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Paris De retour à Paris - Doru's 2010 Journal


100+ Posts
By Doru from Canada, Fall 2010, A return to Paris, living "la vie parisienne" like the Parisians do...

Meeting Saint-Antoine, the Neighbourhood

The flight from Toronto, with Air Canada, was quite pleasant. The 777 has less leg room than the 767, but it is adequate. The in-flight Air Canada service was at its usually “efficient” but impersonal level. The food was OK and the “Flight Director”, I guess the new title for the purser, was at his most annoying: he kept coming on the public address system much too often with all kinds of trivial announcements and to advertise the duty-free on board. He was also waking up those who were lucky enough to be able to sleep, and interrupting the on-board entertainment system, which goes blank every time “the Director” talks.

I very seldom watch movies while flying, and I am quite embarrassed that I have to confess it, but on this flight I watched “Bollywood Hollywood”, a movie otherwise I would not have gone to see even if I were paid to do it. But, surprise-surprise for the snob: the movie turned out to be very funny. The movie was filmed in Toronto and I was able to identify many of our city’s landmarks. As an aside: after the Cold War "eased off” somewhat, we started to be shown in Bucharest all kinds of movies from the more “progressive” countries, or featuring actors who were engaged in the peace process as seen from Moscow, and so, in addition to some French and Italian movies, we were allowed to view also Indian movies. One of them, with Raj Kapoor, left an indelible impression on my mind: the movie was so colourful in comparison with the drab, grey ones the Eastern Bloc was producing! And then, there was Raj Kapoor singing “Avara hoon”, a song I remember to this day with which I impressed many years later, in Toronto, the parents of a friend of my older son’s. Zoroastrians with Indian roots, they could not get over the fact that I could sing this quintessential Indian song, and with lyrics too:

Aawaara hoon, aawaara hoon
Ya gardish mein hoon aasmaan ka taara hoon
Aawaara hoon
Gharbaar nahin, sansaar nahin
Mujhse kisi ko pyaar nahin, etc.

But I digress...

We arrived in Paris to a glorious, sunny 22 degrees (73 F) and it remained unchanged so far. Intellicast says 22 C until next Tuesday, so the outlook ... looks good!

The taxi stand at CDG was in its usual chaotic state, mostly because of the narrow sidewalk than to any other reason. The drive to town was slow, much slower than we remember from other trips, because of the heavy traffic, but the driver fought it successfully on the ring routes, and later in particular the “no entry” signs all along Rue de Rivoli, to bring us successfully through the narrows streets and to the apartment. Forced to stop not quite in front of the building, the driver insisted on bringing himself every single one of the four suitcases and carry-ons. He received a very nice tip for this courtesy.

We successfully used the codes required, first to open the gate, and then the door to our wing of the building. In the lobby we met the narrow elevator (two people of modest size are comfortable, two people with a bit of a more generous built –“avec de l'embonpoint” or “bien en chair”, the French would say - will enjoy unavoidable intimacy, but who’s complaining?) Having handled successfully the security at successive doors, and having made it to the door of the apartment after four judiciously planned trips with the tiny elevator, we are inside the apartment, with tall, sunny windows on both sides: Rue P. on one side, a wide, spotless and sunny interior court on the other. Two bedrooms, a living room, a nice, large kitchen, a very large shower, the latter by appearance brand new. The furniture is ... eclectic. The kitchen is very well equipped and supplied. Two bottles of wine are waiting the red on the kitchen table, the white, chilling in the fridge.

Settling in, unpacking

I continue checking the amenities and, oh! cruel fate: the WiFi system doesn’t work. The laptop with its French AZERTY keyboard is a pain although I manage to figure out all critical differences. The laptop does not sport the tracking point with which I am used to navigate (only Lenovo seems to still produce laptops with tracking point; everybody in my family uses either the old IBM X-series, or Lenovo’s newer versions).

At the accompaniment of the radio, tuned to 101.1 FM, our classical music station in Paris, I press on. Since I need to communicate with the owner, I start my own laptop and I find that I can surf on an available unsecured network. I can communicate! I send an SOS to the owner; I email N.L. By the end of the day I will decide that the unknown local unsecured network is good and fast enough for me and I spare the (very grateful) owner, who does not live in town, the expense of sending somebody over to try to fix the problem.

After a bit of beauty rest for Josette, and just rest for me, I must have a coffee, so I mercilessly wake up Josette and we head downstairs, to the “built-in” café, a place with an amazingly eclectic set up: not two chairs, or tables, are the same. We think that we could have contributed some of the chairs we disposed of when we sold the house and downsized to the condominium. Walls are covered with posters; the clientele is mostly very young. The coffee is excellent (here “coffee” is really “espresso”, but the roast is quite different from the Italian). More about this café later.

Thus encouraged and energized, from the café door we take a right to find ourselves in the Rue Saint-Antoine: a beehive of shops, stores, teeming with people, mostly young people. Immediately it is evident, and we both agree on this, that there is a marked improvement in cleanliness and in the feeling of safety compared with previous visits in the area. Sidewalks are full of people, and clean.

In short order, we start an initial provisioning: we find lactose-free milk at both Monoprix and the G20 Supermarché. We raid the nearby Rue Saint-Antoine for cheese (for Josette sheep, which is OK for her lactose intolerance, for me Beaufort de l’Alpage), jambon, baguette, and we have the best little meals in the world, my jambon assisted by a bit of half-salt butter. There are two fromagers within 50 meters of each other on Rue Saint-Antoine, and half way between them a foie gras store, flanked by two wine stores and a rotisserie (à la Reine Pédoque?). Cheese and apples make the nicest desserts.

There is a synagogue down the street (we are at #16, the synagogue is at #10). Right across the street there is a "yeshiva”, a Jewish religious school. We meet the kids as they finish the school day.

After dinner, we take a walk through Rue des Rosiers, quiet at this hour, but with the falafel and shawarma stores and all bakeries still open; over to Francs-Bourgeois; on to Place des Vosges, where it is quiet now, with just a few young couples on the grass and a few older couples on benches. I take some photos and from the next bench a large man, who is having a chat with his female companion, calls over and asks if I want a photo with my wife. Of course I do. He takes the photo; we talk, he in English, me in French. This is something that will happen here a lot: I would address people in French, they will reply in English. I find this funny: it could be a commentary on my accent, or maybe on my clothing. But I think that we all want to practice the two languages: the French speak English now much easier and without the reservation than used to be the case years ago. The young, in particular, do want to speak English. And I just want to revive my atrophied French.

Really, this is a wonderful area in which to stay and we are very happy with the stroll to Place des Vosges, and this only in the first afternoon: we just arrived today and it seems as if we were already here for some time.

Later in the evening, after dinner in the apartment, we go out again and just sit outside, at the Dome St. Paul café, me nursing a beer, Josette having lemonade. The world walks by; what a great life!
Settling in

The beautifully laid plans for this morning were: Josette sleeps in, I go downstairs have my “double cafe” and buy a fresh baguette.

Reality check: I sleep in and Josette, while moving in the apartment, wakes me up. We eat the leftover baguette from last night (my method: wet slightly the crust of the baguette under the tap, then put it in the oven for about 5-7 minutes at 200 C or 350 F, and you have a baguette fresh as if it just came out of the baker’s oven; which, in a way, it does...) and, after checking emails, etc., we lock up the apartment and head to the café downstairs.

Next stop is on Rue de Rivoli, to charge the cell phone provided by the owner of the apartment. Ten euro buy me thirty minutes of local calls; calls to Toronto go for €1.20/minute, almost at par with the costs if I would use my own cell phone.

For the rest, the plan is to wander around in the neighbourhood, where there is plenty to see and to close before lunch with the Musée Cognacq-Jay on Rue Elsèvir, very close to us. Everything works except that, arriving at the museum, Josette - who has some knee difficulties these days - inquires about the elevator. There is no elevator. So we skip the museum, where I may return by myself another day, and get some roast chicken at the Rotisserie on Saint-Antoine, fresh baguettes and a cheese brioche on Rue des Rosiers, and we have a royal couple’s lunch “à camera”. Then we rest the knees.

As I write, we are just back from Place de la Bastille, which we circled in full clockwise, upon which we settled in at Le Café Parisien for what seems to become an every evening routine, me with my small beer pression, Josette this time with an apricot ice tea.

So far, so good, although climbing stairs turns out to be a bigger impediment than expected. Looking for museums with elevator.
Meeting Friends

Today we have a date for lunch with N.L. and her husband, D. We sleep in, and then I carefully plot the walk from the apartment to the restaurant, which is supposed to take about 10 minutes. We know the streets well, I am relaxed that we will get there in time; we don’t like to be late, surely not when it is the first time we meet face to face old friends-by-correspondence. Must make a good impression, at least for the first occasion...

