Paris Is Burning

Or at least Notre-Dame was. I’ve read that the Eiffel Tower is the single most-recognized landmark in the world but when we rented an apartment on Île Saint-Louis for six days in 2006, we walked by Notre-Dame every day on our way to explore Paris.

So when the news popped up in my social media that the cathedral was burning, it was a shock.

I had a friend who was leaving for Paris that very week, and the two of us watched the news obsessively. The loss to history, to humanity, is unfathomable. And I am so, so grateful that Gerry called me up that day fourteen years ago and said, “Hey, I found €25 tickets from Dublin to Paris—wanna go?”

UPDATE: Here’s a fascinating article from the New York Times with photos, videos, and graphics showing everything that happened that day.

Once Was Lost, But Now …

And there it was, in all its glory. What a day!

Speaking of Paris, I’ve slowly been working on filling in my archives on that trip we made back in 2006. (Work—and life—seems to get in the way of this project, as much as I love it.) And when I posted this one—about our initial little difficulty finding our way out of Terminal 1—on Facebook, a friend of mine remarked that she’d had a similar experience.

I sail into … a mass of unhappy people trying to understand how to take the train into the center of Paris. North American credit cards don’t read in the ticket kiosks and the change machine is not working. And the ticket kiosk takes cash but only exact change. One pauvre l’homme mans a solitary window for two hundred people.

Is this like child birth, the sweaty, grubby, peevish part of a trip that you always forget upon arriving home? Finally I’m on the RER train, surrounded not by urbane French citoyens but equally sweaty Canadian and British tourists who look too large and open-faced for their surroundings.

Yes! She had the same experience as we did! I couldn’t use my credit card either! What a relief to know it wasn’t just us.

You can read my friend’s article here. She’s a wonderful writer and has many travel tales to tell at her blog Solo Travel.

Where Did You Go in 2015?

Some of you may still have a little bit of holiday vacation left … You may well be taking the tree down or getting ready to start work or school on Monday. But maybe, just maybe, you’ve got a little time to curl up with a good #longread and your travel dreams.

If so, I wanted to be sure you didn’t miss the New York Times’s recap of “The Most Popular Travel Destination Stories of 2015.” Here they are:

• Paris: A $1,000 Day in Paris for $100
A Paris concierge’s idea of the perfect day on the town—but our reporter organizes a similar day at a tenth of the price. And you know how I feel about Paris. Let’s go!

• Lake Michigan: A Tour of Lake Michigan, My Inland Sea
Striking topography, time-worn communities and the reassuring permanence of an unchanging lake. My mother grew up in Chicago and regularly swam the lake; I’ve had this trip in mind for a long time!

• Tucson, Arizona: In Tucson, an Unsung Architectural Oasis
One of the city’s better-kept secrets is how often you can find significant examples of mid-twentieth-century architecture. I’ve been to south Arizon a few times in recent years, but never Tucson—and I have friends there! Need to put this on my list.

• Rome, Italy: When in Rome, Learn to Cook Italian
If you go to Rome to dine, you’re getting only a taste of Italian culture. For a 
full immersion, you’ve got to make some pasta and traditional sauces yourself. A good friend of mine lives in Rome, and I often read Facebook posts (and see photos) about the cooking! OK, I’m game!

• Montana, Wyoming and Idaho: A Rookie’s Road Trip
A car-averse traveler finds freedom in the driver’s seat, covering 700 miles and three states over three days. I think Ann Patchett did this in a Winnebago and made it sound fun. This article does too.

• Yorkshire, England: Where Dracula Was Born, and It’s Not Transylvania
Bram Stoker found inspiration for his famous Gothic villain in an unlikely place—a sunny seaside Yorkshire village. It’s been more than a decade since I was anywhere in England; I’d love to go again!

• Puerto Rico: The Many Faces of Puerto Rico
Gallery openings, vibrant restaurants, hotel development, and preserved examples of the old way of life play well together in Puerto Rico. From my side of the States, this would be a relatively inexpensive “exotic” vacation. Hmmm …

• Tuscany and Puglia, Italy: Italy’s Treasured Olive Oil, at the Source
In Tuscany and Puglia, making olive oil is a lifestyle, one threatened by bad weather and a killer bacteria. Food is my favorite souvenir!

