How many times do you visit a place? Do you stop after the first time, bottle up those memories and move on? Or do you leave knowing you will return, not because of the attraction you missed out or the restaurant you never made it too, but because you have found a special place.
Everyone has special places that make a forever connection with you; near or far their attraction never fades. Places we have visited are often peopled by those we love or have loved and the memories we share with them, but a special place is even more as it combines all of that with an intangible sense of coming home away from home and a feeling of being a very natural part of where you are. For some finding such a place or places necessitates moving, but for others it remains that place or places where you would choose to live in an alternative universe where jobs and commitments did not exist.
Just as a small child will choose to endlessly repeat a task despite numerous more exciting offerings, so we return again and again to certain special places despite the variety and opportunities our world offers. You cannot tire of a special place; it just keeps giving. Special places are never perfect and we know that, but we are accepting of their imperfections because just as with a loved one we willingly embrace the whole.
Paris is one of my special places.
This return to Paris was paradoxically marked by a first as we arrived by Eurostar; straight into the city’s heart to the Gare du Nord following an approach through a nerve system of suburbs filled with industries, high rise flats, graffiti and still, despite this, charm and style.
One undeclared function of the Gare du Nord station is that of an introduction to Paris’s character and that of the Parisians that inhabit it; people who in equal measures are proud to be both French and Parisian; inhabitants of the capital city which is a unique and distinct part of the country they celebrate. The station is extremely efficient but in true Parisian style this is very discrete and must be patiently discovered. As the crowds disperse from the dimly lit area which connects the Gare du Nord with Paris’s underground Metro and above ground suburban RER it reveals itself. There are food stands where the immaculately dressed staff effortlessly slip pastries into paper bags with the compulsory serviette and salutations, and iconic news kiosks, a perfect exercise in compact living, where the difficult to discern proprietor moves quickly when required to make himself distinct from the wallpaper of magazines, postcards and drinks that paper the area around him.
A lonely automated ticket machine becomes visible some distance down an unmarked walkway; a lack of signs or confusing signs are a physical manifestation of the Parisian shoulder shrug or the patient resignation heard in a short answer to a request. Is it not obvious? Ironically, despite the curtness of their reply, the quietly spoken Parisian like his or her fellow countrymen will not forget their salutations, and no matter how short the answer it is always enveloped with the obligatory Madame or Monsieur and bonjour, bonsoir or au revoir.
Behind us queues form at the other ticket machines, with the longest line reserved for those brave enough to face the curt replies of the employee encased behind glass and below a sign that promises tickets and information. There is no mention of the hidden costs; the jabbering wreck you will have been reduced too after a round of interrogative questions and answers that end with you apologising and scurrying away none the wiser and probably out of pocket. Those waiting in line watch these pale faced victims slip away, and as if preparing for a boxing match breathe deeply, stretch their necks and prepare mentally for the battle ahead. But it is no good, as they near the front of the line the fire goes out in their belly, their face grows pale and the churning of their stomach is the signal to resign themselves to failure.
A couple are printing off tickets as we arrive at the machine; immediately and with no indication from them we become all too conscious of the inadequacies of our appearance and step into the obligatory shadow that a Parisian unconsciously places you into for the duration of your stay. The couple must be in their seventies and their coiffured grey hair says as much, but their clothing and demeanour both challenge and compliment this. The woman hands the man her wicker shopping basket so that she can open with elegant hands topped with red nails the gold coloured clasp of her handbag. It sits as if at home in the crop of his arm encircled by beautiful hands with manicured nails, your eyes are drawn to the flash of jade sock between tailored suit trouser and shiny black shoe and you wonder again how the French look so good in glasses. The woman’s outfit of skirt, top and cardigan is so much more because of the attention to detail; a tiny belt picks up on the compulsory jewellery and the colourful hair accessories secure a deceptively simple ponytail. We step forward still in shadow as they leave and purchase a book of ten tickets which is known as a carnet.
Our hotel in Pereire is in the 17th arrondisement; these quartiers or districts are like a patchwork of villages each with its’ own character and community and are a gateway into the Parisians’ Paris. The closet Metro to the hotel led up into a busy square where car horns, sudden braking and double parking were the reminder to be on your guard as you entered the domain of the Parisian driver. The square is completely wrapped with cafes and restaurants, and although a work day many tables are taken by people and dogs. It seems nothing is off limits to a French dog with most rejecting under the table for their own chair. Once eating in a Paris restaurant where the tables were set in rows I had on my left for a dinner companion a beautiful white poodle who spent the whole time eyeing up my steak tartare. On another occasion, I walked down the aisle of a Paris supermarket my trolley side by side with another, the front seat of which was full to overflowing with a very hot pug whose saliva was slowly coating the trolley handle.