Sure enough, at the end of Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, instead of crossing Rue des Archives and continue on Rambuteau, I take a left on Rue des Archives. To make a long trip story short, a few minutes later I am looking desperately for a taxi on Rue de Rivoli. The fourth taxi stops. I give him the address of the restaurant (Le Gaigne, rue Pecquay 12), he takes out a map, nods affirmatively and drives away. I call N. but she doesn’t answer and I leave a message, expressing my abject apologies. Seven euro later (including tip!) we are in front of the restaurant. The reservation is in my name, and the hostess shows us to a reserved table, but the chairs are empty: our friends are themselves late! Only a minutes or two till we settle down in the small restaurant and here are two out of breath people rushing through the door: they are N. and D., who were delayed themselves by a delivery at home and this means we do not have to apologise.

We start talking; and there is a lot to tell and talk about! We obviously feel comfortable right away and there is no ice to break. Conversation flows easily.

The restaurant is very flexible with the requirements of the one lactose intolerant among us, and her lunch choices are adjusted accordingly. We make our choices from the very interesting “formule” (menu fix), with two choice for each of appetiser, main course and desert, at €23. One of us orders à la carte, three order the formule. We have among us crispy rolls of some bird previously marinated in soya and basil; a wonderful mushroom soup (Cappuccino de champignons, called so because of its colour); grilled Lieu noir (Pollock?) fillet with cauliflower; grilled beef skirt with Swiss chard; sea bream fillet with baby potatoes baked with green onions; mango crumble; crème caramel.

All is excellent and a remark is made as to how Le Gaigne (here I plagiarise N.…): “...is just the Slow Travel kind of place: good food, low key, good service, good location (if one could find it), wallet-friendly, and not (yet) discovered by Rick Steves!”

To top it up, during lunch we have a Slow Travel Reality moment: a young American couple sit at a table near us, which here it means that they are really-really close to us and can hear us speaking English. The young woman draws our attention discretely and says: “Excuse me, but can I ask you a question?” To our affirmative, she continues: “How much should we tip here?’ And so, instead of directing her to the Slow Travel web site and its French forum we explain to her that the service of 15% is already included in the price, and that she can just round up the price on the bill to the next 5 or 10, as the case may be. We feel as if we are answering a question on tipping on SlowTalk!

After coffee, we linger some more and then separate, N. and D. to their respective calls, Josette and I walking back to the apartment, this time without missing any turns, in a total of less than six minutes.

Later, after a necessary rest, we are off to Île Saint-Louis, which is accessible in a few minutes walk in a straight line from our street to the island.

We cross to another bank of the island, towards Île de la Cité, at the end of rue Saint-Louis-en-l'Île. There is a small park there, on the left side of the bridge, and from there is an extraordinary view (and photo opportunities) of the rear of Notre-Dame, with amazing architectural detail; a side of Notre-Dame usually not sought and not known.

It is Friday evening, and it is busy everywhere. And everywhere on the island, every café and bistro offers the Berthillon ice cream. But there is also the real Berthillon establishment, which sells its own ice cream and that is where I go, the last customer before they close the store. I get a scoop of caramel and lemon, and off I go, just as they pull the doors shut.

We take the long route, over to the Left Bank, and back over the two bridges and on to the apartment, for a light dinner, checking emails, writing down a few impressions. On Friday night Rue des Rosiers is very quiet.

Earlier in the day I had observed notices at the bus station on Saint-Antoine and Sevigné, announcing interruptions of service for tomorrow, Saturday, between 2 and 6pm, due to a major civil rights demonstration. I send emails to N. and to J. just in case they are not aware of the event, which will likely affect traffic in the entire centre of Paris.

We go to sleep to chant gently soaring from the yeshiva around the corner.
The Currywurst and our Parisian Guides; a Perfect Day

We get up relatively late (very effective ear plugs help in this very active area of the Marais) and have a light breakfast before proceeding to our next adventure in Paris.

Incredible as this may sound, after having been since 1972 on trips to Paris too many to count, whether on business in my case, or on vacation for both of us, and on combined occasions, it will be the first time we will use a bus. Till now, we used the extraordinary Métropolitain, and taxis. With all its amazing efficiency and reach, the Métro system of Paris is an old one, and only a few newer lines benefit from elevators and escalators between all points. If one’s knees, hips or back show their age and demand less stairs, tough luck! In most of the cases, stairs prevail, escalators are few, insufficient, or intermittent, and elevators even less.

So it is the bus for us today, and I have already bought yesterday a “carnet” of 10 tickets for €12 at the automat at St. Paul Metro station. I had also scouted the bus station at the corner of Saint-Antoine and Sevigné to ascertain that it is indeed the station that the website of RATP Paris, a very useful site to know (link in resources), indicates as our starting point, the destination being the station Palais Royal-Louvre.

We could have walked the straight line from where we stay to Palais Royal in about 20 minutes, but we plan on plenty of walking for later in the day, so bus it will be.

The bus stations of Paris have electronic visual displays that indicate how long the wait is until the next bus arrives, and how long it will take from that station to the end of the line. If the station is common to a number of bus lines, there will be as many displays.

The bus arrives after a few minutes. The bus is entered from the front door and there is a validation machine near the driver. Tickets must be validated, and to get them validated they must be pushed all the way in the required slot. I ask the driver whether he will be kind to tell us when our station is next. He turns and points to the monitor in the middle of the bus, which indicates, I figure out quickly, in succession: the present station; the next station (“Destination”), so there is no need to panic thinking that you will miss your desired stop; and how long it will take to arrive at the end of the line. To boot, a voice announces each coming station. (Note: Alas, not all Paris buses have this type of monitor and a few do not have the disembodied voice announcer either. A bus map that details the stations along the line is useful to have. It costs €7.50 in bookstores, €9 at newspaper kiosks.)

And so we arrive at “destination” where we had some gift shopping to do.

The event of the day is meeting again our new friends, fellow Slow Travellers N., and her husband, D. The meeting place is Le Stube, a German-style restaurant, located at 31, Rue de Richelieu. We know this area very well, because we have stayed at Apart’Hotel Citadines, down the street at no. 8, many times in the past, last in 2006.

Obviously, Le Stube was not here in 2006: it is a relatively new place, an imaginative snack restaurant whose claim to fame today is the “currywurst”, a wurst which has conquered Berlin, and now tries to conquer Paris.

Our friends arrive, accompanied by a friend of theirs, and the five of us order: three of the Currywurst, the other two (guess who?) the more conventional stuff.

The one piece of currywurst (I will absolutely refuse to capitalise the word!) that I stole from N.’s plate left me completely unmoved, and the Earth did not shake either. Either the Berliners get served something else, or I am not in sync with the vibes of the curry which, in my view, was too subtle, too “not there” to justify giving its name to the wurst. This is good for my gastro-intestinal system, and the apple strudel, with no curry (!), was itself good. In fact, Le Stube has good pastries: there is choice, and quality, and they have some funky beers too.

But the company, ah!, the company is great! We just hope that we did not disappoint the others too much with our preference to sit at a table in the restaurant instead of adjourning on to benches in the Jardin du Palais Royal across the street. This is probably why they guide us from the restaurant straight to the nearby Police station, with which in fact we were already well acquainted from a previous visit to Paris. But this is another story, already told elsewhere...

There followed, as promised, a most wonderful walking tour, guided by D., who is much interested and well versed in the history of Paris.

The main goal was to visit some of the “Passages Couverts” (Galleries) in the area of the Palais Royal, starting with Galerie Vivienne, which begins on Rue Croix des Petits Champs and ends on rue Vivienne. It was built in 1823 and is considered the most beautiful of the Galleries of Paris. It is indeed so, with elegant stores, but deserted at this time. As we exit the gallery, we pass by the Bourse (Stock Exchange); by the famous home hardware store Dehillerain where we bought a “professional” set of espresso cups a few years ago; by the just as famous restaurant Le Pied du Cochon; and by the Church of Saint- Eustache, with Les Halles to our right. The next is Galerie Véro Dodat, between Rue du Bouloi and Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Built 15 years after Vivienne, it is very much in the same style, as is Passage du Grand Cerf that links Rue Dussoubs and Rue St.-Denis.

A wonderful street to visit on a sunny Saturday morning in Paris is Rue Montorgueil. It is full of life, full of people; bars and restaurants share and spill on the sidewalks and the street. This is a car-free zone, the quintessential Paris. I make a note to return the following Saturday, and to take my time there.

Thus we end on Rue St.-Denis, a street with a very “specific reputation” and our friends have no qualms about leaving us here and going their separate ways to attend to their rest of the day.

What does one, landed on a street with such dubious reputation, do? When in doubt, have a coffee, which is what we do, as we decide to sit at an outside table of the café located at the exit of the Passage du Grand Cerf, intending to observe “the action.”

Except that there no “action” whatsoever. Truth be told, the street looks tame to us, as we sip our coffees and water and chat with the two women who sit at the nearest table and apply themselves to resolving a Sudoku. Turns out that they are the owners of the (café!) establishment.

I point out to them that their Sudoku is at the “Difficile” level; which explains why one of them keeps erasing and writing over repeatedly. She nods and keeps erasing, and writing over...