• LA to Mexico: On a Gay Cruise, Just One of the Guys
A cruise that conjures up the thumpa-thumpa club scene does more than you’d think: it creates a worry-free space where being gay is the norm. This isn’t my demographic, but it might be yours. 🙂

• 6 Places in Africa: Into Africa—Vacation Ideas
The Times asked current and former NYT international news correspondents, who have collectively spent 25 years reporting in Africa, to tell what to do in the regions they’ve covered.

• Italy, Yet Again: A Honeymoon Through Italy
The reporter says: “We danced at midnight in Venice, motored through Tuscany and made memories. Just as newlyweds should.” I had a three-week honeymoon myself this year … but who says you have to be on a honeymoon to take this trip?

So there you have it—eleven fabulous stories to whet your appetite for travel! Where did you go in 2015? Where will you go in 2016?

Lunch in Paris

I just finished reading a book I thoroughly enjoyed—Lunch in Paris by Elizabeth Bard. It’s a little bit romance, a little bit travelogue, a little bit foodie … in other words, tailor-made for me. The American Bard (mid-twenties) met a Frenchman (also mid-twenties) at an academic conference in London, which led, eventually, to that fateful lunch in Paris.

Lunch in Paris

Toward the end of the book, Bard describes a New Year’s Eve dinner at the home of some of her French family; her parents flew in from New York for the occasion. The host had cooked sixteen separate dishes (because there were sixteen guests).

We sat down at eight p.m. and didn’t get up from the table until four thirty in the morning, except for a brief pause at midnight for champagne. It was the most spectacular meal I’ve ever eaten. Like the triumphal procession in Act II of Aida, after the spear carriers come the chariots, after the chariots the cavalry, after the cavalry the dancing girls. And just when you think the stage can’t hold another thing, they bring out the elephants.

To start, there were small salads—the thinnest slivers of red and yellow pepper, slow roasted and glistening with olive oil, and the simplest blend of carrots and golden onions, heady with the smell of cumin.

Then came the fish, its sauce simmered with saffron and tomatoes, thickened with ground almonds. I served myself the merest spoonful or two. “Elle est stratégique.” Affif winked with approval. “She knows what’s coming.” I wanted to savor every bite, even if it was a small one, nothing blurred by the rebellion of a tired palate. I plucked a toothpick out of an oblong white calamari. It was stuffed with rice and peppers, a curly violet-tipped tentacle poking out here and there.

I looked around the table. … I had been working so hard these past few years to figure out what France was about—how it operates, what makes it tick. In fact, most of what was important to the French was around this table: close family, old friends, and fabulous food. I knew I would never entirely leave my New York self behind—never stop wanting, never stop striving—but I also had my place here, among these people.*

The book has two or three recipes at the end of each chapter, and lots of interesting observations from an American, loved by a Frenchman, trying to assimilate and be accepted. If you like this type of book, I think you’ll be delighted by Lunch in Paris.

It turns out there is a Lunch in Paris website, which includes a blog with recipes and luscious photos. (Sadly, not updated in a while, but it seems Bard and her husband opened an ice cream company. They’ve been busy.) Also since the first book, they’ve moved to Provence and started a family. You can see more about this on the Facebook page. (Scaramouche has a Facebook page too.) Here I learned Bard has a new book due in April 2015: Picnic in Provence. I’m looking forward to it.

* Transcribed by me from pages 296–286 of the hardcover edition of Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes (Little, Brown, 2010).

Christmas in Paris

I couldn’t resist posting this, which a friend passed on to me with the comment, “How I wish this were my dilemma—what’s open in Paris this week?

Holiday alert! The vast majority of Paris restaurants will be closed from before Christmas until after the New Year …

I’m the sort of gal who likes her cozy little family traditions on holidays. But I’m also the sort of gal who isn’t afraid to, say, fly to England for Christmas (because that’s when Jesse would be able to go). On that very trip, we also visited France (though not Paris), so we got a taste of small-town France at Christmas too. I’ve also spent a Christmas at Tybee Island, Georgia, with the whole family in a beach house, one in Honolulu, Hawaii, in the late ’60s (oh, there’s a post for you!), and a Christmas in Phoenix a couple years ago with my son, who had a lot of gigs and couldn’t leave town.*

So if you’re the sort of person who might be planning a special holiday trip to Paris, you’ll want to read up here. The website is called Paris by Mouth, and features—you will have guessed—Paris restaurants, wine bars, bakeries and pastry shops, wine shops, chocolate and candy shops, ice cream shops, craft cocktails, craft beer shops, craft beer bars, “decent coffee” (their term!), and specialty shops. In Paris. Did I say that already? 🙂

I’ve added it to my blogroll, just in case you need to refer back. I hear April in Paris is nice too. 🙂

* It was interesting to add that all up, I think. I wouldn’t have guessed I’d spent even four Christmases away from home. How about you? Have you ever had a destination Christmas? Tell me about it in the comments!

