Recommended in Paris, France
I spoke with hotel managers about tariffs and it is best to contact and reserve directly with them than via Expedia
Hôtel Garden Elysée, 12 Rue Saint Didier 75116
Hôtel Saint Christophe, 17 Rue Lacepede, 75005
Hôtel Floride Étoile 14, Rue Saint-Didier 75116
Hôtel Baltimore, 88 bis, Avenue Kléber, 75116
Librairie Fontaine, 95 Avenue Victor Hugo 01-45-53-76-72
Roberto Durville, Chaussures de luxe, 8/10 Rue Meslay 75003
Hugo Plane, Chaussures Comfort, 8 Rue Monge, 75005
Galerie 59, Madame de Paris, 59 Avenue Kléber, 75116
Boutique Nicolai, parfumeur, 28 Rue de Richelieu, 75001
Le Fiacre, La vaisselle anglaise, Les cadeaux, 24 Bd. Des Filles du Cavalaire
Boucherie Limousine, 42
Aux Fleurons de la Viande, 59 Rue Monge, 75005
El Mida, Salon de The, 46, Bd. Du Temple, 75011
Chez Zhong, Restaurant Chinois et Thailandais, 69 Avenue Kléber, 75116
A trip on my own to Paris after several years during which I lived far away from Europe holds the promise of late-minute surprises and big-time revelations. My avowed goal is to discover some travel tips and great accomodation spots and, hopefully, even some connections that would be useful to my Texan students whom I teach French language and culture courses and who usually study while planning their first European trips.
I’m not a novice at travelling all alone. I actually enjoy travelling by myself – getting lost in a crowd — as much as I like travelling with my family. I’ve chosen Hôtel Saint Christophe (Latin Quarter) and Hôtel Meslais la République (La République) for the historic locations and student-friendly prices, but also because I never resided in those areas and have no idea how to get there from the airport (yes, the subway, of course …. but for some that’s easier said than done) and I want to experience the touristy puzzle my students would have to solve in this case.
The plane arrives at 5:35AM and I’m half asleep after a night of bleary-eyed movie watching induced by baby crying nearby and frequent air turbulence. Fumbling for the taxi exit while everyone else disappears into the subway hole, I recall the story of a luggage-ladden student of mine who couldn’t easily find the taxi exit at De Gaule and got drawn into a funny browl with 5 airport female employees (engaged in coffee-conversation) each of whom had refused to indicate the respective exit claiming it was not her job to help with directions. Taking the subway train to anywhere else than Tour Eiffel will be a new experience for me, but I’m a bit uneasy about asking for directions.
It’s raining, the taxi station of Charles de Gaule is deserted, and the young Arab driver hits traffic as soon as we approach the city limits; he is telling me how living the Paris life is anodyne outside the tourist zones (well, perhaps in some quartiers more than in others), and how hard it is to find clients as a taxi driver these days. His info is not gratuitous: he sensed I’m interviewing him when I attack him unawaringly with the 6AM-philosophical question: whether living in Paris makes one happy. The answer is a subdued “Nope,” not if you’re worried about making a living and cutting your way back through the maddening traffic to a family that is yet to feel integrated socially in the greater Parisian scene. I’m trying to compare our drive with the Dallas commute and for a brief moment I relax visualising the flower-studded plains in spring and remembering the fresh odour of road-side grass one can enjoy when driving to Dallas. I can see the stressful routine here already; between the patches of desolate terrain and grey buildings, this highway looks right now no different than the infamous D.C. Beltway, and we’ve come to a full halt as the meter already shows Euro 160 … with my hotel still far far away in the picture. Fine, not a smart idea taking the taxi at this time on a working day — or, perhaps on any day; so I ask him to drop me at the nearest subway station.
The subway map looks easy, basically, but at length incomprehensible if you don’t know your streets — and utterly forgettable once you’ve taken your eyes off of it. Luckily, as soon as I stop to watch it a lady coming out of the tunnel asks me if I need help. What a nice European welcome! I’m thinking; and we start talking about the route and my nationality, a lively conversation that attracts an elderly gentleman who gregariously indicates a different route asking from afar for support from the loud ticket vendor in his glass cabin; we are then joined by a 4rd person, stopping equally uninvited, a young African man who agrees with all present as to which direction I (bewildered by now) should take. I swear it’s the truth – although, just as I’m standing here at 7AM suitcase-in-hand-big-smile-on-face and suddenly surrounded, I’m thinking this must be looking a bit like a comic movie. I just can’t place this scene in the Manhattan subway! The l’air du temps clinging to the rainy trees in the still-quiet early morning, the joviality of the lady who is now taking good bye to hurry to her office, the politeness of the African man (a foreign student perhaps?), the gregariousness of the old gentleman whose hat might as well belong in the 1950s, all these gently remind me of French readings from my adolescence, it could be a scene from Maupassant or Zola, or from “Commissaire Maigret,” or from a movie with Louis de Funès … and I’m thinking “I’m back home.”
