly a human in sight, making our way back down the cliff.
“No, I’m not scared. Au contraire, I love it!” I kept having to reassure my friend. I was thoroughly enjoying myself, every bit of the ride, from learning how to keep myself balanced, leaning into my friend without hitting my chin on his shoulders, to breathing in the fresh, unadulterated morning air, to losing myself in the speed and the city passing by. I had not remembered how much fun riding a bike is. And riding a bike in Paris… well, I guess you’ll have to try it…
We stopped on the corner of Rue des Saules, and behind us to the right was the Au Lapin Agile, the famous, historical cabaret. And to the left was another gem, the Clos de Montmartre, a winery in the middle of Paris! Both of these sights I had never seen. So a few obligatory pictures ensued and even a couple of selfies since there was no one in the vicinity to ask to take a picture at such an early hour. After our brief interlude, we made our way down Rue Caulaincourt to head back downtown and drive by L’Arc de Triomphe.
“I’ve been up the Arc,” I yelled out, as the wind threatened to swallow my words and my bangs kept getting into my eyes underneath the protection of my helmet.
“I have too, surprisingly.” There was an emphasis on the last word because as he’s explained to me already, he’s never been up the Eiffel Tower.
We made our way through Avenue George V to the river and drove by le Pont Alexandre III (just behind, one can see le Grand Palais and le Petit Palais), le Musée d’Orsay (I was supposed to see this later in the day – but decided against it in favour of a quiet afternoon at home watching a movie), la Place de la Concorde… les Jardins de Luxembourg…my friend’s high school is on the side street of les Jardins… so many grand buildings, so many Parisian icons, and so much history, all in one sweep. I was feeling drunken and I wanted to do it all over again, although we were not yet done!
We cruised a bit longer and drove behind the Musée d’Orsay, where we parked the bike. As I stood on solid ground again, I felt a little wobbly, just like when one gets off a horse after a long ride. With our helmets on our arms, we walked into the corner cafe, Les Deux Musées, to find only a few early-bird tourists and a couple of Parisians starting off their day. My friend ordered a tartine; and I didn’t know what to order. In my opinion, I know I repeat myself, but the French do not know how to do breakfast. I realise I may be a bit exaggerated with my breakfast meal selections, which invariably include a lot of vegetables, eggs, and no bread. But one must understand that a croissant just doesn’t cut it for me. Nevertheless, I succumbed to the circumstances and ordered a pain au chocolat. When both our plates arrived, I couldn’t believe I had not ordered the tartine, which at least came with a good serving of healthy French butter. I tried to get the waiters attention to order my own, but generously, my friend traded with me. However, he barely ate.
After warming up inside and out, we hopped back on the bike, eventually making our way back home. The day was still young and I took off on my own again. As I walked on Avenue Paul Doumer towards le Jardin du Ranelagh, I stopped a few times to check out real estate listings. Just like I like to buy dictionaries on my trips, I enjoy learning how properties are valued locally and getting a glimpse of real people’s dwellings. At one of the windows, a nice old gentlemen asked me if I was looking to buy. I stifled a giggle and responded in fairly good French that I was only looking. After an exchange of pleasantries, I found myself being invited to tea! Ah, Parisians! I politely declined and continued on my merry way with a huge smile on my face.
Le Jardin du Ranelagh was filled with families and children playing, with people walking their dogs, and with the rhythmic chanting of Gabonais protesting something in front of the Embassy of Gabon. Behind le Jardin du Ranelagh are a number of elegant grand houses, one of them is now the Musée de Marmottan Monet, which I mentioned before having visited. As I had been there the day before as well, I took a bench and sat in silence observing the relaxing scenes. I later strolled past the museum on Rue Louis Boilly to encounter the Embassy of Monaco, the Square des Ecrivains Combatants Morts, and the Bois de Boulogne. The chilly air was refreshing; and I almost went into the bois for a walk, but I was getting hungry for some lunch. So, I headed back to meet my friend. On my way back, I stopped at Pierre Hermé to pick up some macarons, discovering a flavour new to me: a fois-gras-chocolate combination, whose name I don’t remember, but whose delicate taste, a perfect balance of savoury, sweet, and umami, I’ll never forget. (Or could it be that a macaron tastes more sublime when enjoyed in Paris?)