Not by appointment do we meet Delight …

I’m still adding posts from recent and not-so-recent trips, but those things take time—writing, gathering photos. It takes at least an hour just to upload one once it’s been written and edited … and a gal’s gotta work sometime.

So in the meantime I wanted to leave you with something interesting to look at—photos from a new book from American photographer Mark Steinmetz, who resides in Athens, Georgia. About this project, the photographer says,

“My mother was French (my father was Dutch) and I speak the language fairly well and love their photographic tradition so it made sense that I would introduce myself to Europe through France. The earliest of the photographs in the book were made in the mid-1980s when I was in my early twenties. I would sublet my apartment and go to Paris where I would stay with old friends of my mother’s. They would put me up and feed me so it was wonderful—I could go out and photograph all day.”

Have a look! Time magazine has seventeen photos here. And here’s a little blurb from his publisher.

* Or Joy; They heed not our expectancy. But round some corner of the streets of life they of a sudden greet us with a smile. —Gerald Massey (1828–1907)

I Love Paris in the Springtime

6 May 1889 – 2013

One hundred twenty-four years ago today, the Eiffel Tower officially opened to the public at the Exposition Universelle—that is, the World’s Fair—in Paris. It was a wonder then, and it still is—the most recognized landmark in the world.

It was the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair.

It was the entrance arch to the 1889 World’s Fair. If you wanted in, you walked under this.

The French weren’t crazy about it at first; they didn’t like what it did to the skyline.

You really can’t miss it. This was taken from atop the Arc de Triomphe.

You really can’t miss it. This was taken from atop the Arc de Triomphe.

But even though it was intended to be dismantled after twenty years when ownership reverted to the City of Paris, it was allowed to remain. And look at it now: I love this panoramic view of the city taken from/near Notre Dame. Scroll across; you’ll see it. (Or go to the official site; it’s got some nice panoramas too.)

• Designed and built by Gustave Eiffel’s engineering firm at a cost of $1.5 million (under budget!).

• Made of wrought iron; originally painted red. (It hasn’t always been brown!)

• 986 feet tall; at the time, the tallest building in the world.

• Cost of construction was recouped by ticket sales in a year.

• The tower is repainted every 7 years; this requires 60 tons of paint and about 18 months.

Happy birthday to the Eiffel Tower! One of these days I’ll be back, darling, and we’ll celebrate then. 🙂

We walked, mapless, from the Arc de Triomphe to le Tour Eiffel. There it is, honey!

We walked, mapless, from the Arc de Triomphe to le Tour Eiffel. There it is, honey!

 

Good-Bye, Paris! ’Til We Meet Again …

Saturday, February 18, Paris

We made a breakfast out of things left in the fridge, cleaned the place up a little, then went out for our last stop: Notre-Dame. We’d been walking by it at least a couple times every day, and I thought it would be nice to become visually familiar with the outside before taking in the interior. And since we’d really only have half a day (our plane would leave at four p.m., and it’s a forty-five-minute ride by express train out to CDG from the center of Paris, longer by bus), it was good to have something just seconds away.

I’d had enough of stairs, so we declined to pay for the privilege of climbing up four flights of stairs into the north tower (the south tower holds the bell). Besides, we’d already had a couple really nice views, both higher than this would afford. Instead, we just walked right in the front doors, for free.

The front doors at Notre-Dame. That’s Mary holding the baby Jesus in the center.

This (ahem) is a side door. And that’s grown-up Jesus.

Six apostles on each side.

It’s amazing and beautiful, and is a veritable monument to Christian symbolism. Every single thing, inside and outside, has meaning, from the windows shaped as rose blooms (a symbol of both Christ and his mother, Mary) to the statues of the “Kings of Judah” stretched across the front façade and the birds of paradise in the elaborate iron scrollwork on the thirteenth-century front doors. There’s so much to take in, it really needs a repeat visit.

Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone for Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris in 1163, but it took hundreds of craftsmen 170 years to complete this Gothic masterpiece. Then, after over four hundred years of service, it was severely damaged in the French Revolution (the revolutionaries mistook those Kings of Judah for the Kings of France, for one thing). The famous gargoyles (as well as the spire) came to the building in the subsequent restoration, which occurred in 1841–1864.

I bought a book in the shop that does a pretty fair job of picturing and explaining much of the contents of the cathedral, including the three massive stone tympanums on the front of the building. I’d been walking past the thing for four days, staring at individual elements, but it was still overwhelming. Inside, I was most taken with the gilded wall known as the choir stall perimeter; one side depicts the events of Christmas week while the other tells the Easter story.

The choir stall; this is the Christmas side.

Outside, I really loved those flying buttresses that make the building look as if it could launch into space travel at any moment. The cathedral’s official Web site is here, but you can see a lot of photos here.

On the way back to the apartment for the last time, we shopped in the little touristy places for some last-minute souvenirs, then we were going to have a cup of tea and the last of our French pastries in the apartment as we waited for Giancarlo to come; he had very kindly offered to drive us to the bus stop, saying that the bus would be much easier than the train, both coming and going. And, frankly, he was right: leaving the airport, buses depart from every terminal (not just Terminal 3, as the train does), and you’ll never have to drag your luggage up out of the subway; going back to the airport the bus takes you to whichever terminal you need to be too.

So … Giancarlo arrived with his brother-in-law, an Italian, in tow. He loaded our luggage into the trunk, and drove us to the nearest main bus terminal. As I recall, the fare was a bit less than the train (which was E8, or about $9.70). We had an international carload—French, Italian, Irish, American—and on the ride we learned that Giancarlo has been to China, and that he lived in Japan for three years. This seems like a lot to know about a person, but they’re just unconnected tidbits; I bet his story is an interesting one (and I intend to interview him when next we meet!).

Back at Charles de Gaulle, we found that all those families who brought their children to EuroDisney this week were returning today! Merde! The place was chock-full of kids sporting Mouse paraphernalia. Worse, though, we couldn’t shop in duty-free—you see, you have to be leaving the country to take advantage of duty-free, and the advent of the European Union makes Ireland and France just part of one big, happy (sometimes) family.

Yes, there were signage problems again (we followed the signs to our gate number, but once arrived, could find nothing to confirm that we were actually in the right place), but they were minor. And yes, our plane was packed with families of young children. But it was a beautiful, sunny day, and upon takeoff we got the magnificent view of Paris from the air that we had not gotten on the way in: we were easily able to pick out the Eiffel Tower, and “our” island. Gorgeous view!

So this was our good-bye to a beautiful city that we both are anxious to revisit.

A little over an hour later, we got a similar gorgeous view of Dublin Bay as we came in, with the sun low in the sky. We picked up our rental car, dropped the luggage off, and said hello …

Bridie and Cleo

… then headed out to grab some take-home Chinese, as we were both in the mood for something spicy. We dropped by Gerry’s brother William’s place for a few minutes, where I was able to meet his wife, Gwen; so now I’ve officially met everyone in the family.

After all that excitement, I went down to the B&B for an early night.

Sunday, February 19, Co. Dublin

Lucky us! Gerry had a generous gift certificate to an upscale hotel chain, and we had plans to absolutely wallow in it! This was a day for which little was planned—probably a good thing, as I was still coughing, still walking around with a fist pressing my chest. So I slept late and then went down to Gerry’s to laze around for a couple hours (watching a string of “taped” American Idol shows, something I wouldn’t be caught dead doing Stateside, but it was oddly mesmerizing, in between the cringing), just kinda killing time until we could check in to the Towers hotel.

The Towers is attached to Jury’s (a hotel chain) Ballsbridge (which is, the Web site tells us, in the heart of Dublin’s embassy district), but it’s the upscale, exclusive, executive wing (UPDATE: the hotel was sold and subsequently closed the next year). Very quiet. The room was very nice, large, luxurious. We went down to one of the little on-site pubs to grab lunch (I had Guinness beef/potato casserole—and don’t be misled by that last word, it’s an Irish substitute for “stew”).

