TRAVEL with pat and lew

* Paris June 2008

Posted by Lew Weinstein on October 28, 2008

Will the trains run? Will our train run?

There has been a rail strike for most of the week before our scheduled early Sunday morning trip to Paris. What’s different about this strike is that no ‘end date’ has been set. Usually, each strike has definite end but this time, there is much uncertainty. Even when they begin to run again, not all trains are running. I check in the Collioure station at 11:00 am on Saturday; the friendly English-speaking clerk says to return at 5:30 pm; she will know by then. There is a taxi in the parking lot; I take his card and he says he will take us in the morning if the train doesn’t run. But at 5:30, I’m told the 6:28 am train is the only train which will run tomorrow.

At 6:00 am, standing on our terrace, we watch the 6:02 train to Perpignan pull in and leave. What does this mean? Are all the trains running? Did the strikers substitute the 6:02 for the 6:28? We carry our luggage down the 60 stairs and over to the platform. Northbound trains run across the track, so we have to go down, under and up, with all the bags. The 6:28 train is posted on the trackside board, and, at 6:20 or so, it is announced. But at 6:28, there is no train. Our connection to Paris leaves Perpignan at 7:32.

We can make it by taxi, if we call now, if the taxi will come, and if there is not much traffic. I call the taxi, wake up the driver, who says he will hurry over. We invite the one other women who is waiting for the train to join us in the taxi and begin the trek down, under and up to the parking lot side of the tracks. Just as we get up on the other side, the train appears. We run back down, under and up. Our new friend gets there first and, somehow, holds the train just long enough for us to board.

I try to call the taxi driver, but there is no answer. He is already on his way. Several more attempts to call also fail. We feel badly; probably not as badly as he does. I resolve that, when we return to Collioure, I’ll call him, apologize, and give him 10 euros for his early awakening and undoubted fury when we were not there. Je suis désolé; I am sorry; I am desolate.

POSTSCRIPT: A few days after returning to Collioure two weeks later, I saw the same taxi driver at the gare. I reminded him that we had stood him up, and after a while, he remembered. I apologized. He said it was not a problem. I offered him 10 euros for getting him up for nothing. Not only did he refuse the money, he gave me a business card to make sure, if I needed a taxi again, I could call him. This is the best side of the French.

TGV from Perpignan to Paris

We arrive in Perpignan only a few minutes later than scheduled, and the TGV is waiting for us across the platform; no down, under, up. We find our car, board and take our facing seats on the upper level.

The TGV is the fast luxury train that runs on all the long distance routes. We have used our Carte Senior to purchase half-price tickets. At 50%, there isn’t much difference between second class and first class, so on our trips to Paris, we indulge ourselves. The annual cost of the Carte Senior (about 60 euros each) is more than paid back on each trip to Paris.

There is no food service until after Montpellier. We have boarded at 7:30 and will not have coffee until after 9:15. Actually, quite a bit later than 9:15. At Montpellier, the café attendant boards the train with her tray of fresh croissants and goes behind the closed panels of the serving area to prepare. It must be some preparation, because she’s not ready to serve until 9:55.

I pass the time by talking to Tom, whose band Moriarty will play in Paris on June 21, the annual solstice celebration when musical groups fill every street throughout France. Tom is an American living in Paris. Talk turns to politics and he tells me the French are absolutely in love with Obama. He asks me what I think will happen, and I predict a landslide for Obama in November.

I buy two cups of café noir, tea for Pat, and two croissants, return to my seat. I was the first in line and I waited almost an hour. Had I been last in line, it would have easily been another 30-40 minutes.

There is an electric outlet at my seat, the SONY travel computer is plugged in, and I am working on my next novel, a sequel to The Heretic. The first section of the story, which is now 130 pages and will probably reach 175 pages when completed, describes the arrival of Benjamin and Esther Catalán in Florence and the beginnings of their relationships with Lorenzo de Medici and his family. When I tire, I return to the historical novel I’m reading, Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. There is much to learn from the writing of others, especially one so talented as Vidal.

Pat is reading Susan Vreeland’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, the story of Renoir’s famous painting. Last year, we had lunch with our friends Rawy and Nijole, and sat on the very balcony Renoir painted. Pat’s reading is typical of her very comprehensive planning for every trip we take. She always has a list of activities and sites; my role is to joyously accompany.

It’s always exciting to see our apartment for the first time

You may remember that we generally share responsibilities. Once we decide where we want to go, I figure out how to get there; Pat explores the accommodations options. Pat has been corresponding with Celine since she initially wrote to us in March to arrange our two week home exchange. Actually, although Celine was the exchange contact, it is her parents who are on their way to Collioure while we travel to Paris.

Celine’s apartment is in the 4th arrondissement, on rue de Sevigne, an absolutely perfect location in the heart of the Marais district. We enter the gate code, move to a foyer, ring the extension, and Celine buzzes us into a charming plant-filled courtyard. We find stairway B, and begin the trek up the 56 step circular staircase, realizing that, free from the discipline of airline luggage restrictions, we have packed too much. Celine runs down to help, as does her sister, and with two sets of hands on our large bags, we ascend.

The apartment is small, like our own in Collioure. It is the epitome of a Paris pied-a-terre, with two large double door windows looking out on the courtyard, adequate living space, and it is fabulously clean, matching the way we always try to leave our place. There is an internet connection and a bathtub. The apartment thus meets our top three priorities: (1) location, (2) internet connection, and (3) bathtub – we don’t have a tub in Collioure. As Celine shows us around the apartment she shares with her boyfriend, both professors in Paris – Celine in history and her friend in sociology – she also gives us the good news that her parents are already in our apartment and very pleased.