That evening, I became just another city dweller, disrobing my tourist exterior; we watched The Shawshank Redemption with Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman, cozily lying on the futon at home. Day two came to an end with a few tears and a couple of kleenexes. (Needless to say, I’m a cry-baby with emotional stories.) And with the budding knowledge that Paris, somehow, somewhere in just the right time, was the culmination, the turning point to something.
The Last Day, More Croissants and The Seine
Apparently the croissant-tartine fiasco of the day before had left an impression on my friend, for on my last day visiting, he insisted I should have eggs for breakfast. We walked down to Place du Trocadéro and settled on Carette. The place was bubbling with people. It was just a hair too chilly to be outside, although the little round tables and pretty woven chairs on the sidewalk were mostly full. We thus took a seat inside, with me facing the street and all the action coming in. If Carette is not your typical, fashionable Parisian cafe, I don’t know what is. Even the waitresses are nicely dressed and a little bit aloof. The good thing about being with a Parisian native is that other Parisians are not condescending and actually turn helpful once they discern you’re not a ‘real’ tourist. Through my foggy, pre-coffee haze, as we waited for our meal, I pleasantly engaged in some people watching, observing the string of classically Parisian people parade in. My friend pointed out that as it was Monday, one can tell just how many people lead a leisurely life in this arrondissement.
One in particular comes to mind: a tall, thin blond woman in her late 50s (I guessed), who would’ve turned heads in another less-cosmopolitan city but here she’s a normal sight, came in. Her long legs were dressed in opaque, black tights, ending in rather high heels, maybe a little too high for a Monday morning cafe au lait. A golden, loosely fitting mini dress and a fluffy, fur vest completed her essentially elegant look, albeit in a rather ostentatious way. Hanging from one arm was what for sure was an expensive bag, although I didn’t pay close enough attention to check out the brand, since the rest of her was too alluring. Completing her attire were her permanent pouty lips on top of the rest of her surgically enhanced face.
A few Asians also trickled in, also in quintessentially Asian-Parisian looks, like those depicted by Kaneko, my favourite whimsical, Parisian illustrator. They have a sophisticated way about them, which they know exactly how to couple with a hip, quirkiness that makes them so unique and recognizable anywhere. One can always tell them apart I think, even from behind. It’s something about their slender figures, the well-fitted clothes, the elegant coats, the pretty shoes…
Our breakfast arrived almost all at once, creating a bit of havoc for us as our waitress and we tried to fit everything onto our very tiny, round table. I had to remove the salt and pepper shakers, the little flower in a pot, and a few other items to make room for the many dishes. My friend had ordered the Brunch Carette for me (I had let him take over without qualm) and the ‘regular’ Petit Déjeuner Carette for himself. I honestly didn’t want so much food, or bread for that matter, but there was no other way to get my desired eggs, as the difference between the regular and the brunch is literally just the eggs. These came delicately plated with crunchy croissant sticks, which, yes, I ate.
After filling up our stomachs and sipping a few strong coffees, we walked around a bit and decided to drive into ‘town’. We took an Autolib electric car to Saint-Germain. One can become a member for a monthly fee and then drive the cars, paying only the minutes used. It’s an innovative and smart way to keep the city a little cleaner and greener. There are parking spots that can be reserved sur la marche around the city. It took us a few times passing by Sonia Rykiel’s before we settled on our free spot to drop off the car, which we found near the river.
We walked along the riverbank on the Port des Saints-Pères for a while, admiring the Seine, the few boats that were docked, and crossing paths with other strolling couples and a runner or two. At the Pont du Carrousel we came back up to street level and crossed over to the grounds of the Louvre. It was windy, and as we fought against the gusts blowing our hair around and opening our coats, we entered through the arch at Place du Corrousel. I had never entered through this side of the Louvre and somehow I had never noticed the mini Arch de Triomphe on the left.
We observed the queue outside the pyramid, and my friend remarked that it was good to see that tourism in Paris is still going strong. I agree; not even all the terrorist attacks are stopping people from coming here to see everything this magical city has to offer. My friend works near the Bataclan, where the last major attack took place over a year ago. I was still in the US back then; and I remember texting him enquiring if he was ok. Thankfully, he was, as it took place at night and he was not anywhere near. But many of his friends had been inside and some had gotten injured and others had seen their friends die right in front of their eyes.