I like this Hotel Saint Cristophe. It’s modest, but everything looks decent and the staff is very welcoming. They all speak English and we’re competing as to which one of us would get to practice his or her French or English skills first during our conversations; we sometimes end up with a gregarious pidgin that satisfies all involved. Breakfast isn’t included and there is no room service, but neither of these is going to be needed in my case. There are way too many bakeries, groceries and delicatessen stores (marchés de charcuterie traditionelle), pastry shops, chocolateries, and oriental catering restaurants in The Latin Quarter area for one to have time to worry about nutritional needs while spending hours wondering about the streets there.
The area is charming and I’ve decided that this time I’d spend the few days of my stay just walking around, noticing things, breathing in the everyday atmosphere like a local, simply relaxing with promenades rather than heading for the museums and tourist hotspots. I have a couple of days on my own before meeting my mother who is flying in from Spain to stay with me for 2 days — and there is also the long list of appointments with hotel managers that I will have to address every day….
So, I’m not going to provide an itinerary here, I’d rather advise my students to — simply walk in the direction of the Seine and Notre Dame de Paris, then towards l’Arc de Triomph and just follow the streets, whimsically, towards the tourist destinations you have in mind, look into the details of what you’re passing by.
The first surprise I have is to see how little effort Parisians seem to have invested into the “season’s spirit”: it is now just a few days before Christmas, yet the decorations – by U.S. standards, at least – are hardly visible here. Not that there aren’t any decorations, in fact, I admire the balconies decked with flower pots (some in bloom) placed one on top of the other to create beautiful green garlands spreading over the rails, and, of course, there are the ubiquitous Christmas trees in sight, generally of tiny proportions, displayed more on vendors’ stands than on people’s terraces. It is perhaps the heart-warming Christmas atmosphere that, I notice, is missing. This landscape is much departed from the Christmas celebrations on Via San Gregorio Armeno – that incomparable street in Naples, Italy, where a grown-up buyer becomes a child again while hunting for the prettiest hand-carved wood figurines, clay-and-straw presepe, or Capodimonte porcelain ornaments. The Parisian Christmas scene is also a far cry from Quebec City’s fairy tale landscape during its son et lumière winter festivals.
But then this is Paris, a place unlike any other, and I feel happy recognizing its real-life atmosphere reflected in the cheerfully-colored postcard-size paintings shown by street vendors, and, vice-versa, seeing that naïve art brightness magnified into the surrounding colors, sparkles, and human vibrations of the streets. I look for every opportunity to speak with the locals, ask for directions, exchange comments and even initiate long conversations in stores. Over the past few years, I’ve researched so many articles and utube sources for my students; and I’m weary of those negativities that I’ve often found in media sources– bad views that did not coincide with my memories of France.
Right now, everybody is just as I thought: extremely nice, talkative, friendly, curious to learn about Texas (a couple of ladies even tell me it’s the only place they’d ever wish to visit in the U.S. -– “the free Wild West!”) — “and do they really walk in the street wearing guns?…” “You bet they do….” I’m surprised that people are so surprised – thought, of course, the guns fact was equally shocking to me when I first moved to the U.S. Yes, the most surprising thing to me is that I’ve begun to forget feeling like a European…. But then it’s similarly surprising to an American to imagine that a Parisian would spend an hour in the mirror to look like a magazine picture before leaving home in the morning for a tedious workday ….