It’s now about 2:00 pm. We don’t even unpack. Instead, we’re out to explore again a neighborhood already familiar to us. Only two half blocks away is one of the most charming locations in all of Paris, the place du Marche Ste-Catherine. No longer a market, it is a vehicle-free cobblestone square surrounded by open air restaurants. Couples young and old, baby carriages, musicians, beer wine and food of several ethnicities. We dine on caesar salad and wine, and know we are in heaven. Pat takes out her list and we begin to make plans. We wander about, find an Italian restaurant of interest.

The Marais on a Sunday afternoon

The Marais on a Sunday afternoon is marvelous; tourists and Hasidic Jews, high fashion stores and falafel stands, spectacular architecture. We see a nun go into a church. Pat checks the bulleting board to see if there’s a mass. No mass. Instead, le Concert de Fin d’Annee, which turns out to be a boys’ choir performing a series of religious works, including three by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The concert is free, a hat will be passed. The church is magnificent; long and narrow, a beautiful altar. The boys march in and the concert begins. The voices range from soprano to a deep bass sung by a man with a beard, the only ‘ringer’ we spotted. The highlight is a boy soprano singing solo Mozart’s Exultate Jubilate KV 165; his voice is astonishing.

Lunch with ‘Big’ on rue St.-Germain des-Pres

We are two short blocks from rue de Rivoli, a main street not far from the right bank of the Seine. Our metro stop, St. Paul, is right there, as is a shopping bonanza unfamiliar to Collioure or anywhere else near our little village. Of particular interest this morning is the Mono Prix, a large cosmetic and toiletries store; even better, downstairs is the Mono Prix Super Marche (supermarket). We buy a few essentials.

Sex in the City is playing in Paris, in English with French subtitles. Pat has identified the theaters. She is on the web obtaining addresses and show times; we decide on the 13:10 (1:10 pm) show at the Odeon at 124 Bd. St-Germain.

We walk along rue Rivoli, straight to the shoe store where Pat yesterday saw sparkling silver espadrilles. Overnight, the shoes have gone on special, and for 15 euros cannot be passed up. We pass the Hotel de Ville, cross the Seine onto Isle de Cite, arrive at Notre Dame. This is all so familiar too us now; we are feeling a little smug. Through the Latin Quarter, along Bd. St. Michel, onto Bd. Ste-Germain. The Odeon is closer than we think, but we buy our tickets at noon and set off for the Gap in the 6th arr., pass through a wonderful little street, to which we will probably return for a meal. No purchase, still have time for a coke in a sidewalk café.

We are first into the theatre, to be joined by less than a dozen others. I guess 1:00 pm on a Monday afternoon is not prime time. Before the main feature, there are coming attractions and many, many commercials. Finally we are transported to the Manhattan venues where we lived for 15 years before retiring to Key West and Collioure. Do we miss Manhattan? No. We loved it, and we visit twice a year, but we have moved on. As have Carrie and her friends.

Pat particularly hates reviewers who reveal the plot, so we won’t do that here, except to say that almost all of the characters from the HBO series are in the movie, and there is a compelling and emotional plot. There are also great fashions and, would you think otherwise, great sex scenes.

We should feel less smug. In all the times we have been in Paris, we, who love movies, never knew there were many English-speaking movies all over the city. But now we do.

Shopping at BHV (Le Bazar de l’Hotel-de-Ville)

BHV is located just across the street from the Hotel de Ville. It is a large department store with an unusually large Home Depot-

like tools department.

We have a shopping list; things we cannot find in Collioure. At the top of the list are padded envelopes with which to send keys to our home exchange guests. We find the stationary department and three padded envelopes with not too much difficulty.

The challenge in shopping in a large store in a different language is finding the items you want, because you really don’t know how to ask. We need a new travel alarm clock, since I left our old one on a table in Erice (Sicily) three weeks ago. We go to the housewares department to no avail. Time to ask for help. The first thing is to learn the French word for alarm clock. We have a wonderful little (4 inches x 2 inches, very thin) Franklin translator, which works for French, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, and Czech, among other languages. Unfortunately, I changed it to Italian and can’t remember how to change it back to French; trial and error eventually succeeds. The French word for alarm clock isreveille-matin – wake up in the morning.

I show the words to a clerk. We’re directed to the first floor, where there are indeed alarm clocks, but regular size, too large for our purpose. So I expand my French phrase to reveille-matin pour voyage; we are directed to the 5th floor, where there is a selection of small travel alarm clocks, one of which sits on the dining table telling me it is 9:22 am on June 17 as I write these words.

We finished our first full day in Paris with dinner at a small Italian restaurant called Soprano, just across from Place St. Catherine. We both had excellent pasta.

Musee d’Orsay

The Paris Metro is as good as it gets, with frequent service to all parts of the city. The St. Paul station is two blocks from our apartment. We get off at Tuileries, walk across the great park to the Seine, cross the bridge to the d’Orsay directly on the other side.

As we walk toward the entrance, an old woman bends down in front of us and stands to show us a gold ring. We recognize the scam and keep walking.

There is a long line. We take our place and begin chatting with the American woman in front of us. After a few minutes of the normal introductory conversation, she says, “I don’t believe what I just did. My husband will not be amused. I gave so much money (she doesn’t want us to say how much) and as soon as I walked away, I knew it was a scam.”

“The gold ring?” Pat asks, and the woman sheepishly removes it from her pocketbook.