We finish our coffees, say “Bonne journée” to the two ladies and, as we walk towards Étienne Marcel and home, Josette and I speculate about the personal histories of these two ladies. How had they arrived to buy this specific place? In this specific location? Intriguing!

Earlier, at 2pm there was a demonstration (“maniféstation”) in Place de la République, in protest of the government’s immigration and refugees policies. As we walk back to the apartment, we are astonished by the number of intersections blocked by the police, by the number of police officers on motorcycles, bicycles, and in vans. The little, narrow segment of Rue Pavée between Rivoli and Rue des Rosiers, where during the day pedestrians hardly find any space to walk, houses now nine bumper to bumper police vans. This reminds us of the G8/G20 events earlier in the summer, in Toronto.

The evening TV news announces that there were 12,000 people (by organizers) or 50,000 people (by police). Other than traffic interrupted and police presence, we didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary on the streets between Place de la République and Rue de Rivoli.

After dinner, we decide to see how Parisians spend their Saturday evenings. A real eye opener! Streets are full, mostly with young people. We take a different route, on Rue Payenne, follow then Rue de la Perle, an on to the very elegant Rue Vieille du Temple. Every bar, every café, every restaurant along the way is wide open to the warm evening, and everywhere all tables are taken, sidewalks taken over by people who spill outside and stand, wine glasses or beers in hand. There is a tremendous energy in their attitudes, in the intent conversations, the easy laughter, the bright eyes, the casual elegance; everybody is ignoring the cars trying to make their way as the crowd takes over the street itself. Rue Vieille du Temple is a long street as it stretches toward Boulevard des Filles du Calvaire. The scene is the same at every corner, along all sidewalks. So this is the real Parisian “joie de vivre!”

A great day, a wonderful evening, a perfect night.
Bastille and Marché Richard-Lenoir; Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité

Josette wakes me up, probably because she finds it unfair to let me sleep-in, and four days should have been enough to wean me of jet lag, Then, J. calls, to announce that she and her husband, B., plan to be in our neighbourhood in the early afternoon.

Our projects include a quick tour of Marché de la Bastille, a.k.a. Marché Richard-Lenoir, which is being held every Thursday and Sunday on the similarly named boulevard sprouting from the body of the huge Place de la Bastille. We need trinkets for our youngest granddaughter, who is still at the age when she thinks that all that sparkles is expensive.

The Marché is a wonderful symphony of colours and aromas and by 10:30am it is also the best place to tattoo your own body with bruises from the continuing collision with people claiming the same piece of land in which you were just able to squeeze. But it is a happy crowd: nobody complains, nobody apologises either.

Carts with kids; carts with purchases; minuscule dogs; doubtful looking collectors of alms for all kinds of undoubtedly good and valid causes; all have a claim on your attention. It is, in fact, the quintessence, the raison d’être of marché-hood, because if the place were quiet, and tame, and polite, and neat, why would we be here?

As usual, our deliberations on the worthiness of this or that ring that costs €1, or maybe even 2(!), end up with "Let’s go and see what else is there” which, now that I think of it, should actually be the motto of all open air markets anywhere in the world. So we penetrate further into the high-density humanity, past oysters, mussels and all kind of fish, past huge collections of meats, and breads, and sausages, and scarves, and fake jewelry, and dainty underwear, and we use all the eyes nature gave us, so that we may, at the same time, admire, appreciate and finally decide to ignore all this bounty of the earth, so that we may ensure that nobody steps on us. I had no idea one can get drunk with people; or is it dizzy?

We slalom our way in what seem to be less crowded alleys, only to find that we are in an even heavier traffic. We get as far as the end of the market when we conclude that the rings and necklaces that we saw at the entrance were actually nicer. So now we energetically fight the crowds to get back where we started. Four euro worth of jewels later, we breathe in again, with relish and relief, the exhaust-saturated air of the Place de la Bastille, free to move how we want rather than how others impose on us. This calls for a celebration and so we stop at one of the myriad of café-bars in the (can’t call it a square because it is round!) Place de la Bastille. To think that a revolution started here about 240 years ago! I speculate that the revolution started because The People wanted the Marché moved elsewhere...

I collapse in a chair, and a merciful waiter comes over to collect the order of double coffee and water. At the table next to ours, sit two women. I cannot say elderly, because, although of different ages, they are both younger than we are (a personal note here: everybody seems these days to be younger than us!) and one of them passes on to me her glass with water, mentioning that she will not drink it. I thank her and ask whether she would have given it to me if this were wine instead of water, to which she replies with mock indignation: “Mais, bien sure que non, Monsieur!”, which makes a world of sense to us both!

After this welcome hiatus, we shop for supplies for our fridge at the charcutier on Saint-Antoine, and for baguettes and brioches à fromage on Rue des Rosiers and thus retire to our apartment. We are so exhausted that we do not even eat lunch; just push everything in the fridge and drink gallons of water.

A while later, the phone rings. On the phone is J., who says that she and B. are at a café in “our” neighbourhood. I ask what is the name of the café and, sure enough, they are literally downstairs, on the other side of the street, at Café Les Rosiers! I let Josette finish the application of ice on her complaining knee, and go to meet J. and B. I join them and order my usual café double, and we chat, and then Josette rings and we decide to alight to our apartment, to continue the conversation there and to make plans for the rest of the afternoon.

After a round of glasses of red wine, I propose that we go to Île Saint-Louis and Île de la Cité, which are right across the Seine from here, an easy walk. We all agree and we join the Sunday afternoon crowds, these endless crowds that seem to converge on Île de la Cité with the same target deeply tattooed on their minds: Berthillon!

The line-ups everywhere the Berthillon ice cream is being peddled on the minute island are incredible. When we left Communist Romania almost 50 years ago I swore that I will never again line up for food, and I was quite consistent on this over the half century since, although Berthillon was not included in my pledge. J., though obviously tempted, is also not ready to wait an hour to get a scoop of ice cream, be it of the Berthillon kind. We walk over to the pretty park on Île de la Cité, where there are benches, and shade, and little kids kicking balls under the watchful eyes of mothers and fathers and nannies, and beyond this serene scene is the magnificent view of the exterior of the apse of Notre-Dame, in all its incredible detail: supports, and flying buttresses, and gargoyles, and the enormous rose windows, and unexpectedly two horologes, and, oh!, the lace of the stone work. I always wonder who were the anonymous masons who created these extraordinary structures, both powerful and delicate, and without computer-aided-design...

We take some photos and then sit on a shaded bench, and talk, and talk.

Some, much time later, we realise it is getting dark, and B. gets hungry. We walk back towards the Marais, where he remembers having seen a choice of salads in the window of one of the thousand restaurants. And so we end up at Pitzman’s on Rue Pavée, surrounded by a lively, noisy and very young crowd and we have falafel plates and hummus plates, and latkes and tuna salad on bagel, Maccabi beer; altogether a surprisingly good meal, at a very reasonable price.

J. and B. turn back toward Métro St.-Paul and Josette and I walk exactly four buildings up the street, to our apartment. A day closed.
The Tale of Two Falafel Joints in Paris, or the Effects of Advertising

There are many falafel joints on Rue des Rosiers, but two merit our attention, even if for just a short observation.

There is L'As du Falafel, made famous by Rick Steves, and thirty paces away, on the same street, there is the King of Falafel.

On any given evening there are interminable line-ups at L'As du Falafel, both at the window counter and waiting for seating in the joint, the later pretty cramped and crummy.

Thirty paces away a "greeter" hassles the passers-by towards the King of Falafel, telling whoever lingers to listen that their falafel is better. Everybody ignores him and moves on towards "the other place." At the King of Falafel there is no one waiting to be served at the window counter, and there are plenty of available seats at the tables outside and in their much nicer inside salon, even endowed with elegant candelabra.

What gives? What is in these little round balls of ground and condimented chick peas, sometimes supplemented with mashed beans and usually served in the pocket of a pita, slapped on with tehina and salads, pickles and hot sauce, to cause such degrees of loyalty and such chasms among followers? For goodness sake, it's only chick peas!! Chick Peas!!!

I tried them both. I have had many falafels in my life time. I can't discern the difference between these two.

But I know the answer: it is the Rick Steves (d)effect!
How to Miss Visits to Opéra Garnier and Other Impressions

A day that starts with domestic errands: shirts and pants to be taken for cleaning (Where have gone all the “blanchisseries d’antan”? Now it is “pressingue”!); sundries at Monoprix.

After the usual first stop at “Le Loar dans La Théière” (“The Dormouse in the Teapot”) where they already know that I take a double (coffee!), we do the rounds.

For the day, not much is planned. In the early afternoon we follow to Rue Payenne and take bus 29, to Avenue de l'Opéra. In plan is to review a territory we know well from previous trips and then visit the museum at the Opéra Garnier and the Fragonard “museum” on Blvd. des Capucines, a small frivolity we indulge in whenever we visit Paris.