The busy cafes and parks of Paris are also a reflection of the city’s size, population and living costs. It has a dense inner-city population which lives in highly priced miniscule apartments half of which are single occupancy. This means by necessity more communal living, and Parisians see cafes and parks as an extension of their homes; hence the length of time taken to finish a drink as no one would push you off your own sofa, and helps explain the thriving village like atmosphere of shops and street markets.
Our hotel is a converted town house French slim with a dark wood clad elevator the size of a broom cupboard that clatters and bumps us up to the fifth floor. Throughout our stay this elevator tests our nerves, although we try to take comfort from a small sticker that states it had passed an inspection a month earlier. The elevator smelt strongly; its’ diminutive size concentrating whatever “fragrance” we met on our ascent or descent. Sometimes it was delicious breakfast pastries or fresh cleaning products, while other times we coughed our way up and down with the smell of cigarette smoke. This is an example of the apparent, maybe misplaced view, we have of the contradictory French nature: little enforcement of the smoking bans, a recklessness about health and safety plus a laisser- faire attitude to driving, alongside a fiercely defended traditional way of life, formal modes of address and pristine public parks if you disregard the cigarette butts. Perhaps it is a touch of the green- eyed monster that makes us notice these things?
The style of our hotel building is replicated throughout Paris; they stand in line proudly sandwiching the wide and straight streets with which Haussmann replaced swathes of narrow, cramped and crooked roads in the 19th century. As we walk through St Germain des Prés admiring them it becomes clear that uniformity of structure does not have to mean uniformity of style. Many of the buildings are signed and dated by their architects both past and present who all, while adhering to the prescribed form, push or personally adorn their design so that the senses are pleased both by uniformity and individuality.
A return visit does not have to have the frenzy of the first; where the top sites all worthy of a visit are fitted in, and the journeys between are a means to an end completed with a mind full of the incredible but with no space left to absorb the everyday. We love to walk, and without the pressure of the first-time visitor we set out to enjoy as much of the city as we could on foot.
Walking through St Germain du Prés and the adjacent Montparnasse, the 20th century haunt of literary and philosophical giants such as Hemingway, Sartre, de Beauvoir and Fitzgerald, provides an opportunity to enjoy both the layers upon layers of history that surround you and the parks or rather the communal back gardens of Paris, as well as the unique Parisian approach to shops and shopping.
The Paris shop is a conundrum as it seems to take great pleasure in just simply being there and looking good, the frantic frontage cleaning and beautiful displays are testament to this, while at the same time appearing to have a complete lack of concern about whether any customers enter or even if they sell anything. You can cause quite a surprise with your entry, although once in it is a serious business with much wrapping and many salutations to be got through before you depart. Parisians purchase very little at a time and always only after much thought and discussion.
Sitting at a café in the Rue Daguerre provides an opportunity to observe and enjoy Paris shopping. The Rue Daguerre, currently stranded amongst the organised chaos of road upgrading and repairs, is a narrow street with a traditional village atmosphere lined with florists, fromageries (cheese shops), boulangeries(bakeries), patisseries, épicerie verte (green grocers) and delicatessens separated by classic cafes that spill out onto the street. We chose a café across from the green grocers; the fruit and vegetables are arranged as precisely as a still life with the colours intensified by the sun that shone for the duration of our stay.
The Parisian shopper usually has a small bag rarely plastic and usually only half full after a lengthy shop. A woman approaches the fruit and vegetables, and begins the predictable slow walk along them smelling and squeezing the produce as she goes. At the front of the shop is a machine of a distinctly unsafe nature that supplies freshly squeezed orange juice. It has broken and the unlucky victim who is looking aghast at the stickiness of her hands has called the owner over to help. He works and chatters away while casually dragging multiple orange carcasses out with his hands from between the blades that have macerated them. Meanwhile after a lengthy examination of the produce a queue of customers with their small selection of carefully chosen items is beginning to form at the cash desk, but the owner remains unperturbed. It is only when the machine works perfectly and he has washed his hands that he goes to serve them; they seem unconcerned and he does wrap everything beautifully. Maybe his behaviour is just another manifestation of theirs? Meanwhile in the road between us are countless other shoppers with bags half full of carefully selected beautiful examples of their kind and the image is really pleasing.