“She told me she found it, but she can’t sell it because she’s an unregistered alien or something. But I could buy it from her and then I could sell it for a big profit.” Embarrassed pause. “And I did. How did you know?”

We explain that we saw the same woman, but it wasn’t the same woman. Our thief was an older lady, hers was a girl in her 20s.

“If only I had met you before I met her.” We laugh, tease her, and talk about other New York City scams until we get to the front of the line, buy our tickets, and separately enter the museum.

Pat has a list of paintings she has been studying; I follow. The d’Orsay is, as always, magnificent. We see a spectacular view from the top level that we never saw before.

When we leave the museum, we walk back across the Seine, and in the Tuileries a young girl bends down in front of us and straightens with a gold ring in her hand! You can’t make this up. Later, walking along Rue Rivoli, we again meet our friend from the ticket line, tell her we met her scam girl.

It’s good, but it’s not Lew’s “world famous”

When we lived in New York, we used to host an annual New Year’s Eve party in conjunction with the Midnight Run in Central Park. When the runners returned to our apartment, I served hot chocolate which I had prepared in their absence. They all wanted the recipe, which I have never divulged.

The best hot chocolate in Paris, according to Pat’s research, is found at Angeline’s a restaurant near the Hotel Mercier on Rue Rivoli. Hotel Mercier, by the way, was Nazi headquarters during WWII, where successful negotiations left unexploded the bombs which had been placed in every major site and bridge of Paris. That’s another story; read Is Paris Burning? Angeline’s hot chocolate is so thick and rich, they serve it with ice water for a chaser. It’s good, but it’s not Lew’s.

For dinner, we find an outdoor café near the Bastille Opera, a 10 minute walk from our ‘perfect’ Paris location; the onion soup was excellent, as were our toasted cheese sandwiches.

Shopping at Galeries-Lafayette and Decathlon

Galeries-Lafayette is the finest department store in Paris. Pat compares it with Bloomingdales, which is high praise indeed. We go there even if we have nothing to buy, just for the experience. We are thrilled no matter how many times we see the central atrium soaring seven floors to a huge stained glass dome.

Pat finds a bracelet she likes. Now we are 15 euros short of the ‘free’ key ring that comes with 50 euros purchases. As if we need a key ring. We do need a magnifying glass. I look up the word on our Franklin translator; it is loupe. Customer service sends us to the computer/electronics department, but there is no loupe. BHV is recommended; after lunch, we stop there and find one. It goes in the camera bag, for reading maps.

We head over to the Home Store, not to be confused with the Homme (Men’s) Store, and dispense the necessary euros by making a purchase to be disclosed later this summer. The key ring turns out to be a silver purse, so it goes to Pat.

Pat knows the name and location of every store in Paris which sells running supplies; the best is Decathlon, on Rue de Madeleine, not far from Galeries. However, running clothes for women are not a major item like they are in NYC. She settles for a man’s long sleeve running shirt.

On the way to Decathlon we had noticed a neon sign saying Diner. The American Dream Café, 21, rue Daunou, 2nd arr,, is far more than that: a diner, Jazz club, sport’s bar, dinner club, take-out deli. There’s even a pastrami sandwich on the menu. I have an excellent BLT, Pat has potato skins; it feels like Friday’s in Manhattan.

The Louvre

Pat ran past the Louvre at 6:45 am as part of her 6 mile run; by 11:00 am, we have returned to go inside.

A diversion to describe the way the French do business. The cardinal rule seems to be to employ as many people as possible to do every task. We purchase tickets at the Tabac inside the Carrousel at the Louvre. At the entrance to the actual museum, two men sit back to back. We give our tickets to the first, who rips off the stub and hands them to the second man who stamps the date. Our only surprise is that there isn’t a third employee to hand the tickets back to us; perhaps he was on a coffee break.

If you go to the Louvre without an agenda, you’re likely to become both frustrated and exhausted. Pat’s agenda is a short list of old master paintings from the book How to Read a Painting, first on the list being Wedding at Cana by Veronese, a huge painting which covers an entire wall in the same room as the Mona Lisa. Wedding at Cana was studied by Renoir as he approached the task of assembling his models at that boathouse along the Seine where we had lunch last year. My targets are several paintings by Sandro Botticelli, a character who adds a spark (I hope) to my evolving new novel. Although two of Pat’s paintings are traveling (not Cana, which could be moved only by a demolition crew and a crane), both agendas are more or less realized. Strolling through other sections impresses us again with the sheer enormity and beauty of the Louvre.

Napoleon III, sentenced to life imprisonment in 1840, escaped by disguising himself as a laborer and walking out with a plank on his shoulder. Safe in England, he returned to France after King Louis-Philippe was deposed in the revolution of 1848. He was elected to the National Assembly, and three months later President of the Republic. When his term was about to expire, he abolished the constitution, threw opposing ministers in jail, and sent government troops to slaughter his opponents. One year later, he declared himself Emperor of France.

Such a man needed a house; apparently the rental market was tight, so he constructed a new wing on the Louvre. His apartments can be visited, but if you have any social conscience at all, be prepared to wonder how such excesses could still have been possible more than a half century after the French Revolution. Michelin describes the apartments as “a stunning world of gold, crimson velvet and crystal. The dining room seats 45. As Mel Brook’s said, “It’s good to be king.”

We lunch more modestly at a nearby sidewalk café; another example of what the French can do with a piece of lettuce. Dinner is even more spectacular.

What looks like a steak but tastes like a duck?