The entire back of the Opéra building is encased in scaffolding. No, not for renovations or façade cleaning, as one would imagine, but to build a restaurant, which will be incorporated within the building. Euphemisms are one of the great charms of the French language and so sticking a restaurant in the beautiful body of the Opéra Garnier is called “création d’un restaurant”! OK, so now enjoying an opera or ballet at Garnier will involve the annoying smells of food the like of which are usually wafting in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, both pre-curtain and during intermissions, from the Grand Tier “Tuscan” restaurant. Yes, I know, I am an opera snob.

So we walk around the scaffolding, and walk, till we get to the temporary entrance for visits and for the box office. There are two types of visits at Opéra Garnier : individual and guided. We want to visit just the museum. “Alàs, c’est dommage, Monsieur, mais le musée is not open today. C’est une fermeture exceptionelle, seulement aujourd’hui et le mardi. Guided visits do not start till Wednesday. Maybe on Wednesday... So, will the museum be open on Wednesday? Qui sait? Have you checked the Opéra website? It is posted there!” (Oops, I didn’t check the website!) If we want to take a visit of the Opéra not including the museum, we can right now, mais sure, Monsieur! For the museum? Maybe check on Wednesday, and call first? The number is 0 892 89 90 90.”

Something to be aware of for those planning to visit the Opéra: “Visite libre” is another euphemism and it does not mean “free” like in “gratuit.” What it means is that one buys a ticket for €9 and can then wander freely, without guide, in whatever areas that can be accessed in such visits on that given day. My best advice: the website of Opéra Garnier has an option for a virtual visit. Watch this first; this way you will have a better idea of what to expect. The virtual visit does not replace the one in person; it just informs it.

Guided visits, which cost only a few euro more, can be booked in advance, electronically, or at the time of the visit at the box office. This time of year, till next summer, guided visits take place only on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, in French at 11:30 and 15:30, in English at 11:30 and 14:30. On these days the tickets are sold from 10:30am. The length of the visit is one and half hours. But: if there are events at matinée on that day, or rehearsals, then the visits may be altered, some areas will be closed to visitor access, etc. Visitors beware.

Anyway, we give up and are on to Boulevard des Capucines, to the Musée Fragonard, where we are greeted by ... about 40 girls of secondary school age who have taken over the space. The usually dead quiet room, in which everybody just whispers, gets some much needed life with these voices and girlish enthusiasm and it looks and feels much friendlier than usual. We find what we need, pay, and as we leave we find at the door, awaiting their turn, a sullen group of kids, this time probably from a boys’ school. We were lucky to share the space with the happy crowd!

On Avenue de l'Opéra we cross to sit at Café Brasilia. Good coffee! Is it Brasilian coffee? The cups carry the mark of Lavazza, so I wonder, and don’t ask. Two couples stop. A gentleman asks (English) whether they will be blocking our view (because we prefer to sit usually in the second row of tables so as to not to brush too intimately with the passers-by). We answer that, yes, it is OK, and then they ask where are we from (Toronto), we then ask where they are from (California), then we talk about San Francisco, San Diego, airports, hockey on ice...

Later I comment with Josette on how people travel and aim, or hope, “to be lost in the local crowd”, “not to be immediately identified as tourists” (I personally favour the word “visitor” over “tourist”), and how futile all these concerns in fact are. Not only that any local will fix on you right away that you do not insert naturally in the background, but even the other visitors will see in you a fellow visitor and not a local. Ten minutes of sitting at a café and watching the crowd will educate one on these differences. I have abandoned long ago the dream of looking and behaving like the local Frenchman, or Italian, or Spaniard, or like the people of whatever country we visit, and I am much more relaxed trying to be me (which is not so easy either! Ask my wife...)

Bus 29 takes us back to our Marais neighbourhood. We get some supplies on the way; quiet dinner in the apartment. The almost empty bottle tells me that I need to get some more wine, this time of my own: the supplies kindly left by the owner are depleted.
A Slow Travel GTG in a City of Strikes and Demonstrations

It is a day of strikes and demonstrations (“manifestations”) in Paris. Radio and television update the public transportation status every hour on the hour. Things are not as bad as we thought; still, we hang around our neighbourhood and take a walk towards Centre Pompidou, with no intention other than to see the area on a day when the museum and its exhibitions are closed (Tuesday!) It is definitely quiet; none of the burgeoning clusters of young people, the buskers, the peddlers. We sit for a beer and water, respectively. The beer is cheaper than the bottled water! People pass by and there is a hint of fall in the air.

In the evening we take a taxi for the Slow Travel get-together (GTG) dinner at La Régalade, at 123 Rue St.-Honoré. We arrive early, so we wander for a while on Rue Croix des Petits-Champs/Bourse/Galerie Véro Dodat; the latter we had visited last Saturday with N. and D. At this hour the Galerie is deserted, but just as beautiful. We end the “tour” and go to the restaurant, where we still arrive first, but are joined in short order by D. and his wife, J. and her husband, (another) B., and by N. without her husband who is having a cold and prefers not to pass it on to all of us. Probably also thinking what a waste of a good dinner this can be when one can’t feel the taste of the food because of the cold...

It never ceases to amaze me how meeting other Slow Travel members comes so easy, so natural, as if among long time friends. Introductions are followed by discussions on the status of our respective travels, where we stay, where we came from, where we go from here. We talk about the community of Slow Travel which creates such wonderful occasions to meet people, to make new friends.

Today, we even have a very special event: everybody except D.’s wife knows that he wishes to surprise her and celebrate with us all her birthday. So D., generously treats the table with a bottle of Moët & Chandon in his wife’s honour.

Orders taken, wine chosen, the dinner continues.

N. had secretly arranged for a symbolic birthday cake with a candle to be presented to B., and we, together with La Regalade staff, and guests at other tables (the place was totally full), sing Happy Birthday to B----e.

We are very grateful to N. for arranging the event. It is pretty special and it shows once again that the French restaurants, their staff and their public are not “stuck up” as they tend to be described by "critics" in search for someone or some place to trash.

Three hours later, also mindful of the unclear situation with the running of buses and metro today, we leave.

We catch a taxi back to the apartment. Still not raining. But the rain, which threatened all day and which will affect also the next day, starts just as we arrive home.
The Phantom (Museum) of the Opéra

It rained on and off all night. Not a day for just walking, but a good day to return to Opéra Garnier, for the visit missed two day ago.

This time, I am cautious: I call the Opéra and talk to a gentleman who answers very patiently all my questions. Yes, today the museum will be open. Yes, there will be guided visits today. Yes, there will be guided visits today at the hours specified on the website. Yes, the museum will be open today. Yes, the museum will be included in the guided visit. Yes, the museum can be visited separately. Yes (clarifies the gentleman from the Opéra for the third time in this conversation), the museum will be open today. And if you so wish, you can visit only the museum.

So off we go: we take once more bus 29 and go to the Opéra. There is something to be said for doing things again and again: they get easier. It is easier with the bus ticket validation; we know exactly at what station to get off; we now know the short way to the box office and how to avoid most of the scaffolding.

We (confidently) stroll towards the small line-up for “Visites libres.” As we queue up, and after we help a couple of Chinese visitors to understand what they are being told by one of the Opéra employees (all of them speaking all the time English...), a young woman approaches us to ask what is the purpose of our visit today. Very nice. So I tell her that we wish to buy tickets for the “visites libres” and she tells us that today, c’est dommage, mais aujourd’hui on peut visiter seulement les éspaces publics (common areas, a.k.a. as Lobbies). Pas du Chagall (this means no visit of the opera auditorium), et pas de musée... When I hear “pas de musée” I get a little ... excited: only less than a couple of hours ago I was told three times that the museum is open. I inform the young lady accordingly. Oh, non, she says: the musée is closed for renovations for about four months. I don’t believe her; she must surely be misinformed. Well, no; it turns out that she is informed, because another Opéra employee confirms that the museum is closed. For four more month!

I decide not to get upset.

I will call this museum “The Phantom (museum) of the Opéra”!

In the meantime, the rain outside increases in strength. Our Plan B, to walk on the Grand Boulevards and visit the rest of the "Passages", drowns in the rain.

We now know only too well where the return station of bus 29 is.

Tonight we will wait for the rain to stop, and will improvise a walking route in “our” always interesting neighbourhood.

Tomorrow we will have better luck, and we will stay as far away as we can from the Opera.
A Tale of Two Cafés on Rue des Rosiers, or What Makes Commercial Success

At one end of Rue des Rosiers, that short segment of a street between Rue Malher (the spelling is correct, thank you!) and Rue Pavée, two cafés located right across from each other tell two quite different tales.

On one side is the very proper, and properly named, Café Les Rosiers. In this wondrous city that lives mostly outdoors, we walk every day by café-bars such as this one: a tall bar counter, maybe with some railing, a few tall stools, inside five to seven small tables with benches and chairs, three to four round tables not quite on the sidewalk, but nudging it. “Les patrons” have been here a long time: they became part of the décor, dressed comme à la maison, answering without much enthusiasm to orders, and to the thanks and to the Au revoirs. The front of the café is always open, but somehow not inviting. Usually, there are no clients to be seen, or very few. It could be a branch of the Pompes Funèbres around the corner...