I mentioned the galleries near the Louvre, and although I didn’t really care about seeing them (it was a mere curiosity to know their location), my friend took me there. At the Palais Royal, there are a number of interesting shops, including a few luxurious ones, like Stella McCartney. At one of the windows, we admired some very unique gloves, of which I correctly guessed the pricing (all were over 300 euros). I wasn’t in the mood for shopping, but as my friend said, “On your next trip, you must get a pair, so you can say ‘these gloves are from the shops at the Palais Royal in Paris’.” So, it’s unofficially on my agenda for next time…
As we strolled, I wondered what it would be like to live here and have all this at one’s fingertips, on a whim on any given day… When one is surrounded by so much beauty, so much history, so much culture, and so many intriguing gems to be discovered, it’s like being in a living museum. I’m guessing it would be like living in that dream that Roger had conjured up for me.
“I can tell Spaniards apart from the crowd. And I can spot Americans and Brazilians,” my friend, who dated a Brazilian girl for some time, voiced his thoughts as a group of Spaniards crossed our path on our way to Le Jardin des Tuileries. “The Spanish are always very loud,” he added. Yes, they are, I admitted.
Le Jardin was rather tranquil with a few groups of school children and not too many tourists. I had never been in it before, and it was a surprise to see all the statues strewn throughout the grounds. The park was originally created by Catherine of Medici as the garden of the Tuileries Palace in 1564; and it later was opened to the public in 1667 and became a public park after the French Revolution. I could imagine the elegant ladies and gentlemen that had strolled the park as I did now, preceding me by centuries past; I could envisage them in their grand outfits, their over-sized hats, and twirling their parasols, whilst nodding their heads from side to side, cordially greeting their acquaintances who were also there to see and be seen.
We crossed back over to the Rive Gauche and decided it was time for lunch. We settled on the first restaurant we saw on the corner which seemed nice enough, Le Fregate, just across the Pont Royal.
“It’s always fun having people over to discover places I’ve never eaten at,” he said, adding “Paris is a food-lover’s dream.”
We both enjoyed a typical Parisian dish, one of his favourite’s, a creamy Blanquette de Veau à l’Ancienne with rice. It was delicious. I accompanied mine with a glass of red house-wine, whilst in the background the music of George Bensen created a lovely mood. The waiter told us that the playlist belonged to the previous owners, but that the local crowd enjoyed it so much, they kept it on.
As we strolled back to get the electric car to go home, we stopped at Sennelier on Quai Voltaire for me to pick up some art supplies. We had been talking about art and the Sorbonne since I arrived. And I had shared that I had not picked up a brush since sometime in 2004 or 2005, shortly after he had left NYC; so naturally, I couldn’t leave Paris without stepping inside this famous store.
Sennelier’s on Quai Voltaire is not immensely big, but it does contain quite a lot of supplies displayed on three floors, all of which we explored. The old, worn wooden shelving all seems to be original, possibly dating from the late 1800s, and the staff are welcoming and helpful, although maybe just a little Parisian enough to not bother you as you peruse the goods. That suited me just fine. I ended up buying a little sketch pad, which I’ve not opened up yet…but I will soon. It’s small enough that I can carry it in any purse, and large enough to create something with detail on every page.
We dropped off our electric car near the statue of Benjamin Franklin, back in the 16th. We were headed home sort of with still a few hours to spare before I needed to go to the airport, when my friend said, “How would you like to buy an 800 euro photograph?”
“What do you mean?”
“Come. This guy, who is the younger brother of a friend of mine, has an exhibit at a gallery just up the street. He has over 100,000 followers on Instagram and is selling limited edition prints. Tomorrow is the vernissage. How do you say that?”
“Inauguration. Or Opening night.” I replied.
We walked up Avenue Kléber to the gallery to check out Guillaume Dutreix and his photographs. Months ago, I had dreamt of visiting a photography exhibit with my friend whilst in Paris. In my dream, I know the photographer’s work and we hit it off … so I prepared myself for some serendipity .. but in real life, I had never seen him or heard of his work before. Nonetheless, his photography is impressive. White backgrounds predominate creating an ethereal feel to each image. The angles and the details seem effortless, although I’m sure he’s fastidious about achieving them. My friend chatted a bit with his friend, while I admired the artwork. And then off we went. Time to go home, finish packing, and get ready to abandon Paris.