Au Gamin de Paris, 51, rue Veille du Temple,, is one of our favorites in Paris. Our perfectly located apartment (did I mention that before?) is just 5 minutes away. We arrive at 7:45 to an empty restaurant; 30 minutes later, not a seat is to be had. Pat sticks with the pasta, but deciding to be adventurous, I go for the duck. There are five varieties of Canard on the menu; the waiter recommends the version in a honey sauce. When it arrives, it has the look of a steak. But it is duck, and delicious, accompanied by potatoes and an unnamed vegetable which is also delicious.

We’re seated by a window, and as we eat, we notice men in suits in the street talking into their sleeves. This is followed by a procession of limousines and very well-dressed personages, who enter the building next to the restaurant. When it drizzles just a touch, four matching white umbrellas miraculously appear. After dinner, we explore the site of the fete. There is no address or sign. The courtyard, before the huge doors are closed, is large enough to hold several of the limos. All we learn from the friendly guard at the gate is that it is a private party. He may also have said VIPs.

French ice cream is fantastic; Italian Gelato is even better. Walking along rue Veille du Temple after dinner, we’re drawn to the ‘gelato’ sign. We stop to watch the construction of what must be described as a work of art; a single boule in a cone is surrounded by slathers of contrasting flavor, the image of a tulip. Can we resist? Too pretty to eat? Don’t bet on it.

Grace Kelly at Hotel de Ville

We noticed the signs soon after our arrival; they’re all over Paris. The exhibit is housed in the Hotel de Ville, the Paris city hall, an astounding building. The exhibit is free but there’s been a long line all week. We’re told that the best time to arrive is when it opens at 10:00 am. We’re there at 9:30.

The exhibit begins with the Kelly family in Philadelphia and Ocean City, NJ, where Pat spent parts of 49 years. Many photographs and home movies, followed by real movies, as Grace Kelly’s acting career took off, photos with every major celebrity of her time. The royal engagement, the formal visit to the Kelly’s in Philadelphia, the trans-Atlantic voyage to Monaco, and marriage to Prince Rainier are all documented with taste, beauty and emotion. Grace’s wedding gown and a large collection of other gowns are displayed. A moving exhibit; if it comes near you, go see it.

Thanksgiving in Paris

Thanksgiving is the name of a store, also in our Marais neighborhood, which started out to provide Americans in Paris with otherwise unobtainable ingredients for Thanksgiving dinner. It now offers a collection of exactly the foods you still can’t get anywhere else in Paris. We buy two cans of Campbell’s tomato soup, two jars of Jif peanut butter (extra crunchy), a bag of Reese’s pieces, and brown sugar (for my oatmeal). We also order two sacs of 4 H&H bagels each – plain and sesame – for next Saturday, to take back with us to Collioure. The French, who make the best bread in the world, are definitely not into bagels.

Hair cuts in Paris

We have given up on hair cuts in Collioure. Last summer, we got excellent cuts at a salon in the 5th arrondissement, but when we call, the young ladies who did the cuts no longer work there. So we explore our own neighborhood, where there are 5-6 salons within a few blocks. We choose Le Marais pour Montesantos, 131 rue St. Antoine, just across from the St. Paul Metro stop. Kim does both cuts; each time she goes directly to the precisely right length, short for me and scalped for Pat. We’re happy.

home exchange: Gregoire and Elise

In August, we have a home exchange in Paris with Gregoire and Elise, who live on the other side of the city, near the Tour Eiffel. We have arranged by email to meet them at their apartment at 6:30 pm. We map out the Metro route, beginning at Bastille on line 8 and ending on line 10 at Charles Michel.

We arrive early, take the time to walk around the residential neighborhood loaded with restaurants. The building is relatively new, the apartment is large and quite comfortable with a small balcony overlooking a lovely garden, Gregoire and Elise are charming. The apartment is on the first floor of an elevator building, and it has both internet access and a bathtub.

We Metro back to the Marais for a dinner of onion soup and wine.

home exchange: Arnaud and Cendrine

In July, we have a home exchange in Paris with Arnaud and Cendrine, who live somewhat north of the Pompidou Center at the border between the 2nd and 10th arrondissements. We take the same Metro as last night, line 8 from the Bastille, this time emerging after 5-6 stops at the Strasbourg-St. Denis station.

Again we arrive early, walk around the neighborhood, which has all of the necessary components. This apartment, however, is on the 6th floor of a non-elevator building. The apartment itself is grand, authentic, and very comfortable. It, too, has internet access and a bathtub. Arnaud and Cendrine are every bit as charming as Gregoire and Elise.

As we leave their apartment, it occurs to us that all of our home exchange partners this year are quite a bit younger than any of our children. There are reasons. We can accommodate only two people in Collioure, so we are not exchanging with couples with children. We are interested only in center city locations, so those who have moved to the suburbs are not our prospects. Which leaves young professional couples who live in the center of great cities. And that’s just fine with us. But we do wonder what those young people think when they see two sixty-somethings climbing their 80 steps.

a blue linen blazer

Since retiring three years ago, I have worn a suit and tie two times, a blazer twice more. But in Paris there are opportunities for dressing up a little, and my blazer is two homes removed in Key West. So we shop. Designer blazers at Galeries and Printempts are not what I need for very occasional wear; besides which, nothing fits and I do not relish the idea of alterations. A department store across from Printempts has a wide selection, and a size that fits my current (10 pounds over objective) shape; even the sleeves are ok. Look for photos.

solstice music

June 21, solstice, the longest daylight in the year, is celebrated throughout France with music. Every group which wishes to is allowed (this night only without permit) to perform on the streets. We have participated in music night in Collioure (2006) and Bayeux (2007); both were experiences we will cherish, with local groups performing everywhere.