Across the street, literally, is the unexpectedly named Le Loir dans la Théière. We all know what Loir (the spelling is correct, thanks you!) means, right? Well, we know it is not the river, although there is a river Loir in France, as well as the better known Loire. So what then? Well, in this case Loir refers to the dormouse. Dormouse? A small rodent. For North Americans the closest that comes to a dormouse, without being a dormouse, is the chipmunk. I think. But if you know your Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Dormouse has a part in the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party! Voilà! Le Loir dans la Théière, The Dormouse in the Teapot!

But this is not about Lewis Carroll! Once one steps inside, Le Loir dans la Théière looks as if it was created in an alternative universe, in a heavenly marché aux puces of furnishings. Let’s say the tables, although of multiple and questionable proveniences, are uniformly dark. But the chairs, oh!, the chairs! I would like to say that there are not two of the same, but I would be lying; however, if by pure chance there are two chairs originating from the same dilapidated set, they would be placed as far away from each other as possible, not to (Heaven forbid!) give the impression of uniformity, similitude, sameness, symmetry. The same with the few armchairs. Some of the arms of these chairs have had, long ago, some leather, or some plastic upholstery. But the resident dormice have eaten the covers, and now bright yellow foam adorns the armrests.

The walls are covered with posters. I observed a few days ago one of waiters bringing in a bunch of, possibly new, posters, and handing them to the owner, who proceeded to tear his hair out. He then changed his mind and stuck the new posters on top of older ones; there is no room on any wall, or post, and as I write these lines I think I will suggest to them to start plastering posters on the only obvious still available surface: the ceiling.

The place is quite big for a Parisian café. Part of it has extended into a covered marquise, which occupies a portion of the interior court of the building in which we stay.

The café is, generally, almost never empty. The clientele is exclusively young people, many of them tourists in passing; one can hear here at any time Japanese, Chinese, Italian, Hebrew, of course French. And Romanian! But towards lunchtime it is the territory of the young regulars, who pack it every day.

On Sunday, Le Loir does brunch. From about 10:30 till late in the afternoon all chairs, regardless of their stability, are taken, and there is also a long line-up into the street. Right in the face of the empty Café Les Rosiers...

Last Sunday I naively thought that we can get our usual coffees at about 11am, and we were literally manhandled by a supernumerary waiter, who didn’t know us. One of the regular waiters would have merely asked us nicely to leave. Because, you see, as Inspecteur Clouseau would have said: it was “breuntch” time.

We take our coffees here, once or twice daily, because the coffee is good, and because, when we don’t happen upon the “breuntch”, the waiters are nice and know us, and make us feel good. After a couple of visits, they know what we take and we think they make one of the best coffees in Paris, sure enough the best one we found so far. And they make us feel as if we are their best clients.

In the meantime, across the street, Les Rosiers is quiet. For fairness sake, the famous Canadian fairness, I tried a coffee there and it wasn’t of the same quality as the one Le Loir makes. It was the last coffee I had across the street. Life is too short to compromise on coffee and atmosphere.

Who can explain the popularity of Le Loir and the empty tables at Les Rosiers? Probably: the difference is in the feeling that at Le Loir one is wanted; at Les Rosiers one is tolerated.
Panorama from the Terrace of L’Institut du Monde Arabe but No Turkish Coffee

“I can’t be snoring that badly!” is my first thought, as a heavy noise wakes me.

I look at the watch: it is the ungodly hour of 8am. I hear Josette opening the fridge in the kitchen. The noise returns; my brain vibrates with it. So does the bed.

A jackhammer? Yes! It is a jackhammer!!

A jackhammer? On Rue des Rosiers on the first day of the Jewish New Year?

I stumble to the window, open it wide: yes, there is a jackhammer jackhammering away down there, doing what jackhammers do in cities: tearing out the pavement of the little portion of Rue des Rosiers between Rue Malher (correct spelling!) and Rue Pavée. A few workers assist the jackhammer operator with more “quiet” knocking tools: a compacter, stone cutters, a (cement) mixer... The cobblestones at the Rue Pavée end of the street have been taken out; a barrier blocks now that portion of the street. I will find out later that the works which began today will be finished by the end of November! (Note: it turned out that the work on this segment was finished in a few days, and the barriers were gone where municipal implements are taken when such work is finished)

I close the window, but nothing helps. We’ll have to live with it?

Latter on, we drop in at Le Loir de la Théière to repair our shaken spirits with some strong coffee. I ask the waiter about the noise outside and he says something like “Ça va passer; vous savez, ils ne travaillent pas toute la journée...”; it’ll go, you know; they don’t work all day...

Well, I hope so! I don’t care to find out how long it will take to fix the cobblestones of Rue des Rosiers.

We cross over to Île Saint-Louis for what I hope is the last of the shopping expeditions. We find some beautiful things for our grandchildren, most probably available elsewhere in the city at a lower price, but who knows when, where; at least here we find exactly what we wanted!

On to Quai de la Tournelle, where we decide to stop for lunch at the logically named Rallye La Tournelle. Two assiètes, one with jambon and the other with rôti de porc, frites on the side, a beer Leffe, water, no coffees, because the next stop is at the Institut du Monde Arabe and I hope to get a Turkish coffee.

The Institute is on Quai Saint-Bernard, on the other side of Pont de Sully. I have heard much about the unique architecture of this building and I have seen many photos. But from Quai Saint-Bernard it is quite similar to many other glass buildings one can see anywhere. Everything changes when the interior court, at this time of the day completely empty, reveals itself: the famous and indeed beautiful glass and aluminum façade has a powerful visual impact, each square window tile housing a complex structure of apertures sensitive to light and moving accordingly, with the sun, throughout the day.

Inside, it is all light and glass, aluminum and stainless steel; the outside flows in from all directions.

We visit the library and then take the elevator to the ninth floor terrace café.

The view from the terrace is exceptional: an almost 180 degrees of Paris landscape, the most dominant being the Notre-Dame Cathedral. To the left of it I think that I can identify the dome of the Panthéon; to the centre dominates the imposing dome of Èglise Saint-Paul-Saint-Louis on Rue Saint-Antoine; far, straight ahead, is the statue topping the column of Place de la Bastille.

The photographic session finished, we sit at one of the tables, under an awning protecting us from the strong sun. Josette says: “It will rain; look at those clouds!” But it is sunny and I want my Turkish coffee, and soon a waiter brings us the menu. On the menu, wonderful!, it is clearly written: “Café Libanais.” Everybody who knows his coffees knows that the Café Libanais will taste very much like a rich Turkish coffee, but will waft an aroma of “hel.” The “h” is aspirated and so it is not pronounced “hell.” In fact, “hel” is cardamom, which can be used ground, but preferably, for the real thing, the little cardamom seeds are rubbed between the palms in order to crack the hull of each grain. This will allow the boiling of the coffee in the traditional “ibrik” to integrate the aroma of the cardamom grain within that of the coffee. Too little cardamom, and it will make no difference; too much of it and the coffee will become bitter.

Well, I don’t have to worry about this here because the waiter tells me that they don’t make Café Libanais. Yes, it is true, it is on the menu, but they don’t make it anymore. Espresso? OK, I sigh, espresso. Double.

As we sip our espresso, a few drops of rain confirm Josette’s prediction. But the sun is in and out, and Paris beyond the Institute’s terrace offers an extraordinary panoramic view, so we don’t rush. As a compromise, we cancel the plan to continue on to Jardin des Plantes, which is at only a five minutes walk from the Institute.

We return over Pont de Sully towards our apartment, buy some white wine and baguette on the way on Saint-Antoine, and suddenly the rain starts. It pours. We find some shelter under the awning of a bookshop and wait for the rain to ease off. At one point is seems that it only rains instead pouring and we take off. We get soaked! It is a proven fact that every time we are in Paris we get soaked by a torrential rain at least once!

Well, we will change, rest, have dinner and then go out again, for another discovery walk.

The evening walk takes us through Rue des Tournelle where we happen to arrive exactly when the members of the Synagogue des Tournelles come out after the evening prayers. From the street we can see the beautiful lit candelabra and the many members greeting each other at this end of the first day of the Jewish New Year. There is visible security at the door, and I cross to ask one of the members whether the Synagogue can be visited during the week. The answer is “Yes, of course!”

This is the Synagogue of the Séphardic community in the Marais. It can host for prayers 1400 people, and the famous Gustave Eiffel assisted in its construction.
A Return to L' Orangerie; the Galettes of Café Breizh

This is the day to visit our new favourite museum in Paris: the Orangerie and its permanent collection.

In its present format, the Orangerie reopened in 2006. We were in Paris immediately after the opening and the line-ups were interminable, unless you had pre-bought tickets for a specific visit hour, which we had. This time, there are no lines at the entrance.