Let me tell you, whether we were in the Towers section, or the Jury’s section, the level of customer service was exemplary—off the scale, really. But I found it odd that in order to avail myself of Wi-Fi, I would have to pay extra. Free wireless has become routine on this side of the pond (I’d just spent weeks researching this type of information for a freelance assignment, which is why I can make that statement), not only in hotels, but in RV parks, libraries, restaurants, bars, diners, and, of course, coffee houses. (UPDATE: 2006 was early days for Wi-Fi in Ireland; ten years later, it is standard and generally free.)

We napped, watched TV, read … I even indulged in a very long and hot bubble bath, something I haven’t done in years and really should do more of. The bathroom amenities were from Molton Brown, a London-based company, and … well … I may have formed yet another expensive habit: loved the shampoo, loved the shower gel.

We dressed up for an eight p.m. dinner downstairs with Brendan and his lady friend Ruth, and Pat and his wife Brenda, an event that had been planned for weeks. Gerry and I hung out in the bar while we waited for the others; as it turned out, Pat had come down with the same flu that I’d gotten, and didn’t feel up to it, so it was just the four of us, but a good time was had by all: we didn’t get back to our room until after midnight. Brendan arrived bearing even more gifts: he’d been to the Avoca Handweavers and purchased a winter scarf for each of the women expected at the party, and for me, he also brought a beautiful white mohair/wool throw. It’s soft and gorgeous—and I used it quite a bit during the rest of the trip.

We drank wine with our meal, indulged in desserts, then lingered at the table talking until they were closing the restaurant down, so we moved out into the lobby bar (you may recall this phenomenon from my last visit, which I find very, very civilized: a section of the lobby is crowded with chairs and sofas and low tables, where you can comfortably relax and drink alcohol, as if you’re sitting in your own living room). I had an Irish coffee, and we continued our conversation until poor Ruth was just falling asleep. She had to be somewhere very early the next day too.

Pinch Me Again—I’m (Still) in Paris

Friday, February 17, Paris

Bon jour!

Yes, we’d been here long enough, we were speaking French! You know: le bridge, le bottled water, le apartment, le mobile phone … all Gerry had to do is put “le” in front of something and I was cracking up. But seriously, the French have laws (laws!) about this sort of thing (zis Franglais, eet must be stopped!), so it’s a wonder we weren’t deported.

There are about 87 million native French-speakers, which actually puts it ’way down on the list of world languages (Chinese, of course, is first, even if you only count Mandarin, at 873 million; Wikipedia lists Hindi next, at 370 million, although that figure is made up of nine different dialects, the largest of which is only 180 million, and most lists of this nature that I found don’t include it as a combined figure; English and Spanish are neck and neck, each with around 350 million native speakers; then Arabic, and Portuguese … French is actually twelfth on this list, after Russian, Japanese, and German, among others)—but really, do you want to learn to speak Russian? Nah. My brief visit to Paris, on the other hand, has me considering French classes, if for no other reason than to stave off senility.

And to facilitate a return trip to the City of Lights, of course! : )

So, Friday. Every day we’d been getting tired earlier. What is that about international travel that is so wearing? As I mentioned earlier, Paris is one of those places that one simply has to return to. The first time you learn le ropes (how to get out of the airport, for example) … you learn what you like and what you don’t like, what’s easy and what’s hard, the little survival tricks, the names of things, how to speak to the store clerks. Now that we’d been here four days, we’d settled into a routine, we knew where things in our neighborhood were.

But we were definitely slowing down.

This day, after sleeping late and having a nice breakfast in, we rode le Metro to Boulevard Haussmann and went to le big department stores for a little old-fashioned shopping.

There are two, side by side: Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. (Naturally, there are more than just two department stores in Paris; but these are the most famous.) Printemps opened in 1864, and le façade looks like something out of the Gilded Age, sure enough. It carries everything you’d expect: designer clothing (plus middle-of-the-range labels) for men and women, children’s apparel, housewares, furniture, and perfume and cosmetics. On le sixth floor there is a lovely Art Nouveau domed cupola of turquoise glass over an in-house café. Galeries Lafayette opened in 1894, and is Printemps’s main rival. It has a beautiful glass and steel dome, an Art Nouveau staircase built in 1912, and a food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London.