We began with an excellent dinner at the Italian restaurant l’Enoteca, a few blocks away from our apartment at 25 rue Charles (01-4278-9144, ).  We arrived at 8:15 without reservations; although the small restaurant was only half full, we were advised that every table was taken. But, if we promised to be finished before 9:30, we could be seated. Our table on the charming second floor was adjacent to a photo of Bogey and Bergman in a Paris scene fromCasablanca. My risotto, which we were told is the restaurant’s signature meal, was wonderful, as was Pat’s shrimp (with fish and artichokes) tempura.

Our first plan was to stay in Place Catherine where we knew there would be music. Instead, we walked to Hotel de Ville (photo above) and across to the Latin Quarter. What we found on our walk were huge crowds, bands in every plaza and cafe that we couldn’t get close too. It was difficult to walk and for us, a little overwhelming.

Our first idea was probably better. We received confirmation of this the next day when Pat’s June 23 Parler Paris newsletter (by Adrian Leeds) proclaimed that the best spot, or at least the one chosen by Adrian, was indeed Place Catherine. By the way, the Parler Paris newsletter is an outstanding source of all sorts of Paris information, especially about purchasing or renting property. Check it out at

another Velib experience

We have described Paris’ Velib before – a magnificent concept poorly implemented. But, we thought optimistically, we solved it last year, we can do it again. No problem. Wrong!

Velib is a system of bike rentals, with stations all over Paris. You rent the bike, take it wherever you want, leave it at another station. The system is designed for repeat use by Paris residents, who purchase an annual membership and for whom, we suspect, the procedure is quite efficient.

Not so for the occasional user.

There are 17 steps in the process of renting a bike. Make a mistake in any of them and you immediately return to GO. You can almost hear the French bureaucrat chortling in the background.

There are 3 distinct phases, with many sub-steps in each.

First you must register; the cost is 1 euro; it must be paid with a card with a chip (we use our French bank card, our credit cards will not work). When you register, you agree to a 150 euro hold against your bank account in case you don’t return your bike. The bikes are worth more than 150 euros, but be assured the French legal process will find you if they need to.

Step 2 is to obtain a ticket for this particular bike rental. This involves creating a personal 4 digit code which is stored in the system. The ticket comes with its own 7 digit code. All entries must be made on a keypad located below the screen, not on the screen itself; this is not immediately apparent. After each entry, you must enter ‘V’ for validate, although this instruction, if given at all, is less than prominent on the screen. Any mistakes are punished immediately; return to GO.

Imagine doing this with a long and growing line of people behind you. Fortunately the French are patient, and someone will probably help you.

After you get the ticket, the screen says take your bike. This is a trick. If you go to the rack of bikes, choose one, and push the button to release the bike from its lock, nothing happens. Shake the bike, kick it, nothing happens. French people laugh. Take more than a few seconds, and you are blown off the system. Return to GO.

What you should have done is press ‘1’ which is the number next to the words ‘take your bike.’ There is no instruction, however, to push anything. When you finally figure it out, or more likely someone else shows you, if you push ‘1’ the screen will chug along for awhile and then display a list of the available bikes, by the number in the rack. You now enter your chosen number, followed by your personal code (did you forget? return to GO!), after which the chosen bike may be removed from the rack. But not easily. It still takes some yanking and pulling and shoving.

When Pat finally mounts her bike, she is sent on her way by a crescendo of clapping from the outdoor café across the street. My enthusiasm for bike riding having waned, I join the clappers for a cup of coffee.

NOTE: there’s a postscript. When I check our bank account some days later, I learn we have been charged 23 euros. I call and am told the bike was not properly returned 15 minutes after renting it, and was not checked in until after 1:00 pm. This is an outrage.  See posting Paris – August 2008 for another update.

Breakfast in America

Most visitors to Paris come at least in part for the wonderful French food. We enjoy that as well, but living for 6 months in France, we occasionally yearn for things American. We have reported before on Breakfast in America, a great American diner in Paris. There are two locations, one in the Marais two minutes from our apartment, the other across the Seine in the 5th arrondissement. On this morning, we have eggs and bacon, perfectly prepared; I have a bagel. And I purchase a BIA travel coffee mug, something I’ve been looking for all week. The waitress was from Princeton Junction, a Barnard student in Paris for the summer.

a walk through lost Paris

Leonard Pitt’s Walks Through Lost Paris utilizes 19th century records, photographs and post cards to document many of buildings demolished by Baron Haussmann at the direction of Emperor Napoleon III in the mid 1800s. Some of these are but a few blocks from our apartment in the sub-section of the Marais known as Saint Paul Village.

We begin at 47 Rue Saint-Paul, with a “tall narrow building dating from 1545.” That’s 1545! 23 generations, more or less, have come and mostly gone since then, and the building is still functioning, a store at ground level and apartments above.

In many ways, this sense of connection with our long gone predecessors is what brings us to Europe. Over 450 years ago, people lived, slept, ate, argued and made love in this very building. Were they happy? What did they think of their lives? That’s one of the reasons I love to write historical novels, to consider, research, and write about such questions.

We pass through an ancient arch, down a narrow passage and into the side entrance of the impressive Jesuit church of St-Paul-St-Louis, completed in 1641.

A block away on Rue Eginhard are several homes constructed by the prioress of the order Dames Hospitalieres de Saninte-Anastasie in 1648. On the now cleared site of one of these homes is a plaque honoring Elias Zadjner, who died with his three sons in Auschwitz, in the unit of medical experiments. French police took the family away from Catholic priests who were trying to save them and delivered them to the Nazis. Zadjner’s wife, who survived, pleaded with the city for 50 years for a memorial; in 1995, then mayor Jacques Chirac heard her plea.

