USEFUL TRAVEL TIPS AND OTHER TIDBITS

One may think that, with so many options out there, it should be easy to find what you want on your trip …  but all of us who love travel know it’s not quite like that.

On my last trip to Europe I had to change two hotels I had reserved through Expedia: despite the decent US$160+ price tags outside the peak season, pretty Expedia photos, nice reviews and central locations, the hotels I had selected looked like the wrong choices for me as soon as I arrived there  and could peruse the larger pictures (think neighborhoods and life styles…). Actually, it proved much easier to find places that fit my expectations quite spontaneously, right next door to those hotels previously booked online.

I am running this “journalistic” section in response to students who’ve asked for specific addresses of nice hotels, stores, and other travel tips. There are several off-the-main-track venues I’ve discovered on my recent trips to Paris:

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

 

Paris Trip, December 2014

A trip on my own to Paris, after years in which I lived far away from Europe, holds the promise of latest surprises and big-time revelations. My avowed goal this time is to discover some great accommodation spots, to identify useful travel tips, and, hopefully, to establish some connections that could be useful to my Texan students during their trips to France.

 

I’m not a novice at travelling all alone; I actually enjoy travelling by myself — getting lost in the crowds —  as much as I like travelling with family members and friends.  I’ve chosen Hotel Saint Christophe (Latin Quarter) and Hotel Meslais la République (La République) for their historic locations and student-friendly prices, but also because I never resided in those areas before. I don’t even know how to get there from the airport (yes, the Subway!…. but to many Americans, who are used to just driving everywhere in their own comfy devil-may-care vehicles, relying on the subway train is easier said than done). So, I’m planning to experience now the touristy puzzles my students would have to eventually solve on their own.

 

The plane arrives at 5:35AM and I’m half asleep after a night of constant movie watching … conditioned by intermittent air turbulence — those air-hole jumps, or whatever they are, meant to remind us on the plane that there’s no place like the train…. Fumbling around to find the right exit toward the taxi area while everyone else disappears into the subway cave, I’m recalling  the story of a student of mine who, while burdened with heavy luggage clinging to his arms and shoulders and lost on his way to the taxi exit at De Gaulle, had become embroiled in a funny dispute with 5 airport female employees (all engaged in a morning coffee ritual in one cubicle) each of which had categorically refused to help him claiming it was not her job give directions. Taking the subway train to anywhere else than Tour Eiffel is going to be a new experience for me this time because in the past we always used taxis; but a glimpse of that student’s story on the back of my mind makes me uneasy now about asking anyone for directions … I’d rather not start my morning – and trip – with an unfriendly experience, would I?

******

 

It’s raining. A fine drizzle and crispy breeze announcing a grey day. The taxi station of Charles de Gaulle 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, more so, perhaps, in some quartiers than in others); and how hard it is to find clients as a taxi driver these days. His info is not gratuitous: he’s sensed I’m interviewing him when I attack him unexpectedly 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 from the outskirts of Paris towards the heart of the celebrated capital with the suburbs-to-Dallas commute; for a brief moment the visualization of flower-studded plains in spring and fresh odor grass patches makes everything around our cab look grimly unappealing. I can already see the stressful routine of a Parisian’s daily life and sense the underlying meanings of the word “fatigué” that I’ve read pops up quite often in Parisian conversation; right now, between the strips of desolate terrain and shabby buildings, this highway looks no different than the infamous D.C. Beltway, and we’ve come to a full halt 10 minutes ago while the meter  (still ticking) shows  Euro 160 already … with my hotel 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 these days. I look for my umbrella and ask him to drop me in the drizzling rain by the nearest subway station. He complies, without trying to negotiate more optimistic expectations from me the way customer servants would do in the U.S. where “retaining the client” — getting more money — is viewed as a supreme duty. And this is the 1st thing an American might notice in many places in Europe, surely in France and Italy: individuals, irrespective of their job descriptions, don’t “sell themselves” on the altar of in-your-face marketing – on the contrary, any aggressive advertising would have the opposite effect in European social contexts. In these lands, selling seems far less important than individual communication … than the disinterested intellectual experience of the otherness, so to say … a fact that is surely rooted in human sharing of millennia of historic dramas and emotional literatures.

Getting out in the rain, pink umbrella above my head and just a chic little briefcase for all luggage, seems quite natural too; and the interview, the crowds already emerging with rapid steps from all the corners, the fragrance of city vegetation awaken by the rain, and the familiar sight of the metro entry reminds me of my college days and makes me feel optimistic indeed about this new day.