Each store has its champions (some think women’s and children’s clothing are better at Au Printemps, some say you’ll be more pampered at Galeries Lafayette), but they were both pretty fancy, with excellent customer service. We were catching le tail-end of the extreme sales that start in January, so it was a good time to bargain shop, and we did. : )

After a few hours of unabashed consumerism, we rode the Metro back to what we’d begun to think of as our neighborhood—le carnival rides, le grocery store, le bridge back to Ile St-Louis—then walked through the quiet Marais neighborhood to the Musée Picasso.

Marais means swamp—which is what this area was until Henri IV built a beautiful square and royal apartments (probably for his mistresses) here in 1605 (now called the Place de Vosges). And it still has a very medieval look to it: tiny, winding cobbled streets with ancient buildings; it is considered an upper class residential area. It’s very clean and neat, we noticed, and quiet. I’d definitely consider renting an apartment in the Marais (if I didn’t love 23 rue le Regrattier so much!). The area has many chic designer shops and plenty of funky markets and art galleries—enough to make window-shopping while we walked along a delight. There’s also a thriving Jewish Quarter, where we saw Haisidic Jews in their black clothing, distinctive hats, and long curling sideburns. All in all, a very pleasant and interesting ten or twelve blocks!

A note about the weather: you’ve noticed the grey skies in all the photos, both in Ireland and in France. You see, it was winter in Europe in February! No big deal—an overcast sky means there won’t be harsh shadows in your photos, no one squinting into the sun. And no leaves on the trees meant you could actually see more, see what was behind the trees, which was particularly helpful in Paris. Sure, it was cold (some days more than others). But when you’re out walking around in it, you warm up pretty fast. And you wear layers of clothing, as I’ve mentioned earlier, which is very cozy.

A note about packing for winter travel: sweaters, you may have noticed, are really bulky; they take up a lot of room in your suitcase. So leave those sweaters at home, kids. Instead, plan for layers, and bring t-shirts, turtlenecks, vests. The most useful items I brought were two lightweight fleece cardigans; the fabric is thin but oh-so-warm.

So. The Musée Picasso. The museum is in the Hotel Salé, former mansion of Aubert de Fontenay, built around 1656. He made his fortune as a collector of the salt tax (hence the building’s name). Classical in style, this building was chosen by the French government to house what is the largest collection of Picassos in the world (thanks to a law passed in 1968 that allowed heirs to pay inheritance taxes with works of art instead of money, as long as the art is considered an important contribution to the French cultural heritage; and since Pablo Picasso lived most of his adult life in France, and died there in 1973, these were definitely important) because Picasso would have liked it. I find that touching, and charming, and very French, that attention to detail. Since Picasso had amassed an enormous collection of his own work, this payment of his inheritance taxes instantly created the single largest collection of Picassos anywhere, which was further enriched upon the death of Jacqueline Picasso in 1986. The collection has also acquired a number of works through purchases and gifts.

I am not a huge fan of so-called modern art, but I’ve always enjoyed Picasso, perhaps because he had so many styles, perhaps because I find it intriguing. Often people think of his surrealist paintings when his name is mentioned, but don’t forget the blue period (and the pink!), his cubist works, and even his many classical works, which are quite lovely. And what’s nice about the Musée Picasso is that all techniques and all periods are represented, in an intimate way that makes every painting and sculpture accessible … you can walk right up to everything: nothing is cordoned off, nothing is behind glass. There was a very moving but very abstract drawing of the crucifixion of Christ; Gerry remarked that in this PC world we live in, it might be enough to make Christians riot. Ha!

In the museum’s bookstore I bought a small pamphlet about the collections and the larger official guide. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that I’d picked up the French version of the latter, so, while it appears to have lots of really interesting material in it, all I can do is look at the pictures. (All the big venues offer their official visitor’s guide in a variety of languages, and you’ve got to be pretty careful or you’ll go home with a guide to the Louvre in Japanese.) The Web site is a nice one—but does not have an English version (UPDATE: It does now, ten years later); click around, though, and you can get a sampling of the art displayed there.