On Rue des Jardins Saint-Paul, the name of the street since 1277, stands the remnants of the Paris city wall constructed between 1190 and 1210. Boys play soccer next to the wall, occasionally pounding a ball against it.

The Village Saint-Paul consists of 50 or so buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries, restored by the city in the 1970s; they now house ground level artist and antique shops above which are apartments rented to the elderly at below-market rates.

On the Rue du Figuier is the Hotel de Sens, built by Archbishop Tristan de Salazar between 1498 and 1519, one of two remaining medieval buildings in Paris. Pitt relates a famous tragedy of love which occurred just in front of the building. In 1606, Marguerite de Valois (Queen Margot) lived in the Hotel de Sens. Then aged 52, she summarily dropped her 18 year old lover, Count de Vermond, for the perhaps more experienced 20 year old Julian Date. The count, understandably piqued, retaliated by shooting his rival in the head, subsequently losing his own head to a dropping blade after refusing Margot’s plea to make “honorable amend.” What do we imagine she meant by “honorable amend?”

an unexpected dining pleasure

We received an email from our Key West friends Carol and Karl; they are on their way from their home in the Loire Valley to NYC for the wedding of Carol’s son, and will be in Paris for a little more than 24 hours. I call Carol to invite her to have dinner; they have already planned dinner Sunday night with a friend; we are invited to join them. The restaurant is Coupe Chou, a favorite of Carol’s. We ate there last summer on her recommendation; it was superb then and again now. Karl recommends his favorite, an aubergine (eggplant) appetizer; it is fantastic.

Their long-time friend Tom, who used to live in Key West and now lives in Paris and LA, is a delightful new acquaintance for us. He is extremely well read on French history and several of his suggestions are already in my cart.

Some real insights from Tom on the attitude of the French towards work; they are set in their work habits and don’t like any changes, especially if they involve more work, and they resent success.  He cites the example of a friend who worked hard to make his café on Isle St. Louis a financial as well as culinary success; when he bought a nice car with his profits, his friends told him he was putting on airs. Another friend, upon retiring, was berated by his co-workers who were worried they would have to add his duties to their own.

We see this all the time as customers. For the French, the job exists for the employee, not the customer, who is often seen as an unwanted intruder on the employee’s domain. For example, it is apparently too much work for a clerk in a store or behind a ticket window to make change. Every time I pay with a 20 euro bill, I’m asked if I have something smaller; whenever I say no, the clerk is obviously irritated.

We took the metro and RER to get to Coupe Chou, but walk back, most of the way with Tom who lives on Isle St. Louis; he knows all the short cuts. We see a spectacular view of Notre Dame at night. Tom’s apartment, which he purchased in 1984, is in a building on the point of Isle St. Louis with spectacular views of the Seine and Isle de Cite. If there is a better location in Paris, we have no idea what that might be.

the wonderful world of Disney

Pat introduced me to Disneyworld in Orlando years ago, and we have loved it together ever since. Disney in Paris (actually about 35 minutes outside of Paris) is every bit as ‘perfect’ as Disney in Orlando. Main Street has all the familiar stores; It’s a Small World and Pirates of the Caribbean are just as great (maybe even better, if it’s not heresy to say so); the parade just as much fun. We wander all day from Disneyland to the Disney Studio, to the Disneyland Hotel, to Disney Village. Each building and park setting is absolutely Disney-perfect. The weather is perfect. We eat real hot dogs. The popcorn, however, is sugar coated, not to our liking; Orville Redenbacher didn’t make it across the Atlantic.

One aspect of our remembered Disney experience is missing: there are no smiling employees at every corner and turn to welcome and direct you; perhaps these have also been eliminated in Orlando since our last visit, but we miss them here. The cleaning personnel, however, are omnipresent. A single discarded wrapper has a very short life in the street. Smoking is prohibited except in selected areas, and this restriction is mostly (and surprisingly) observed.

We’re told the parade begins at 4:00 pm; we find seats on the curb; the appointed time comes and goes. Oops, today it’s 5:00 pm. At 5:00 pm, right on schedule, the music begins, with an announcement, in French and English, that the parade will begin in 10 minutes. It does, and it’s great. After the parade, we go to Disney village and eat (a real hamburger and potato skins) at Planet Hollywood, the only restaurant in our experience that includes both Philly Cheese Steaks and Croque Monsieur on the same menu.

Disney Paris was a great experience … with two (minor?) irritations.

One was buying a ticket. We arrived at 10:45 am after a 35 minute ride on the RER from Gare de Lyon in Paris. The park has been open since 10:00. There are huge crowds waiting to get in, divided into three sections; in each section, there are eight ticket booths. The problem, at least in our section, is that only one of the ticket booths is open. The line, as you can imagine, moves slowly or not at all. Finally, two more ticket booths are opened (Pat says they were open all along, but here our observations differ), and then three more. The line now moves quickly, but it has taken as long to buy a ticket as it did to get here from Paris. The French are very patient; Americans (and the Finns behind us in line) are not.

Once we see Main Street, however, the irritation dissipates. Until we leave.

Now we are in the RER terminal. It is 7:30 pm, the end of a Disney day, so there are huge crowds of people trying to buy RER tickets back to Paris. Inexplicably, more than half of the ticket machines are programmed so they don’t dispense one way tickets, which you don’t learn until you wait in the long line and try to use one. I go to the back of another long line; this machine does dispense one way tickets to others ahead of me, but now my bank debit card does not work, and I don’t have 12.60 euros in change. Fortunately, Pat has been waiting all this time in the line for the one open ticket booth. There are eight booths, seven of which are closed. It takes over 30 minutes to buy a ticket.