 

******

 

The subway map looks easy, basically, but at length incomprehensible if you don’t know your street names — and utterly forgettable once you’ve taken your eyes off of it. Luckily, I barely stop to watch it when a lady coming out of the tunnel asks me if I need help. What a nice French welcome, I’m thinking; and we start talking about the routes, and my nationality — a lively conversation that attracts an elderly gentleman who gregariously indicates a different route asking from afar for support from the jovial 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 those present as to which direction that I (bewildered by now) should take. I swear it’s the truth – although, just as I’m standing here at 7AM suitcase-in-hand smiley-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! But it must be my looks and their curiosity that prompted this help: I’m featuring Texan boots, a thin lambskin coat that has no place in that rain, and a sleepless helpless allure. The l’air du temps clinging to the rainy trees in the still-serene early morning, the amiability of the lady who is now taking good bye to hurry to her workplace, the politeness of the African man (a foreign student perhaps?), the goofiness of the old gentleman whose hat might as well belong in the 1950s, all these have the effect of bringing back memories from the past: they remind me of French readings from my adolescence — this could be a scene from Maupassant or Zola, 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 the interlocutors 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 where the hotel is located for a tourist to have time to worry about nutritional needs while spending hours wondering about the place. The area is charming and I’ve decided that this time I would spend the week just walking around, noticing things, breathing in the everyday atmosphere like a local, simply relaxing with promenades rather than getting engrossed in the museums and tourist areas. 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….

I’m not going to provide any itinerary; my advice is this: 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 (but avoid them when they get too crowded), and, ladies, look for the time-forgotten charming streets where typical Parisian women sometimes find les modèle uniques (unique design clothing).

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 are – at least, by U.S. standards – hardly visible anywhere. Not that there wouldn’t be 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 everywhere in sight and generally of tiny proportions – but they are displayed more on vendors’ stands than on people’s balconies. It is perhaps the heart-warming Christmas atmosphere of the U.S.A. that, I notice, is missing here. This busy city landscape is much departed from the Christmas celebrations of 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 presepi, or Capodimonte porcelain ornaments. The Parisian Christmas scene is also a far cry from Quebec City’s fairy tale landscape during its sound and light 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 offered by street vendors; and seeing the reverse reflection of that naïve art brightness seemingly coming back like through a prism, magnified a hundred times and reverberating into the surrounding colors, sparkles, and human vibrations of the actual streets again. I look for every opportunity to speak with the locals, ask for directions, exchange comments and even initiate long conversations in book 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 – unkind or ignorant traveler’s reviews that did not coincide with my memories of France. Right now, everybody is just as I thought: extremely nice, talkative, friendly, intellectual, curious to learn about Texas (a couple of ladies are even telling 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….” I’m surprised that people are so surprised – though, of course, the guns thing was equally shocking to me when I first moved to the U.S. Yes, the most surprising fact now 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 – what?!  — 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 in which they use the latest fashion tips and mingle them with some kind of archaic symbolism seemingly embedded in their psyches perhaps as hints borrowed from their books and philosophical readings, from history, from arts, may be from their parents’ tales of old, and some je ne sais quoi instincts….

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 – I’d say — in memory of pre-WWII cultural links between the regional aristocracies and the French influence on Romanian literature). 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 60sh age category, but she is slim and straight like a ballerina, 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 being quite at home in her persona. 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 other articles by the detractors of this same elusive thing, (some of them French, too). The fact is: wherever we go, whether it is in France, Italy, the U.S., Scandinavia, etc, one might well detect, here and there or prominently, the cultural essence transpiring through the looks of some individuals – the local archetypes, so to say – who would inevitably stand out from the crowd, from among busy locals, foreigners, and tourists…. And these two ladies here are pretty archetypal in their appearances: 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” (amusingly, even when it’s sported by a Greek picture as in the ancient Cretan fresco called “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 school-girlish 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 relatively low-cut white blouse and a massive jade necklace. No, despite the black leather pants, this is not the aggressive “rock look”: there are no metal and skulls in sight, the item is there for the pure pleasure and innuendo of the leather feel, not to make a Harley Davidson statement; comfortable in her own skin (and leather, obviously), this elderly lady 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 male who would draw much unwanted attention even in New York City: he has fashioned himself into the “medieval artist with a sleek side”, dressed only in a black, long coat, a black painter cap (yeah, that French cap we see in all stereotype drawings – minus the mariner t-shirt); passerbyes are invited to notice a white shirt and black tie under the open black coat, and – especially! —  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 about classical philosophies, cultivated humor, controlled nonchalance (as this is not as much about je m’en moque nonconformism as about a chic à chacun son gout) – in short, Parisian intellectualism…. I’m not staring at these people, of course (though they do stare at me … is it because of my Texan boots? or just because people-watching is OK in Europe?). 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 and avenues – and I think that’s the whole point of the “Parisian fashion” …  and of my Texan 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 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 that famous story of the tormented monk’s deeds found in Hugo’s 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 cathedral 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 fifties, perhaps and not picture-beautiful either – but they are clearly in love. There is an unforgettable 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 stereotypical 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 of Paris and the world. As I furtively look at them I have the impression I’m reading an anonymous poem. Love is dead?… No, not yet. Not here.