Montparnasse is also home to the beautiful oasis that is the Jardin du Luxembourg; sixty acres of formal gardens filled with statues, ponds and chic 1920s metal chairs and park benches, as well as the exquisite Palais du Luxembourg elegantly reflected in the Grand Bassin lake that it and the random palm trees bedecks. The gardens were dedicated to the children of Paris by Napoleon, and today their descendants play with sailboats on the Grand Bassin, take pony rides and watch puppet shows just as they did centuries before them. Escaping the sun, we dipped into tree lined avenues to sit on one of the benches; opposite two people were both intently reading their books on political philosophy. Only in Paris.
We were also there to visit Cimetiere (cemetery) du Montparnasse having visited Cimetiere de Montmartre the day before and Pere Lachaise on a previous visit. A cemetery is not for everyone, but surprisingly these are atmospheric places of real beauty; open air museums of history and art overflowing with flora and fauna. There are very few plain headstones, instead the terraces and neat avenues with their iron enamelled signage are lined with a mixture of mini chapels or mausoleums, as well as tombs incorporating statues or works of art the scale or detail of which is both a beautiful and emotive expression of grief. In Montparnasse, a grave is covered by a glass cabinet filled with delicate silk flowers; a daughter’s tribute to her dead Father made more poignant by the later addition of her name beside his. It is this tolerance of the eclectic mixture of the designs and wishes of the bereaved that, although following the fashions of the times like the great municipal British cemeteries such as Highgate, make these places lasting memorials to French tolerance, free will and celebration of beauty.
Our visit to Montmartre the previous day had started with breakfast at Café des du Moulins chosen by director Jean-Pierre Jeunet as the café where Amelie works in the 1997 film of the same name. For those who know the film, on the way to the toilets you pass a cabinet containing the gnome belonging to Amelie’s Father, and the iconic opening globe sugar bowls sit on the counter. Tour groups gather outside on the pavements, and people sit below Audrey Tautou’s signed picture, but this café is far more than a film set; the shabby chic of the well- worn but still adequate fittings, and the locals of all ages who breeze in and out as if opening the fridge or pantry in their own home tell you more about this area which on the surface seems somewhat down at heel and overrun by tourists.
Enjoy the ascent through Montmartre towards the steps of the Sacré-Coeur and take time to stop at the cafes and restaurants that mark your route. The best command a corner on a square; their frontages meeting at an apex that protrudes dangerously into the road, a fact that appears lost on the waiter who repeatedly steps nonchalantly into it. Arriving at the steps up to the Sacré-Coeur is like chancing upon the best impromptu party ever in a perfect location with all of Paris there below you for your eyes to feast upon. People of the world fill the steps listening to the live music and enjoying the street performers. Space is at a premium but no one seems to care and no one is in any rush to leave.
Montmartre, along with the city’s literary Left Bank, are physical manifestations of Paris’s reputation as an intellectual hot house; France has always championed liberal thought, and welcomed those who challenge the boundaries of art, behaviour and the written word. Montmartre was also affordable for the stereotypical money strapped artist to live in, and at the start of the 20th century American writers revelled in the cheap and readily available alcohol after the Prohibition of the USA. The Museé de la Vie Romantique in Montmartre was the home of the writer Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin (better known by her pseudonym of George Sands), and is both a celebration of the intellectual and artistic salon society of nineteenth century Paris, as well as its’ defiance of expected behaviour as Sands also entertained her lovers there who included Chopin and the writer Alfred de Musset. The museum, which surrounds a flower filled courtyard and is approached by a hidden gated pathway, exudes an irresistible invitation to take your time to just sit, think or talk, and just as today no Parisian rushes (except behind a wheel) those Left Bank cafes and bookshops allowed writers and philosophers the luxury of time and tolerance to expand both thought and word.
The cafes and restaurants of Paris reflect the French character; here you find an expectation and appreciation of good food and drink from both customer and proprietor. As visitors, we marvel at what we find whereas a Parisian would expect nothing less; their behaviour has an apparent dismissive acceptance of it that we, no matter how hard we try, cannot emulate. Perhaps it is best personified within the character of the Parisian waiter who, years in the making, has a professional demeanour that no matter how helpful always makes you feel that you have not quite met their standards.
Our first night was a recommendation, always a good strategy with Paris where the variety of restaurants is overwhelming; the other nights we went for history, records and oysters and all proved good choices. As we eagerly devoured our food, a couple with an elderly parent took the table next to us, and after a salutation set about unconsciously giving us a lesson in how we should be behaving. In true Parisian style, it was all about taking your time; with a detailed examination and discussion of the menu in which the waiter was called over not once but three times to discuss the dishes. The waiter seemed quite happy to do this, conversing with passion and seriousness before a choice which everyone felt was the best was finally made. Their choice of food eaten slowly and methodically was genuinely enjoyed, although not without further discussion in which the waiter also shared, and all seemed happy with their decision.