My students are often interested in learning about such differences. Fashion, however, is not what makes Parisians unique – it is the way they use the latest fashion tips and mingle them with some kind of archaic symbolism seemingly embedded in their psyche from their books and philosophical readings, history, arts, parents’ tales of old, and who knows what else…. Here is the uniquely elegant lady I saw yesterday, recognizable from a block away, though everything about her is discreet: it seems she is buying her lunch from the same pastry shop daily. Let me describe her, because hers is one of those “Parisian looks” (still imitated in Bucharest, too, by some – I’d say — in memory of pre-WWII cultural links between the regional aristocracies and the French influence on Romanian culture). Une femme soignée, first of all, she has very long brown hair, tightly kept into a braid that reaches down to her waist and is secured with a small black-silk rose; the rather wrinkled face places her age in the 50sh-60sh age category, but she is slim and straight like a balerina, dressed in a fitted long grey-wool coat with a matching cap and very fine low-heeled black boots. No makeup except the rosy lipstick, but her whole allure is at the same time contemporary, fashionable, and eerily atemporal – the feminine mystique quite at home in her personna. On the subway, I’m sitting across from a girl and an elderly lady. One is in her 20s, the other one in her 70s, I guess. Now, I’ve read so many articles written by people who uphold the notion of “the French style” – and articles by the detractors of the same elusive thing, some of them French themselves. The fact is: wherever we go, whether it is in France, Italy, the U.S., Scandinavia, etc, one might very well detect, occasionally, the cultural essence in some individuals – the local archetypes, so to say – who would somehow stand out from the crowd of busy locals, foreigners, tourists…. And these two ladies here are pretty “archetypal” in their appearance: the girl, immersed into a book on her knees, wears the simplest bob — black short hair and fringes – and has a very white delicate face with that retroussé profile that in some Mediterranean countries they call “a French nose” (though it might as well be Greek, like in the ancient Cretan fresco “The Parisian girl/La Parisienne” now found in the Heraklion museum). Thin and graceful, she might as well fit into a painting – again, a timeless one because the navy blue dress with a schoolgirlish collar would easily take the viewer back to the 1800s. The elderly lady wears black leather pants and high heels…. under a knee-length knitted green wool coat, matched with a low V-neck white blouse and a massive jade necklace. No, this is not the aggressive “rock look”, there are no metal and skulls in sight, the black leather is there for the pure pleasure of the feel and the innuendo of the material and not to make a Harley Davidson statement; comfortable in her own skin and leather, she throws an inquisitive gaze in my direction — she’s too versed about life not to have sensed my thoughts, as I’m pretending to look elsewhere.
And a bit later, I’m crossing paths with a 30-something year old man who would draw much unwanted attention even in New York City: he has fashioned himself into the “medieval artist with a sleek hint”, dressed only in a black, long coat, a black painter cap (yeah, that French cap we see in all stereotype drawings – minus the mariner tshirt), white shirt and black tie, and – especially! -flaunting a D’Artagnan goatee that just fits the whole ensemble and the Latin Quarter itself. He is not one of the funky guys (you know them, sprayed hair and funny beard screaming <<look at me>>) – this is a totally different perspective because it isn’t just “a look”: it implies some sharply-witted points of view, cultivated humour, nonchalance, a strong doze of in-your-face nonconformism – in short, Parisian intellectualism…. I’m not staring at these people, of course (though they do stare at me, I guess because of my lambskin coat and Texas boots on a Mediterranean winter day… well, I hate the cold and had though I’d better feel hot than sorry). But their appearance surely makes one want to talk to them to see what’s on their minds, what their roles are on the theatrical stage of Parisian rues et avenues – and I think that’s the whole point of the “Parisian fashion” … and of my Texas boots, too, after all.
On a street next to the Notre Dame cathedral, a depressed soul has sprayed two lines of unintrusive size but firm shape in black paint: “L”Amour est mort. Oui, ca meurt aussi.” (Love is dead. Yes, that dies too.”) I’m sufficiently romantic to take such declarations at face value, so I can’t help wondering if the bitterness of the graffiti writer was rooted in extensive experiences of the loveless side of the city or if he (must be a “he”!) was only a young student-poet dramatically reenacting the engravement Fatalité on the Notre Dame wall which initiated the hunchback’s story in Hugo’s famous novel. But on my way back to the hotel I witness a scene that seems at once strange and an appropriate risposta to the black inscription on the wall. In the crowded subway train a standing couple is holding onto the metalic bar in the rear side of the car; they aren’t in their prime at all — in their forties-fifties, perhaps and not picture-beautiful either – but they are clearly in love. There is an unforgetable beauty in their pose: quiet, with no motion other than the occasional tenderness with which his arm is bringing her closer to him for a few seconds, no kissing and no gazing into each other’s eyes the way stereotipical motion pictures have used us over decades to imagine human love…. In fact she is keeping her eyes closed in an intent non-sleepy way, and there is an invisible but noticeable aura of discretion and solemnity around them that isolates them from the entire crowd, encapsulates them in their own “bubble” as an American would say, insulated from us all and from the colorfully-grey reality. As I furtively look at them I have the impression I’m reading an anonymous poem. Love is dead?… No, not yet, not here.
Reaching Hôtel Meslay République required the effort of crossing a mass of walking lawyers who were happening to voice their grievances that day, around noon, in the drizzling rain. Rebellious signs in hands, their advance was sufficiently fast to be able to engulf in their demonstration any passerby – and especially a 75-year old like my mother — who would have ventured to “swim through” to the opposite sidewalk. So, I guided my mother towards the metro station underpass that turned out to be in almost equal turmoil at that time; but, after the necessary 4-step-up-4-step-down and contorted corners, we finally found ourselves in front of the discrete entrance of the neoclassical building with many nicely-adorned windows that was Hotel Meslay.