 

Bringing my mother from the airport. Still raining on this 3rd day of my December trip. Reaching Hôtel Meslay République required the effort of crossing a mass of walking lawyers who were happening to voice their grievances around noon that day under the monotonous water drops. Signs in hands, their advance was sufficiently fast to be able to engulf in their demonstrative wave any passerby who would have ventured to swim through their crowd toward the opposite sidewalk. So, I guided my mother through the metro station underpass whose shadowy calm was, nevertheless, stirred by an almost equal turmoil at that hour; but soon enough we found ourselves in front of the discrete (and, I should say, hard to find) entrance of the neoclassical building with many nicely-adorned windows that is called Hotel Meslay. At the reception desk we were less-than-welcomed by a stout French lady who informed us right away that the elevator was not working. I pointed it out to her that my elderly mother was in no position to climb stairs and that I had chosen the hotel – instead of an AirB&B – precisely for the elevator feature; I asked we received a ground-floor apartment, with a nice view if possible (by “nice” I meant not a view of the cemented backyard’s dumpster). What followed was finally a display of the alleged Parisian rudeness deplored by so many bloggers in online articles. Well, it was for the 1st time I was experiencing it myself – and I could finally understand what many bloggers didn’t: the receptionist’s “rudeness” was tinted with buffoonish Gallic humor, angry humor all right, but funny and heart-felt, nevertheless. The bespectacled corpulent lady who, after all, looked like the very antithesis of la femme parisienne promoted in magazines and novels, launched an interminable tirade of derisive comments about my expectation of a “nice view” on Boulevard La Republique, strongly asserting that … she couldn’t fashion and craft a pretty view for me where there wasn’t any … and that … the lawyers had already ruined everything for everybody 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 hotel….?

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 clients. She seemed funny on a historic backdrop, for you haven’t seen Paris until you have seen the archetype of a tricoteuse or a sansculote raging against the contemporary aristocracy epitomized by the intellectual milieu…. But my mother, who couldn’t understand French and who saw in her only a plump 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 some time ago in these neighborhoods. Both women seemed to calm down after that. I thought the best revenge against our anti-lawyer hostess was to take a snap photo of her while she was pretending to work, and paint her in an adequate garb and historical context (well, 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 major boulevard and of the many tiny balconies decorated with winter plants and hardly noticeable Christmas wreaths; the air inside seemed stale and had a strange musty odor that seemed to have to do with some vague deodorants or disinfectants: it made us keep the window ajar most of the time.  The room was very quiet, despite being nearby a crowded avenue, and the metro station was very close, too. The hotel is 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 “Au Bonheur des Dames”); not as many pastry shops around here as in the Latin Quarter, no fancy restaurants as far as I could see — but one Leonidas Chocolatier and numerous boutiques, some very affordable, could allow for a nice and pragmatical shopping experience.

Walking – and walking more – between L’Arc du Triomph and La Tour Eiffel constitutes great exercise in the proper shoes.

As other city-dwellers in all European cities, Parisians have no qualms walking in light rain, with or without umbrellas! – it is a poetic pleasure to someone who grows up with poems by Verlaine

Il pleure dans mon coeur
Comme il pleut sur la ville.
Quelle est cette langueur

and the like.

And maybe this is what we’ve come to truly lack in America ever since the musicals of another age (which charmed even the French) have stopped singing in the rain and died.

******

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 bistro I offered my mother French andouilles and strawberry-beer which made her very happy very quickly.

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 many places in Europe: bookstore sales reps actually read lots and lots of books and love engaging in controversial discussions that might precede and encourage (but might also risk to discourage) selling — whereas in the U.S. selling or “proper customer service” always takes priority to just about anything else in human interactions.

One lady-vendor told me about “La femme parfaite est une connasse,” a tiny 60sh-spirit book whose young female authors rebel in comic undertones against the typical perfectionist/”perfect” woman voir la femme française of universal fame; the stereotype was made famous – the shop assistant confessed on an irked tone — only during WWII by American soldiers who never met real French women but instead fantasized and retained memories about the froufrouish filles de joie who welcomed them. I feel like telling her that much of 19th century French literature — those classics but also those authors who are less known in the U.S. e.g. feuilleton autors like du Terrail, Sue, and Zévaco — describe high brow French feminine stereotypes and have established the foundation of that admirable #1 prototype of French mystique: a woman characterized by both Germanic strong-headedness and Mediterranean sensuality. But, of course, on matters like this one (e.g. human profiles), U.S. scientists are still wondering whether it’s nature or nurture… while in Europe conclusions still come from old history, stories and sayings passed over from one generation to another.

A male-vendor in an anticariat (old books store) complained to me about the invasion of alarmist history-revision books that, I can see, are as visible on display here in Parisian book stores as at any Barnes & Noble; but I was disappointed with not being able to find a copy of Roland’s Jean Christophe from which I needed volume 2 (the politically-minded vendor hadn’t even heard of this French classic). Unable to locate the book in any store, I have to conclude that since the roaring ’60s, there has been a decreasing focus on classical literature – and classical perspectives that had originally shaped the national consciousness, in general – here, in France, too, just as in the United States.

******

 

To be continued