The French, obviously used to waiting, are very patient. Repeat the mantra: jobs are to provide income for employees, not to serve customers. On a different perspective, which may or may not be valid, it seems to me that France cannot continue to compete in the fast-paced European Union environment if these attitudes toward work and customer service continue to dominate French culture.

lunch and a movie

When we went to see Sex and the City, we found a delightful side street with what looked like a great restaurant for lunch. We find it again on one of several tiny side streets off Bd. Ste. Germaine near the Odeon Metro stop; our lunch, in a small outdoor alcove, is one of those simple French meals, salad nicoise for me, that make Paris so charming for us. This time we see Las Vegas 21, based on a true story about MIT students who learned to count cards and made a fortune in Las Vegas. Not destined to be a classic, but fast paced and enjoyable.

Celine & Mahamet

Usually, you don’t get to meet your home exchange partners. In Paris this year, we’ve now met all three. Celine and Mahamet came over to the apartment along with a new chair bed that was being delivered. Celine reported that her parents are enjoying Collioure, especially the view from the terrace. The weather in Collioure has been warm, the weather in Paris in the low to mid-70s; perfect for us and for them.

I make my usual strong coffee, in their coffee maker, for Celine and Ehmet. But then I serve it in mugs, which hold about 3 times what they usually consume in the demitasse cups they prefer. We get to know a little about them, both professors, both nice people, both far more fluent in English than we will ever be in French.

a quiet lunch … then not

Everything in France is controlled by the government. Including when stores are allowed to have sales. These occur twice each year, in late June and again in January. The Soldes signs are all over town; 30- 50% off. BHV is jammed, but Pat does not find the linen shirt she wants. Maybe better luck tomorrow at Galeries or the small shops in the Marais.

We walk across the Pont Louis Philippe to Isle St. Louis, which gives us another chance to admire the location of Tom’s apartment at the point of the island. He said when he looks out his windows, he sees water in every direction and it seems like he’s on a ship.

We stop for lunch in a creperie place where we’ve eaten before. We’re in the lovely back room enjoying a quiet lunch when the very small room is invaded. A group of ten takes command; six sit on one side of us, four on the other. They are a happy group; they yell at each other and at the waitress; not actually yell, but speak loudly, directly across our table in between. The waitress gets into the spirit and her voice goes up several decibel levels.

What makes this so unusual is that the French are always quiet at table. Polite. Discrete. Not only in restaurants. When the French talk on cell phones, they are very quiet. Some even cover their mouths while they talk so as not to disturb others. Not at all like a New York City subway.

The group which invaded our space was not French. Nor were they Americans. Think Mediterranean. We finish eating as quickly as possible and make our escape. Pylones is just across the street.

We discovered Pylones on Isle St. Louis several years ago; since then they’ve grown and now have 3 shops in Manhattan as well as other places. They even have a U.S. web site …  Their merchandise is unique, colorful, fun to look at, and reasonably priced. We buy 4 items, all for house gifts or dinner gifts, something a little different. Since the recipients of these gifts may be readers of this blog, no more details for now.

Robert, Rawy and Nijole

Our Paris exchange last summer was a French film director and acting teacher named Robert, a fascinating man whose experiences and perspectives lead to thoughtful and interesting conversation. We meet at Café du Marche at the corner of rue Bretagne and rue Charlot, a 15 minute walk from our apartment, a great place, by the way, for an inexpensive meal in a very cosmopolitan setting. We talk: Robert’s acting workshop in New York last fall was successful and will be repeated this year; acting students don’t study the superb performances available on DVDs; people read less, but how then to explain the great success of vendors like and Barnes & Noble; the publishing opportunities created by print-on-demand technology, our recent visit to Sicily. The hour goes quickly. We finish by agreeing to try to work out another exchange in 2009. Robert asks for information about our Sicily rental and POD publishing, which I send him the next morning by email.

Our Key West neighbors Rawy and Nijole spend most of their summer in Paris. They’ve just returned from Cairo, where they visited Rawy’s parents. It’s less than a 15 minute walk from the Café du Marche to Chez Janou, on rue Roger-Verlomme, a very trendy bistro just a block behind Place des Vosges. Rawy always selects great restaurants, new for us, with quality menus and reasonable prices. This is another of them. The place is packed, mainly young people, and we have no reservation, but Rawy somehow gets us seated in less than 2 minutes. We talk Key West and Paris, travel plans – it turns out that we will miss each other by one day in Amsterdam in July. Dinner is stunningly good; is there such a thing as a bad meal in Paris? In France?

great shopping at Galeries; dinner in the neighborhood

In the morning, we set out to see a Marie Antoinette exhibit at the Petit Palais just off the Champs Elysees, but it means waiting in the sun for over an hour to get in, so we admire the statue of le grand Charles, then walk through quite wealthy parts of the 8th arrondissement we’ve never seen before. The signs of power, government buildings, men in dark suits, are all around.

We arrive at Galeries Lafayette at lunch time; it’s crowded but not overwhelmingly so. Pat has a spectacular shopping day; 3 shirts and a pair of pants, all at 30-50% off. We walk along Haussmann’s  great boulevards to the Place de la Concorde, take the Metro home.