The oysters were eaten at a shellfish banquet in the historic Les Halles; the original markets created in 1137 by Louis VI for the merchants who descended on Paris to sell their produce. The wholesalers moved out to the suburbs in 1971, but the mercantile spirit of fresh food lives on here in an area with a young vibe and buzzing café society, as well as a treasure trove of shops and restaurants installed in the centuries old buildings that grew up around the markets. What is left of the original oyster market is a timber framed building which is the restaurant Au Rocher de Cancale; here you can feast on Breton oysters and seafood served on cake stand like structures piled high with ice as generations of Parisians have done before you.
The historical choice was Le Bouillion Chartier in the 9th arrondissement which was established in 1896 to provide quality well priced meals for working Parisians in the same style as the classic London chop house. Today, both a legend and a historical monument, it is as busy as ever. Tables are placed alongside coat hooks and racks where Parisians once placed the tools of their trade, and diners sit underneath a high ceiling surrounded by huge mirrors, cupboard and drawer clad walls and twinkling lights. Waiters cannot get more professional than these; dressed in black and white with some in near floor length aprons their eyes are constantly scanning the restaurant; nothing escapes them as they move or rather glide between tables. Glasses are endlessly polished and cutlery and plates laid out slowly and precisely. These table settings are often rearranged several times after asking advice from other waiters, until a perfectly executed nod finally confirms the appearance is judged satisfactory.
The menu is extensive, very traditional and unapologetic. The waiter makes various noises as we give our order and we wonder how our choices rated us and the conclusions he has drawn. To our surprise the order is written on the paper tablecloth in biro where it will also be added up later. The food arrives quickly, and the table arrangements create a social atmosphere in which the waiters join. Suddenly it appears that one waiter feels that another has broken with etiquette and taken a tip which should have been his. At first comments are whispered discreetly into ears, but with raised voices and laughter stoking the situation in true French style the aggrieved party responds by taking a cigarette break outside. He strides up and down, alternating between puffs on his cigarette and an animated conversation on his phone. He rebuffs the interventions of colleagues, and cinematically pulling off his bow tie and removing his long apron storms off with his voice still audible long after he disappears. The waiters smile because they know he will be back tomorrow as if nothing had happened.
The record choice was Paris’s oldest restaurant La Petit Chaise established in 1680 during the reign of Louis XIV. The restaurant, spread through three rooms and two floors, is in a simply furnished timber framed building which you enter through a doorway topped by a heavy metal grid. It is this grid which provides the proof for the restaurant’s claim to be the city’s oldest. In the 17th century a Royal Edict had obliged wine merchants, who also provided meals, to protect their property with gratings, and records from 1680 confirm that this was the case with what was to become La Petit Chaise.
We are welcomed at the restaurant and asked to wait while our table is prepared; as we do so more people arrive and the area becomes full. What could have become chaotic is becalmed by the waiters; they weave seamlessly between us with trays overloaded with glasses and their movements punctuated with salutations. It is all choreographed, with an unswerving gaze and quietly spoken orders, by the Head Waiter; a character diminutive in size only. It was a theatrical performance, and as we watched our coats were taken away and we were escorted to our tables.
The food is simple and unapologetic. While sometimes flavour is piled upon flavour until the food becomes their mere carrier, this restaurant was not afraid to serve dishes without adornment confident that they would be able to support themselves alone. It was not difficult to imagine down through the centuries such dishes being eaten by the restaurant’s illustrious clientele while waiters glided between the tables anticipating requests and proffering advice.
Paris is our special place, but that does not mean it is above criticism or devoid of faults. You love for better or worse and it is so with Paris, although that does not make those faults any less infuriating. Our visit to Versailles on a hot Sunday meant a long queue for tickets, and faced with a choice of five we chose the middle and with British fortitude moped our sweaty brows and began to wait. Fifteen minutes later we were one from the front; kept from the prize by a lady requiring a complete itemised list of all the facilities her young son could avail himself of while at the Palace. It felt like we were back in the classroom labouring through our French lesson as we listened to a series of questions and their lengthy replies. With the temperature rising in the room and the queue becoming restless the woman and her young son finally said au revoir and moved away. I was finally there and my request for tickets fell out of my mouth propelled by relief. But it was not met with the convivial reply that had greeted the previous woman, instead there was silence accompanied by the placing of a handwritten sign in my face informing me that the kiosk was now closed. Two arms emerged from either side of the sign from the still silent body pointing to the queues either side which instantly closed and stared back defiantly. All the employees behind the generously manned kiosks became oblivious to our comments steadfastly avoiding any attempt to catch their eye; the kiosk was due to close and had closed end of.
Enjoy celebrating your special places wherever they are….
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