I regret to say that I took no photos this day—nothing in the Marais, nothing at the Musée Picasso. In general, I took far fewer photos on this trip than I did on my trip in 2003, and I don’t really know why, particularly since I was carrying my very light, easy-to-use digital camera this time (as opposed to my very, very heavy Canon F-1 last time). But perhaps it was the very nature of the two cameras: I think of the F-1 as a “serious” camera, and when I have it with me, I’m aware of it, and I use it, carefully framing every shot. My digital camera (also a Canon, and I do love it) is more like a toy: I snap away, knowing that if the first shot doesn’t work, I can just take another; I’m less serious when I use it … and as a result, the photos I do take with it aren’t as good. I’m a bit sad about this dearth of photos, but it’s too late now. And I do have lovely memories. : )

Paris is also a city that’s been exhaustively documented, both on the Web … and in movies. Yes, movies. Two I’ve rewatched recently are Before Sunset—wherein a couple (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) walk through the very area of Paris we stayed in, starting at the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. It gives a really great sense of what Paris is like right now—and Le Divorce, a clever comedy of manners staring Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson as sisters, one of whom lives in Paris. When she throws open the window of her Paris apartment, you can clearly see the spire of St-Germain-des-Prés in the close distance.

Our little apartment really was very centrally located. The Musée Picasso was an easy walk from here, much closer than I’d guessed by looking at the map. There were many other places very, very close too; a whole trip could be planned in which one never even had to take the Metro—there was that much to see and do so close by. I could happily return and do just that.

We really enjoyed staying there, in that specific location. The walls were very thick, and the island itself very, very quiet. I read somewhere that Parisians themselves check into hotels on the Ile St-Louis to get away from the city noise; in very fundamental ways, Paris is no different from New York or Chicago or London or San Francisco (all places I’ve spent some time in)—cities are what they are, no matter what language is spoken.

Anyway, on our way home after the Musée, we stopped at our local grocery store to pick up some foodstuffs for me to take home for gifts, then stopped by the apartment to drop this stuff off before going off in search of Shakespeare & Co., the landmark English-language bookstore on the Left Bank. I’d finished my book the evening before, and hadn’t brought a spare with me to Paris; and since watching American television shows dubbed into French only holds limited appeal (it’s amusing for about two minutes, trust me on this), I needed more reading material. Previous occupants had left books in the apartment—there was a large selection of travel books, for example, and a few novels, but Maeve Binchy isn’t really my style, and that was the best of the lot.

So off we went to Shakespeare & Co. for a book in English, by way of the boulanger that had the cream crepes that Gerry fell in love with a couple days previously (I’d returned there yesterday in the very late afternoon for more, but they were out, so this time we went earlier, hoping to find them in stock and they were).

The owner of this bookshop, George Whitman, is originally from Massachusetts, but has lived in Paris for the last sixty years, all of them over the store he opened in 1951, when he found himself in Paris and at loose ends after the Second World War. (UPDATE: Whitman died in 2011.) It’s played host to a Who’s Who of authors, from Henry Miller and Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s tiny and cramped, with books stuffed into every conceivable (and crooked) nook and cranny. You can read more about it here.

S&C doesn’t really stock the current new releases like most bookstores, but it has a good solid backlist, so I was able to find a Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) I’d wanted to read. When you buy a book there, they stamp the title page with a rubber stamp that says the name of the bookstore and “Kilometer Zero Paris”—a reference to its location just a few hundred yards away from the dead center of Paris, which is in front of Notre-Dame. There’s a very cool 360-degree panoramic view of the outside of the shop here—you can see Notre-Dame in the distance. In the column on the left of this Web site you can click to see panoramic views of all the interior rooms of the bookstore, as well as—incongruently—the interior of Notre-Dame.

Having both made purchases, we walked back to Ile St-Louis, cutting, as we often did, through the peaceful side garden of Notre-Dame. There’s a small playground here, with benches for the mothers to sit, and by coming this way one avoids the crowds in front of the cathedral (and there always are) and the touristy shops and stalls along the other side. The back gate lets one out right onto the bridge that crosses from Ile de la Cité to Ile St-Louis.

Here’s a good reason to be in Paris in February: the trees are bare! We can see a lot more of Notre-Dame …

Notre-Dame is immediately on the left, just out of this frame. There are some children’s swings in this little side garden of the cathedral. We walked this way (and on into Notre Dame’s back yard!) every day to and from the apartment. Can you imagine living with this a five-minute walk from your home?

This spire was built in 1860, and those verdigris statues are apostles. 🙂

Once in, we cooked up the last of our groceries (except what we’d have for breakfast), and retired to the cozy living room with cups of tea to enjoy our books.

And no, we hadn’t been watching the Olympics, not the first event of it.