We try a new corner of Place St. Catherine, a small place with maybe 6 tables outside, none inside. The meal is, as always, excellent. At the table next to us are 4 people, all French, but 3 of them have graduate degrees from Stanford, Berkeley, and UC-Davis. They all want to trade homes for Key West, which we have never yet done and probably won’t.

lunch at Le Grand Colbert

We give ourselves a special treat as we near the end of this two week stay. Le Grand Colbert, a 19th century brasserie, is located on the right bank, behind the Palais Royal, which is in turn behind the Louvre. Palm trees, mirrors, exquisite service from waiters who are dressed formally but approach with the most pleasant smiles. If you’re looking for a special place on your next visit to Paris, this could be it. We’re seated a few tables from where Diane Keaton and Keanu Reeves waited for Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give. We share a mozzarella and tomato appetizer, wonderful main plats, and a rare, for us, dessert (apple crumb cake with vanilla ice cream); 94 Euros. Then we pledge diets.

Nearby is the Galerie Vivienne, at 4 rue des Petits-Champs, which Michelin describes as one of the most beautiful arcades in Paris, featuring a bookstore established in 1826; another of the stunningly beautiful places that make Paris an unending pleasure.

Since we’re stuffed, we spend the night reading. Pat reads Four Queens, a fascinating non-fiction account of the 4 daughters of the Count of Provence who become queens of France, England, Germany and Sicily during the period of the First Crusade. I’m reading Outsider in Amsterdam, the first in a series about two police officers by Janwillem van de Wetering; this is in anticipation of our trip in July.

The next morning, Saturday, Pat completes her 6th run in our two weeks in Paris. She’s building up for a half marathon in Miami in January. From our apartment on rue Sevigne, she runs along rue Rivoli to Hotel de Ville, over to the right bank of the Seine, along the river where the little bookstands are, to the Louvre, where she enters the plaza with Pei’s Pyramid, once around the plaza and off to the Tuileries, around the park and then return by the same route in reverse. Depending on the number of loops at the Tuileries, this has been either 5 or 7 miles. Then she climbs the 56 steps to our apartment.

Gay Pride in Paris

From the Latin Quarter to the Bastille, a distance of 3+ miles, thousands of gays and lesbians celebrate their freedom to be who they want to be. There are floats, bands at the Bastille, many rainbow flags, a few outrageous outfits. We watch while sitting on parked bikes in the Velib rack at the corner of Bd. Henry IV and Quai des Celestins, the subject of many photos by spectators who thought our seating arrangement was worth recording. We see no naked body parts, but Adrian Leeds did, and included some photos in her Parler Paris newsletter.

Our last dinner in Paris (for a month or so) is at an Irish pub just off Place Catherine. We ask if there’s any food, expecting typical pub fare if anything, and are amazed by an unexpected display of creativity and entrepreneurship. The Irish bar has no food, except for the complete menu of the splendid Italian restaurant across the street. We order pizza, and eventually the bartender wanders over to the other restaurant and returns with our dinner. Pizza and Guinness in Paris; does it get any better?

Our after dinner walk takes us into the heart of the Marais continuation of the Gay Pride celebration. Everybody sorts themselves out; there’s a block of guys in the bars, the street and sitting along the curb, then a girl’s block of the same. A small parade of guys in pink underwear sets the tone. Just one or two drag queens; Sushi in Key West has nothing to worry about.

Velib #2

Having sat on thebikes to watch the parade, we decided to rent them and ride home. I think I have the 17 step process down, because both rentals went smoothly, with Pat removing both bikes from the rack after I entered all the numbers. We rode back to the Marais, an easy 5-10 minute ride, and then ran into the 2nd major problem of the bicycle system – no empty spots on the racks in our neighborhood to return the bikes. So we rode around for another 5-10 minutes, drifting past where we wanted to be, before we could park the bikes.

Sunday morning

The next morning, we Breakfast in America, then have a much easier time than anticipated getting a taxi to Gare de Lyon. First is the ordeal of getting our excessive luggage down the 56 steps; at every other step, Pat says “this is the last time.” We have vowed to take less, to be like Europeans. We even practiced loading our bags, and have taken careful note of the articles of clothing that were carried to Paris and back and never worn.

Our train ride, however, is more eventful than usual. The first part, through the gorgeous country surrounding Dijon, is beautiful; wide fields extending to the horizon broken by small villages, a dozen homes and a church, repeated again and again.

Then the fun begins. I should mention that we are in 2nd class accommodations, the result of not purchasing before the 50% first class seats were gone. The difference becomes apparent. It is much noisier. There are lots of young people who have no assigned seats, and I suspect no tickets either. No conductor ever comes through our car to check. If he had, I wonder what he would have thought about the dog laying under the luggage rack, nursing her six tiny puppies. Or the guy who brought the dog, with three waist length braids and a safety pin through his ear, and an odor all his own.

Then the train stops. There’s another train on the track next to us. There seems to be some confusion; we suspect some sort of police raid. But no, the adjacent train has broken down, and all of its passengers, who appear to be young military people, are coming off, with their bags and bikes, and coming onto our train, which was already full to bursting.

“It’s all part of the adventure.”

Our connection at Perpignan is also late, perhaps purposely, and we’re back in Collioure not much later than scheduled.

An absolutely great two weeks in Paris; we appreciate every minute of it.


One Response to “* Paris June 2008”

  1. Nijole said

    I love the description of the man with the dogs: “…an odor all his own.” I bet it was an odor you WISH was all his own- and that only he could be the recipient of it!! It was so much fun meeting up with you this summer in Paris, London, Paris again, and Santorini! What amazing paths we follow- and how nice that they crossed so often this summer! See you in KW.
    Great blog!

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