A couple of hours later, we were standing at Place du Trocadéro, awaiting the bus to take me to Charles de Gaulle. We chatted a little more, as I reflected that the weekend had gone by very fast, although also very intensely. I had lived out the three days as a real local thanks to my friend, who was a wonderful host and who has enabled me to feel Paris in a way that has revived something in me that had been tucked away and forgotten.
As my bus approached, he leaned over to say good-bye, rubbing his soft beard against my cheeks. We exchanged three kisses, looked at each other, and said ‘hasta luego’. I left my bag with the driver, hopped on the bus, and unwillingly turned to my right to look after my friend. He was already starting to cross the street, but also turned to face me, and waved good-bye.
I took a seat a couple of rows back on the left from the driver, buckled up, and aimlessly looked out the window; I was no longer soaking in the city. As we rounded the plaza, on the right, I caught a glimpse now of the opening between the two colossal wings of the Palais du Trocadéro and barely focused on the Tour Eiffel. On the radio a tune started to play.
I instantly thought about these three glorious days spent in this city. Nostalgia started to engulf me, although I hadn’t yet left. At that instant, I promised myself I would return again soon.
City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
There’s so much that I can’t see
City of stars
Just one thing everybody wants
I don’t care if I know
Just where I will go
‘Cause all that I need is this crazy feeling
A rat-tat-tat on my heart
Think I want it to stay
City of stars
Are you shining just for me?
City of stars
You never shined so brightly
À bientôt mon ami; à tout à l’heure ma cherie, Paris. J’ai changé … merci pour tout. Quand je reviens, nous nous verrons avec nouvelle yeux …
There are maybe other dishes more representative of French cuisine, but the Blanquette is Parisian; in fact, the recipe calls for Parisian mushrooms, which are none other than the button variety, but grown just outside the city. It’s a comfort food, for chilly Autumn or Spring days. And it can be made with veal or another meat. I prefer to use chicken, which is easier to cook and comes out less dry than veal.
I have found a local butcher who procures organic, free-range birds that are healthier, tastier, but also just a bit tougher. So depending on what type of chicken you use, you may have to adjust the cooking times.
Blanquette de Poulet à l’Ancienne
Prep Time: 10 min
Cook Time: 40 min
2.5 – 3 liters filtered water
1/4 cup white wine
1 whole chicken, preferably free-range, pasture raised, cut into 10 pieces (ask your butcher to do it for you, if you don’t know how)
3 medium/large carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
1-2 celery branches, cut into medium pieces
7-8 French onions (baby onions)
2 strands of fresh cilantro
1-2 leeks, peeled and chopped
2 large potatoes, peeled and cut into medium pieces
2 cloves garlic, peeled and whole
10-12 Parisian mushrooms (button mushrooms)
50g of butter (I used unsalted Kerrygold)
2-3 tablespoons arrowroot powder
2 tablespoons coconut creme
1 egg yolk
In a large pot over medium heat, we’ll make a bouillon. Pour the water (start off with 2.5 liters and increase if necessary) and white wine, and add the cilantro, 1 tablespoon sea salt (more to taste later if needed), baby onions, celery, carrots, mushrooms, potatoes, garlic cloves, and chicken pieces. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Once the bouillon is made, take the chicken pieces out of the pot. Heat some butter in a saucepan over medium heat. And add the chicken to caramelize on each side. Set aside.
Now, make a roux with the 50g of butter over medium heat. Cook the butter, stirring constantly, until it reaches a golden brown hue. Add the arrowroot powder and stir well. Cook a few minutes longer. Then add a few tablespoons of the bouillon and a sprinkle of ground nutmeg, to taste. Stir to mix well. Pour everything into the pot and add the caramelized chicken pieces back as well.
In a small bowl, add some tablespoons of the sauce, the egg yolk, and 2-3 tablespoons of coconut creme. Stir to blend well. Pour into the stew pot, and stir. Simmer everything together about 10 minutes.
Serve with some freshly chopped cilantro, if desired, and cauliflower or regular, cooked white rice.