At the reception desk we were less-than-welcomed by a stout bespectacled lady who informed us right away that the elevator was not working. Taken aback, I pointed out to her that my elderly mother was in no position to climb flights of stairs and that I had chosen the hotel – instead of an AirB&B – precisely for the elevator ammenity. I asked that we received a ground-floor apartment, instead, with a nice view if possible (what I meant was not with a view of the cemented backyard’s dumpster).
What followed was a display of – finally – that alleged Parisian rudeness that is being deplored in so many online articles by so many bloggers. It was for the 1st time that I was actually experiencing it myself … and I felt I could see through it what many bloggers hadn’t: the receptionist’s “rudeness” was vaguely tinted with buffoonish Gallic humor, angry humor all right, but garrulous, funny and heart-felt, nevertheless. The corpulent lady (who, after all, looked like the very antithesis of the sophisticated “femme parisienne” of reputed magazines, novels, and my French lectures…) launched an interminable tirade of derisive comments about my expectation of a “nice view” on Boulevard La Republique, strongly asserting that … she couldn’t now craft a pretty view for me where there wasn’t any … and that … the lawyers had already ruined everything that day! – preventing the maintenance man to arrive and fix the elevator… and that … what kind of a nice view was I really expecting from a room at Meslay La République….?
I was listening mesmerized wondering how long it was going to take her to finish that outburst: venting all her day’s frustration on a couple of new foreign patrons…. She seemed funny – or ridiculous — on a historic backdrop, for you haven’t seen Paris until you have seen a tricoteuse or a sanscullote raging against the intellectual (newly-aristocratic) class…. But my mother, who couldn’t understand French and who only saw a strange yelling woman, suddenly had enough of it and suggested we left elsewhere.
“You are lucky the man is here and he is going to fix the elevator” concluded la tricoteuse and I told my mom I had just been listening to the receptionist’s account of a terrorizing mistake that had taken place a while ago in these neighborhoods, and both women seemed to calm down. I thought the best revenge against our anti-lawyers hostess was to take a snap photo of her while she was pretending to work, and paint her in the adequate garb and historical context (she later did apologize, but I’m still working on the painting).
This hotel lived up to our 1st impression of it, although the room we received on the 2nd floor actually did have a nice view of the street and of the many tiny balconies decorated with winter plants and Christmas wreaths; the air inside seemed stale and had a peculiar musty odor that seemed to have to do with some vague deodorants or disinfectants and made us keep the window ajar most of the time. The room was, however, very quiet, despite being nearby a major avenue, and the metro station was very close, to memorable historical surroundings, as this area was reshaped during Baron Haussman’s renovation of Paris (same gentleman whom one can know from Maupassant’s novel “La Bonheur des Dames”); not as many pastry shops around here as in the Latin Quarter, no fancy restaurants so far as I could see, but one Leonidas Chocolatier and numerous boutiques, some very affordable, could allow for a self-indulging shopping experience.
Walking – and walking – between L’Arc du Triomph and La Tour Eiffel is great exercise in the proper shoes, and it seems many Parisian women enjoy walking, even in the rain. The hot-dog street vendor had a stand that looked like those in old American movies; the MacDonalds on Champs Elysées sold French macaroons with its deserts; and at an Asian place I offered my mother andouilles and pink fruit-beer which made her very happy.
It rained for the next few days and I spent my time with business interviews at hotels, and walking from one bookstore to another buying books and speaking with sales reps about various new books. This is a nice thing in France and in many places in Europe: bookstore sales reps actually read a lot of books and love engaging in controversial discussions that might precede (or even discourage) selling, whereas in the U.S. selling or “proper customer service” always takes priority to just about anything else. One lady-vendor told me about “La femme parfaite est une connasse,” a 60sh-spirit book whose female authors rebel in comic undertones against the typical perfectionist/”perfect” woman voir la femme française of universal acclaim; the stereotype was made famous — she declared — only during WWII by American soldiers who never met real French women but instead fantasized and retained memories about the elegant filles de joie welcoming them…. A male-vendor in a librairie that soldpolitical and religious books complained about the invasion of alarmist history-revision books that are as visible on display over there as at any Barnes & Noble; but I was disappointed with not being able to find a copy of Roland’s Jean Christophe (the vendors hadn’t even heard of it) from which I needed volume 2. Unable to locate it in any store, I can’t help thinking that in France, too, just as in the United States, there is a decreasing focus on classical literature and on those classical perspectives that still shaped the national consciousness in each country even a generation ago.
to be continued