In which I manage to totally avoid tourists, mostly by staying in parts of Paris that are completely un-picturesque…
Also, I buy a lot of chocolate. And a cookbook. Nobody is surprised.
August 18th, Paris
Paris is so flat! I don’t mean this in any perjorative sense, you understand, but after a week in Norway, flying into Orly airport was downright weird. Where were the hills? Where was the water? Seriously, is all the ground really flat like that…? It’s odd how one’s eyes adjust to landscapes. I didn’t know they would do that.
The fun part of arriving in Paris was definitely flying into Orly and realising that that long shadow on the horizon wasn’t a shadow – in fact, it was the Eiffel Tower! Seeing the Eiffel Tower is pretty much the definition of being in Paris, so it was nice to have that crossed off my list.
Finding my way to my B&B was both amusing and disappointing. It turns out that the 12th arondissement is pretty industrial and working class – it felt somewhere between Preston and Reservoir, actually. Entirely un-picturesque and concretish, and far less well-off than other areas I’ve stayed in. And, the unkindest (and funniest) cut of all – the most direct route there was by the tram! I didn’t even know that they had trams in Paris…
The people are extremely friendly and helpful, though. I hesitated for a moment on a corner, and before I could even get my phone out, an elderly lady stopped and asked if I needed help finding my way, and later, a local woman with a baby helped me figure out the laundromat (a favour I passed on to the North African woman who walked in shortly after the first woman left. It’s nice to know that those instructions really are confusing even if one does speak French). I don’t think I’ve used all that housework-associated vocabulary since I learned it in year 8, but it turns out that it still works.
So yes, I spent an entirely unromantic afternoon finding my apartment, meeting my hostess, doing the laundry, and working out whether any shops at all were still open in my suburb (some, but not many). This was a little deflating, but still beats my last arrival in Paris, in which I locked myself coatless out of my B&B at lunchtime while still reeling with jetlag, discovered my bank card didn’t work and I couldn’t withdraw money, and had to figure out how to keep myself warm and amused until my hostess arrived home in the evening…
I did, however, have tickets for a concert at Notre Dame this evening, and I also had a pedometer which was informing me that flying from Norway to Paris really wasn’t doing my step count as much good as I might wish. I therefore decided that I would leave early, and walk to Nôtre Dame. Six kilometres, most of it along the Seine, very picturesque…
… or not, as it happens.
The Seine is still, apparently, a working river, and there is quite a lot of ugly industrial stuff along the banks. I figured the joke was on me, and kept walking.
After all, sooner or later, I would reach the Île St. Louis, which is reliably beautiful.
And indeed it was. Also reliably touristy, but at this point, I was completely fine with this, provided I got to buy an ice-cream from Berthillon, and sit down somewhere.
Or not, as the case may be.
There was a good long while before my show, so I decided to stop at a café – Aux Anysétiers du Roy – and try their prix fixe menu for dinner. I have to say, I do love the way the French approach the touristy thing. On the one hand, here is a menu that has snails and French Onion Soup, and Tarte Tatin, and every possible cliché’d French food you can imagine. But on the other hand – they did it beautifully. My Poulet Provençale was deliciously garlicky and full of ratatouille-like vegetables, and made me happy. One may be catering to the tourist crowd, but this does not mean one compromises on the quality of the food…
As for the decor… well, I don’t even know how to describe it. Medieval – glorious – hilarious.
I mean, seriously, who does up a bathroom like this?
I love it.
I meandered on to Nôtre Dame, and the concert – which, as it turned out, was largely 17th century English church music… in other words, the genre I sing in more regularly than any other. But the voices were good – very clear, and the music was interesting and well-chosen. There were only a couple of pieces I knew in the mix. The group was Le Trio Musica Humana et L’Ensemble Lunaris – you can hear a teaser by clicking on the link above. I do recommend them.
Also, Nôtre Dame really is beautiful by night. Though I was so tired, and the music was so peaceful, that I found it hard to stay awake.
The center of Paris feels pretty safe to walk around at night (and I kept meeting incredibly helpful people – seriously, I have never encountered the Rude Parisian stereotype, but this was a whole new level of super-helpfulness), so I did so, listening to random buskers, and being rather impressed that someone had brought a piano on wheels all the way out to the middle of a bridge and was playing it.