The Orangerie hosts a rich collection of paintings by Cézanne, Renoir, Derain, Matisse; Soutine, Utrillo, Modigliani, Picasso, and a small space is dedicated to a few transparent, dreamy, powdery paintings by the lesser known but very interesting Marie Laurencin.

The collection was assembled by Paul Guillome and Jean Walter, one art dealer and the other architect, and was completed later with purchases made by the widow of Jean Walter, Domenica Walter.

There is some cloak and dagger story related to the initial collection, legal suits, family conflicts and mysteries.

Great, attractive features of this museum are the friendliness of the galleries, the logical flow of the paintings (do not compromise on following without exception the counter clockwise direction of the visit), and the fact that, while there is substantial sampling of the works of all the artists mentioned above, the numbers are not overwhelming. Benches are generously provided, the museum clerks do not even get upset if a visitor sits in their own chairs.

Among my favourites, too many to mention them all, are Derain’s engaging Arlequin et Pierrot and Soutine’s Le Village, painted in Cagnes. Josette undertakes a review of the portraits of Paul Guillome and Domenica Walter as they were painted by a number of the presented artists, and of Mlle Channel.

Then, there are Monet’s Les Nymphéas, the gigantic water lilies, languorously covering the walls of the two enormous halls dedicated to these wall-sized panels, eight in total, bringing in the water lilies in light and shade, directly or reflected in water at various times of day, thus unveiling the secrets of Monet’s beloved garden and of his favourite flowers.

One of the bonuses of visiting the Orangerie is its location at one end of Jardin des Tuileries, which invites the visitor to a relaxed promenade, with shade, and benches, with a friendly and inexpensive outdoor café, and presenting at the farthest end of the gardens the severe, challenging silhouette of the Louvre.

As we exit the Orangerie, I get out the cell phone to call our friends, J. and B. for a last get-together before they leave the next day for Bruges. At the same moment the phone rings and it is J.: they are on their way to Café Breizh (have no idea how to pronounce it...) which is highly recommended by no other than David Lebowitz, and she proposes that we meet there.

Into the metro and then the long walk, on a wonderfully sunny day, from Rue de Rivoli to 109 Rue Vieille du Temple, where Café Breizh is located. We arrive first. The place is small: there are three bar tables and about 10 tables for two. We are advised that a table for four cannot be put together before a wait of at least 15 minutes. We get a chair, and try to sit out of the way of the waiters but still in their view so that they will not forget about us. After a while J. and B. appear, and a few more minutes later we get our table.

The main stays of Café Breizh, a crêperie, are the galettes, which are made with sarrasin (buckwheat) and water. From such simple, basic ingredients exceptional and delightful combinations sprout. There are too numerous variations on the galette theme to count, and luckily they are just as perfect bases for main courses as they are for desserts. We try both options, some of us accompanying them with cider, also of a tremendous variety, and me discovering a wonderful dark beer, Tellen Du, made with black wheat. The galletes for me were Provençale as entreé and the galette au caramel as dessert. Absolutely delicious, maybe even beyond that! Not to be missed; for interested parties, the address is one paragraph higher!
Slow Travel Walking Picnic in The Marais

This is the day of the “walking picnic”, meeting with our compatriots, B. and her husband, B., and with N. and D.

Originally, the plan was to meet on Sunday morning, around 10:30, in front of the large staircase of Opéra Bastille and to visit the busy Marché Richard-Lenoir, which takes place on every Thursday and Sunday along the boulevard with the same name. It is a huge market, which starts at Place de la Bastille and extends on Richard-Lenoir for half a kilometre, maybe more.

While visiting the market, the plan would be to buy whatever is required for a nice picnic, then head towards Rue Saint-Antoine to lunch in the discreet courtyard of Hôtel de Sully; later, tour Place des Vosges and other, nearby parts of the Marais.

B. and B. wanted to get better acquainted with Place des Vosges. We discussed initially the idea of a regular lunch, but N.’s proposed the plan of Richard-Lenoir plus picnic, which sounded much more interesting, and so we all agreed.

Since at the time of these arrangements we have never met, we agreed that N. And D. will wear white panamas, B. will wear the ubiquitous Canadian Tilley hat, and I will wear my Slow Travel cap.

All went as planned until the meteorological services advised that on Sunday it will rain cats and dogs!

What to do? We had the easy contact with N., and so I launched both emails and posts on Slow Talk addressed to B. hoping that she would somehow read them and knowing that she had my telephone number and can contact me. Indeed, she did call after picking up my SOS email on her IPod and, again as suggested by N., we change the marché from Sunday’s Richard-Lenoir to Saturday’s farmers market in Place Baudoyer, between Rue de Rivoli and Rue François Miron.

On Saturday morning the weather is perfect, all goes well, and we meet as planned, except that B. is wearing an Australian outback hat; luckily, my magic Slow Travel cap does its job and, after getting acquainted (which between Slow Travelers takes usually only a few seconds), I suggest that we turn first towards Rue François Miron, where I have an important stop to make: at no. 30 on Rue François Miron is one of my preferred stores, the Épicerie du Monde of Mr Izrael. I get there my supplies of poivre de Madagascar; the price is even unchanged from that of a few years ago. While I am dealing with this purchase, the others are getting drunk on the incredible aromas of spices typical of this shop.

A few steps farther, in Place Baudoyer, the burgeoning farmer's market is in full swing. As an unexpected bonus, the City Hall of the 4th arrondissement is in the same square and we are treated with viewing a couple of civil wedding processions. It is a beautiful, sunny day, perfect for watching weddings.

The next stop is across Rue de Rivoli, for coffees at Les Fous d'en Face.

From there we proceed to Rue Saint-Antoine to buy our food for the planned picnic, and when we arrive at Hôtel de Sully, N. and D. are already there, waiting for us with spread colourful tablecloths, and we all have a wonderful time, getting to know each other better.

There is some fibbing because the “secret, secluded” courtyard turns out to be quite popular with guided tours on this Saturday and various strategies are discussed as to how to get rid of all those annoying tourists, and of a couple who occupied, on the other side of the garden, a stone bench we, in fact mostly the N. and D., covet. To quote N.: “...every time D. and I picnicked in the Hôtel courtyard, there was never anybody around. (On this Saturday) the courtyard was like Tokyo rush hour minus the cars. Any more crowded and we'd have to climb the trees to get some space.”

But in the end we all decide that where we are is good enough and B. and B., and later B. and N., offer us novel versions of the famous “Déjeuner sur l'herbe”, with two critical exceptions: our ladies are fully dressed, and the déjeuner is on “gravier” (gravel in French). To quote again our irrepressible friend, N.: “We were indeed right out of a 2010 version of Manet's “Déjeuner sur l'herbe”: “Déjeuner sur gravel” avec a zillion visitors' footprints sur nous.”

I will refrain from quoting the remark made by B. on the impact of the gravel on the sitting part of her anatomy...

Later, we file through a secret “passage au fond”, known only to D., who knows myriad of such secret places in Paris. The passage, “secret” as it is, was earlier streaming group after group of tourists; however, it now takes us from the interior court of Hôtel de Sully directly into Place des Vosges without being bothered by crowds.

Follows a tour of Place des Vosges, as promised to B.; a Dixie style band receives us rocking and another musician is playing Bach on violin solo farther away, thus completing the atmosphere by using the wonderful acoustics of the beautiful colonnades which mark the square on all sides.

Then, D. takes us to another of his secret places and, as I promised him, I will not divulge the fact that to find the secret rose garden one has to first find Rue Grand Veneur. Shhh!

We say our farewells at around 3pm. It was a great time spent together in the most satisfying GTG way!

In the evening Josette and I take a walk and discover another wonderful little place, hidden between Rue Saint-Antoine and Rue de Jarrente: take Rue Caron starting from either of those two streets and you will discover Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine. It is a small square, with friendly benches and shade during the day. At lunch time but in particular in the evening a magical transformation takes place here: along the four sides of the small, secluded square I counted at least seven restaurants, café-bars and bistros, offering foods of the world: Italian, Israeli, Korean, a restaurant-theatre, and bistros typical for this area of the city.

For people coming to the Marais: Place du Marché Sainte-Catherine is not to be missed!

P.S.: With the panic about the weather, Sunday started up a bit rainy, and then it turned into another beautiful Parisian day!
Fancy Stores and a Really Resounding Concert

As predicted by Météo Paris, the day starts with rain. Our apartment is too close to Marché Richard-Lenoir not to be going there on both Sundays we are here. The rain eases soon enough and we take advantage of the smaller crowds to look around.

From there, a visit to Mariages Frères on Rue du Beauburg for refreshing the tea stocks at home and to buy some teas for our friends. Then, by the simple choice of turning right instead of turning left we come across Rue Sainte Croix de le Bretonnerie, a very elegant street, with fancy stores and attractive cafés and restaurants. We end up not buying anything because prices are stratospheric and we don’t really need anything. But two weeks of walking Paris in all directions start to mean something to our knees and backs. We decide to use the apartment not only as base to which to return a few times daily and take off again, as we have basically done so far, but to use it as it is supposed to be used: a home away from home. To rest when we feel we need it.

In the evening we take the metro for the first of the three concerts we will attend while in Paris. The concert is at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, and we get off at the Franklyn D. Roosevelt station and walk down Avenue de Marignan and then Avenue Montaigne. As always, we are early, and so we cross the street for drinks at Café du Théâtre. It has gotten a bit chilly and we don’t want to sit outside. We are offered a table inside, and the waiter, who anticipated that we will have dinner, is somewhat unhappy when he hears that we want to sit only for drinks. The fact is, most of the tables around us are not set for dinner yet, and he relents, not without facially expressing deep unhappiness. A born mime! We have a beer and a coffee, and as we sit there more customers come in “for drinks only” so we feel a bit better.

Théâtre des Champs-Elysées is an old lady with a rich “past.” Generations have left here deep, thick aromas of times gone and of perfumes now out of fashion. Added to this, one can feel in the air also a shade of mould. The seat coverings are very tired. The halls must have gone through some flood that left ineradicable stains on the exhausted carpets. The seats are hard, their cushions don’t cushion anymore. But when the music starts in this premier concert hall of one of the greatest music cities of the world, all these petty problems are forgotten: the music is greater than anything.

The concert tonight is dedicated to Mahler's Second Symphony, "Resurrection", and it is an extraordinary performance. There must be over 200 people on the stage: two choirs (Collegium Vocale Gent and Accademia Chigiana Siena); the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra; another circa half an orchestra backstage, including french horns, trumpets and drums; two underutilized vocal soloists; the whole ensemble conducted by the young, diminutive in stature but huge on the podium Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The deep shoe box that is the stage of Théâtre des Champs-Elysées contains them all and acts itself as an enormous resonance board.

From the disturbed and disturbing opening to the last notes, I can't recall breathing much, but I must have because the symphony was performed in circa 80 minutes end to end. The ovations at the end are incredible.

But by the end of the 80 minutes without intermission my bottom, like that of the other 2000 people filling the concert hall, is flat like the Canadian prairie. One violinist requires water during the concert; otherwise she probably would have fallen over much like the legendary Royal guardsman. She was surreptitiously passed on the water bottle previously used by the conductor between the very long first part and the second.

Yo Yo Ma on Tuesday and Wednesday. Today we saw on one stage 200 performers; on Tuesday and Wednesday we will see on the same one stage only one performer. Bach after Mahler.
Who is Afraid of Jardin des Plantes?

For some reason, even experienced travellers don’t learn to recognise the moment when they should leave well enough alone; for today we decide to start with a visit of the Jardin des Plantes, which on Google’s beta walking distance option is shown as a 20 minutes walk.

The first part of the walk is very familiar because we cross Île Saint-Louis, where we stop at the very attractive store Diwali, which specializes in silk, and silk and wool scarves made in India. Josette bought already a scarf there and we are now here to look for a gift for somebody close. The desired colours were defined very exactly, but, as always in such cases, what we find in the store is either a touch too light, or one shade too dark. I decide that we have to take advantage of technology, and ask permission to photograph two of the scarves that seem closest to requirements. Later, I will email the photographs to the intended recipient of the gift. The store clerk is very amused by the idea, and cooperates, and also sets aside the two potential scarf options till Wednesday, taking into consideration the time zone differences, etc. It’s all actually pretty funny, and we all have a good time with the idea.

We promise to be back whether we will buy or not, and then go on towards Jardin des Plantes via Quai de la Tournelle; we’ve been on Quai de la Tournelle at least once, when we visited the Institut du Monde Arabe. According to Google, from the Institute to the entrance of Jardin des Plantes we have to walk only five more minutes. Which is probably true, but the last minutes are always the hardest...

In Jardin des Plantes there are actually five different museums in one, with the entire site dominated by the imposing building of the Grande Galerie de l’Évolution, which seems to be the magnet towards which the entire garden is poised. A photograph taken from the central path of the garden facing the Grande Galerie becomes a study in perspective.

After a short rest on one of the many benches available, we start the visit with the hothouses, every one of them an architectural beauty and a functional unique habitat. We choose to visit the hothouses dedicated to the tropical plants, and to the cacti. The air is heavy, humid in one, dry and hot in the other. Plants grow here in freedom, the idea being to minimize the human intervention in their development.

A visit to Jardin des Plantes requires planning, because the area is enormous. If one has no specific interests or objectives, the best way to visit is to take one or two of the wide alleys and stop when the interest dictates. One can rest, but in all, the distances are deceiving in this extraordinary botanical garden in the heart of the city.

Since we walked enough we need a taxi to get home and to get a taxi we need to walk some more, because the most likely street to provide enough taxi traffic in this mixture of university and residential neighbourhoods is Rue Monge. On the way to Rue Monge we pass by the Grand Mosque of Paris, and then a couple of schools in recess.

We have a bit of luck, because as soon as we hit Rue Monge we notice a taxi, stopped to disembark a passenger. I cross the street to ask the taxi driver if he is free after this trip and he says yes.

Then, as we give the driver the address of the apartment, he also says that he is “new” and does not know very well the route; will I guide him? I tell him that I am pretty new myself but he could use the very visible GPS he has in front of him.

Fortunately, I already know a few basic things: (a) to get into the street on which we live the driver will have to cross Rue de Rivoli against a bunch of one-way streets into Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and this means a really long drive from where we are at this moment; if he is “new” this also means he will have a tough time navigating the narrow streets, with GPS or not; (b) I know the beast called GPS and the fact that it works best if one feeds it a clear, real address. I have an inspiration and tell him to fix the target as 30 Rue François Miron, the address of a shop I know very well (the Épicerie du Monde of Mr Izrael), which is very near to where we stay, but on the “right” side of Rue de Rivoli.

So I spell to the driver the address and ask him to get us on the way using the GPS. He ends up taking a wrong turn only once, and receives on arrival a nice tip for taking us safely and without too much excitement to the address I gave him. I am not sure who is more grateful of the two of us, but if it were possible I would have given another tip to his GPS.

Why don’t the taxi drivers in Paris know their streets better? It is the third time in two weeks when we get into taxis with drivers who don’t know their city.

We decide to remain in the apartment for the rest of the day; a specific, annoyed meniscus is screaming after this visit of the Jardin des Plantes, and a back needs support. They, and us, will enjoy a quiet evening.
Notre Dame From the “Other Side”; Oy-Oy Ma’! How Great is Yo-Yo Ma!

The day starts with the now routine: coffees at Le Loir, a tour at the kosher bakery, which makes everything without milk or butter, which means Josette can use their products without any concerns over lactose. Kosher to the rescue! This reminds me that for a number of years I had an assistant, Muslim, and very observant. When we travelled abroad, I always called well in advance our local offices and asked them to look up places that offer halal products. If there was none, the fallback was always on the kosher products!

It weighs "heavily" on us that we have gifts for our grandchildren and none yet for their parents, and for their grandpa’ (moi-meme). We decide that a return to the fancy shops of Rue Sainte Croix de la Bretonnerie and Rue Vieille du Temple may help with ideas because of the wide variety of choices. We go in a couple of shops, but the prices are shockingly high, and the styles are too different from what our sons would want. On to BHV, le Bazar de l'Hôtel de Ville on Rue de Rivoli, but prices there aren’t any better.

Disappointed, we decide to walk on to the enormous square of the Paris City Hall (!), a.k.a. l'Hôtel de Ville to take some photos; the immense place is always a spectacular photo location.

Then on to Notre-Dame, where we have the time to admire again this icon of Paris, and to get a few more pictures. We are very pleasantly surprised by the fact the Cathedral can be visited without restriction. We try to remember whether this was the case on previous visits; possibly. Inside, there is a service in course. The majority of the people inside came for the service; visitors are surprisingly few.

We return to the apartment by walking along the side of the Cathedral on Île de la Cité, then cut on Île St. Louis with the idea of eating someplace near home. Instead, we stop in front of “Sorza.” We went by this differently looking bistro on Île Saint-Louis a number of times until, today, tired after the long walk, we suddenly feel that the cool ambiance matches what we need at this moment: a place to rest, a place not too crowded (only a group of six occupied tables) and, most importantly, a place with a risotto as the “plat du jour.”

Inside, red walls, shiny black tables and immaculate table settings make a good first impression.

The menu du jour is a bit complicated but we manage to figure it out: from the list of the day one can choose an appetizer and a main course for €13, or a main course and a dessert for €16. Both options could include the plat du jour. If one takes only the plat du jour, the cost is €12. A glass of wine is €4, a coffee €2.50.

Because of Josette’s sensitivity to milk products, she decides to take a main course from the "à la carte" menu, which is not an inspired choice because what she receives is basically a half breast of boiled chicken, as neutral as can be. Improving the impression are the two side dishes, one of which turns out to be complimentary: beautiful fettuccine in olive oil and a serving of tasty vegetables.

On the other hand, I have two amazing dishes: an absolutely perfect risotto with parmigiano, and a sensational panna cotta topped with red fruits and covered with a tangy cherry sauce. I consider myself an expert in panna cotta (more as a gourmand than a gourmet...) and this one rates with the best I ever had.