And then I took the Metro back to my B&B – it turns out that this is possible – and so to bed.
August 19th, Paris
Today was a Shameless Day. I started the morning by posting home my hiking gear (and having a lovely chat with the Tunisian girl who was waiting in the queue ahead of me – I suspect my experience of Paris this time around is much more authentic than my normal one, so that’s one upside to staying in the outer suburbs), and then headed in to the Marais district, in search of foodie jewelry. Alas, the shop I was looking for was shut for the summer, but I did manage to find a couple of other clothing shops that had been recommended to me.
Then I turned around and saw a chocolaterie marked with the ‘Meilleur Ouvrier de France’ stamp. It wasn’t on my List of Endless Chocolate, but I know a sign from the heavens when I see one! This particular shop had all sorts of tubs of different sorts of chocolates with entirely unhelpful names – what is a chocolate tomato? Or a marvellous ball? I shall soon find out… [Later Catherine – and I still don’t really know. Alas, I did not record the name of this particular shop, though I could certainly find it again, but the chocolate was not really my style.]
Well. Let me say that I can absolutely see why she wrote a book featuring the food (and even the decor) of this chocolatier. Frankly, I’d be inclined to write poetry. I bought a little box of pâtés de fruits, which were gorgeous – softer than the ones I make, but with flavours that were marvellously true – and a few chocolates, which were crisp and surprisingly fresh in flavour, and very, very dark, but the thing that absolutely floored me was the caramels. They were truly amazing – the mango and passionfruit caramel, in particular, may be the best thing I have ever tasted.
My only regret (and this is the later Catherine talking) was that I chose this moment to exercise self-restraint, and did not buy more caramels, or indeed more chocolates from this shop. The caramels were so good that later on, my friend and I tried to work out whether it was possible to get back to this shop during our hideous, ten-hour, suitcase-dragging trek across France’s TGV and Metro system as we travelled from Mont Saint Michel to Trier. We couldn’t do it. It simply was not possible. But it says much that we really, really tried to find a way to manage it, even knowing what all those stairs would be like.
The other very, very sad thing about this shop is that everything in it is very fresh and thus has a very short expiry date. Which means that the only way to have more of those caramels is to go back to Paris.
Seriously, if you are in Paris and you like sweets at all, you *must* go to Jacques Genin.
But I digress.
My oldest friend, N, now lives in London, but she was in Paris this week, and so today I got to meet up with her and her mother (who, of course, I have also known for nearly thirty years) for lunch. This was a lovely surprise. We went to Bouillon Racine, a very beautiful art deco restaurant near Odeon station. The decor is full of mirrors and pale green and stylised flowers. Most gorgeous.
Once again, we decided to try the prix fixe. I am going to be rolling up and down Mont Saint Michel after all this food. Most interesting to me was the steak tartare, something I’ve never been game to try before, but when in Paris…
Actually, it’s rather nice. Surprisingly fresh and light in flavour, I think because of the vinegar, but deceptively filling. (The flavour makes you think you are having a light meal, but do not believe it!) I do find the texture a bit hard to take, though. It’s something I’d happily eat again, but I don’t think I’d go out of my way to order it.
After lunch, we went on a wander and were seduced by a bookshop (I bought a cookbook. Of course I did.), and a shop selling fancy kitchenware. I was especially taken with the little device that turns a lemon or lime into a citrus spray bottle, but I resisted. Why did I resist? I do not know.
Of course, then we turned a corner and found another chocolaterie, which we would have been totally safe from except that they had little beads of chocolate filled with whole spices and herbs – rosemary, fennel, pepper, coriander and pink peppercorns. What hope did we have? Reader, we bought chocolate. More chocolate.
And then we parted company, and I wandered back across the Île de la Cité.
And now I am back at the B&B, planning my outings for tomorrow, and contemplating a dinner that will consist entirely of fruit. A peach and some strawberries, to be precise. No apples. The greengrocer did try to sell me some apples, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to buy, in France, apples grown in New Zealand… I may not be all about the food miles, but I do draw the line at having my fruit follow me across the world…