By the time we leave, the place is packed.

In the evening, we go to Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for the first of the two recitals given by Yo Yo Ma, featuring the integral Bach Suites for cello solo. Tonight, Suites 1, 5 and 3, in this order. We have great seats in the fourth row of the orchestra and we feel as if we are just next to him, and to his cello.

Oy Oy Ma’! What a recital from Yo Yo Ma! I am hanging by each note; I have the feeling that by a moment of inattention I will irretrievably lose something, a sound that I will not hear ever again.

Can’t wait for the other three suites, tomorrow evening.

We walk back to the metro on Avenue George V. Just at the end of this street populated with prestigious hotels and ultra-expensive stores, a door is open and a sign says ”Chaque article = €10.” Inside, a store filled to the rafters with fake fashion shirts and socks, ties, belts. All is very clean, very pleasantly presented, with fake labels like “Attore” and “Yves Zeno” and the like. We choose three belts, for the boys and me, all good quality, with elegant buckles, no defects.

On Avenue George V, each item goes for €10!!! At 10:30 at night!!!
Bis! For Yo-Yo-Ma

The young women who are the sales clerks at the Diwali on Île Saint-Louis greet us as old acquaintances: this is the fourth time we visit the store. The previous week we bought an Indian silk scarf for Josette, and took some photographs for a gift for somebody else in the family. The photos were emailed and a choice has been made and we buy one of the two scarves that were set aside for us on Monday.

We leave the store, but I remember how Josette looked at some of the very fine silk and wool bi-colour scarves and I stop and ask her whether she would like another scarf. She hesitates; I insist; we return, and 15 minutes later there are two scarves in our Diwali bag!

We pick up shirts from the cleaners and shop for food for the rest of the week; in three days we leave! Lunch and dinner in the apartment, rest, and in evening we are back at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées for the second installment of Bach’s suites for cello solo interpreted by Yo Yo Ma. Tonight we hear Suites 2, 4 and 6.

This time the seats are in the third row of the first balcony. The contact with the stage is different. Yo Yo Ma does not seem to me fully concentrated while playing the Suite no. 2. There is a lot of coughing in the concert hall. The seats are very tight; the previous generations ate less steak and probably fit the seats better at the time.

But it all changes with the Suites 4 and 6: Yo Yo Ma magically becomes the same artist we heard yesterday. Ovations go on and on. One has the feeling to have been part of an extraordinary event.

Back to the metro, walking again along Avenue George V. The €10 store is still open, and this time it has a bunch of clients, all very well dressed. Across the street, at the corner of George V with Champs-Elysées, the windows lit “al giorno” at the huge Louis Vuitton store are a stark contrast to their small “each item for €10” competitor.
A Great Little Bistrot, but What is With These Parisian Taxi Drivers?

We are not in a hurry this morning: just the coffee and the bakery stops, and then we walk to a get-together with Slow Travel friends at the bistro Le Reminet, on the other side of the river. The lunch here was suggested and arranged by our friend, N., but she cannot attend today: she and her husband have left this morning for a vacation in the Ardèche.

When our group increased from seven to nine, the restaurant proprietor suggested to me to arrange for us a separate room and I told him that I will follow his advice. It proved to be an inspired suggestion, because today we all have a great time and can talk freely without concern for disturbing the other customers.

The menu du jour at Le Reminet is French and modern, an exceptional value and of excellent quality. For lunch, at €13.50 per person, we have choices of:

  • mushroom cream soup or tomato stuffed with cheese plus a small side salad;
  • veal liver with pureed sweet potatoes or fillet de Bar (which I translate as Atlantic sea bass)
  • a selection of cheeses or a spiced apple tart with whip cream and a sauce of apples with cinnamon (and peppercorn?)
I don’t see anything left on the plates of the nine people around the table. We are either very hungry, or the food is excellent, or - most likely - both.

Josette has the sea bass fish and she likes it very much, and so say the others who chose it. I have the veal liver, perfectly done. The other person who chose the liver confirms it.

I highly recommend the restaurant, both for quality and for value.

The location of the restaurant is exceptional: hidden from the high traffic of Quai de Montebello, yet easily accessible by foot or metro.

And a spectacular bonus is the view from Quai de Montebello: the Seine and the river traffic, the dramatic Notre-Dame Cathedral, and the concentration of very interesting "bouquinistes."

Nearby is the famed Parisian bookshop Shakespeare and Co.

I am curious about the origin of the name of the street on which Le Reminet is located and I ask the proprietor as we are leaving. The name of the street is Rue des Grands-Degrées and the explanation for the name is that in earlier times there were here large steps cut into the river bank, which led directly down to the river. Today, Quai de Montebello rises about 10 meters above the level of the water.

In the evening, I start planning the return home. The main concern is the taxi access: where we stay there is a taxi station nearby, at St. Paul, but the problem is that from Rue Mahler (spelling correct!) to Rue Beaubourg all streets run one-way and there are no right turns.

My experience with calling Taxi Parisien (01 45 30 30 30) is disappointing. One has to press the number of the arrondissement, in our case the 4th. The voice system then passes me on to four different taxi stations upon which it advises me that it is “desolée” but none of the stations at St. Paul, Beaubourg, Bastille, and a fourth whose location I forget, answer. Please call again later!

I think we will lug the baggage to the taxi station ourselves. A first!
Au Revoir, Paris, but We Must Pack Already

Last day before departure.

We decide to start the day with a walk on Champs-Elysées, from Étoile and the Arc de Triomphe towards Place de la Concorde.

It is a gorgeous day, sunny, with just a hint of the fall to come. Champs-Elysées is busy, but not too busy. We take our time; even enter a store selling men’s clothing at surprisingly low prices. I don’t have the silhouette for their products, which is too bad because I really liked one of the wind jackets.

But we spend the money for a much better cause at the wonderful FNAC store at no. 74: a DVD with Rostropovich playing the Bach Suites for cello solo (will he play them differently than Yo Yo Ma? Of course!) and an album with four DVDs featuring the Festival Orchestra of Lucerne conducted by Claudio Abbado playing symphonies by Mahler and Bruckner and the Beethoven piano concerto #3 with Alfred Brendel.

Back to apartment, we pack.

In the evening we just said farewell to our neighbourhood. It is more quiet than usual here: this evening starts the sacred Jewish Day of Atonement. The synagogues are full; the streets emptier.

I close my Paris Journal with some thoughts, sort of:

When one travels away from home to stay somewhere else, in one single place, for a longer period of time, it seems that there are two parts to the trip. The first part, after arrival, is one of adjustment but also of surprises, discoveries, excitement. As time goes by, and always depending on the individual traveller and on the length of the stay, definitely in my case, one starts to create connections with the neighbourhood. This process happens easier if one stays in an apartment and has to deal with shopping for food and supplies, and meets some of the same people every day. One then becomes, if even for a short period, part of the neighbourhood’s life rhythms. A preferred café-bar become a place where you are greeted warmer than the incidental client and where they know what coffee you will order and that you will want also a carafe of water; the coffee and the water will be promptly delivered with a friendly smile and a touch of familiarity. By the second week the corner fruits and vegetables vendor allows you to pick your own fruits, a no-no only three day ago. The baker knows what you usually buy and starts picking from the shelves without asking. From all of them the “Bonne journée!” sounds as if it is really meant.

One walks in the neighbourhood a few times each day and its heartbeat becomes familiar. You know at what time of day stores will open, or close. You know when the streets will be blocked by kids on recess at the nearby school. You know that the fromagers and wine stores will close at lunch while bakeries and charcutiers will stay open. Lactose-free milk can be found only at supermarkets, and you learn by trial and error that only one of the many bakeries between the two ends of the street has really, really good, ready-made sandwiches.

All of the above observations can be applied to many a city. What is special and extraordinary where we stay in Paris, and likely elsewhere in this wondrously diverse city, is that life happens mostly outdoors, on sidewalks, at the small round tables spilling out from each café or bar, from each bistro or restaurant, whether it shines or rains, whether a thin wind cuts through your jacket or the sun is so hot that you prefer to wear a T-shirt.

When I try to look for the essence of the experience of these past three weeks of stay in this part of the Marais, what distills is the image of the streets full of mostly young people, congregating by an unspoken ritual, living their social life outdoors; the crowds are out everywhere in this neighbourhood, at about any time from 10 or 11 in the morning till late past midnight, all engaged in deep conversations, glasses or cups in hand, or spoon and fork, and surrounded by cigarette smoke.

If I were a sociologist I would be intrigued by this exhibitionism of social life in Paris. One thought would be that people, particularly the young, are forced outside by the small apartments, maybe by living with parents, and everything is made easier by the more benign weather, and likely by the popular culture of food and drink.

Whatever the explanation, what I will take with me as the essence of this trip will be the sidewalks and the young people that take them over, every day and night.

A bientôt, Paris! A bientôt, Marais!


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