Friday, July 27, 2012
I'd been to Paris twice before and I was prepared for crowds and had a pretty good idea of where I wanted to go and what I wanted to do, but I still found it a little oppressive somehow. I used my first day, which was a national holiday to explore a bit (a lot of places were closed) and on the second day I went "shopping" I put that in quotes because I didn't actually buy anything. On the third day I was sick - which was a drag, but I was really glad I didn't have to get on a plane, which had been my original plan. I barely made my flight as it was, after the shuttle no-showed, and we hit crazy traffic on the way to the airport on the Air France bus the next morning.
The other day, I heard a story on NPR about something called "Paris Syndrome." Apparently when some people go to Paris, they are so disappointed by the reality that they actually suffer a kind of emotional breakdown. Japanese people appear to be particularly susceptible, and it's theorized it's because depictions of Paris in popular culture there idealize Paris so much. My experience wasn't as extreme, but I can see how Paris can let people down. The expectations are just so high - its Paris, after all! But it's also a real place, full of real people going about their real business. Everything is expensive, there are lines wherever you go, there are as many Americans as French people on the streets (at least in the busiest areas) it's expensive, it's not always easy to get around, and the weather is fickle - rainy and gray one day, hot and sunny the next.
On past visits I've used the Batobus to get around Central Paris - and I highly recommend it. It runs up and down the Seine with stops at the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Musee D'Orsay, Notre Dame, Ile de la Cite, Place Concorde, etc. It's a great way to see all of those sites in a short period of time. This time I was staying on the left bank in an area near the Latin Quarter, so I used the Velib bikes and the Metro for the most part. To use the Velib bikes without a "chip and pin" credit card, you need to buy your pass in advance on the internet and then activate it when you get there. Jordan of Oh Happy Day lived in Paris for a year and has a nice little guide here. You'll have to punch in a long pin number when you check out a bike (check the tires, I had one with a flat) but it's not too much of a hassle. The bikes are better than walking over long distances, but can be a little nerve wracking when you don't know your way around. One thing I was REALLY glad I did was pay in advance for an international data plan for my iPhone, so I could use the maps function for directions. It saved my bacon a few times.
I was primarily focused on food on this trip and I had a short list of places I knew I wanted to go. At the top of my list was Rue Montorgueil and the nearby cookware shop E. Dehillerin (where Julia Child bought her copper pots, so the story goes.) At E. Dehillerin you wander around and find what you need, then record the item number and look up the price in a large book near the front counter.
It was crowded and there was a line for the only salesman who spoke English, but I was able to check out the options and they do mail order, so when the time comes I will have that stainless steel lined heavy duty copper sauce pan of my dreams. The prices are very reasonable, even with the exchange rate.
Rue Montorgueil is a street of food shops located near Les Halles, the original home of the storied wholesale food market of Paris which was relocated to the outskirts of town in the 70s and replaced with a tacky indoor shopping mall. Rue Montorgueil itself is lined with innumerable cafes, cheese shops, produce stands, bakeries, boucheries, confiseries, chocolatiers and on and on. David Lebovitz' guide to the area is full of great tips and information. I went to most of the places he mentions including Mora, the pastry supply warehouse, where I was taken aback to find a large selection of Wilton brand cake decorating supplies on the shelves - the same stuff you can buy at any old Michaels craft store in the US. I was hoping to find some interesting little things to take home, but the selection at Sur la Table in the States is actually better.
Early summer produce was already flowing in - there were mountains of stone fruit, cherries, plums, nectarines and apricots all looking absolutely perfect and beautiful.
Just about every third or fourth shop on Rue Montorgueil is a fromagerie, all of them carrying a dazzling selection. In San Diego we have a grand total of three stores like this - all of which are owned by the same company. I'm not complaining, but the volume here truly is astounding.
Sadly, I was not permitted to take any pictures of the beautiful displays of baked goods in the patisseries and boulangeries. The picture thing was really a problem in Paris - NOBODY wants you to take pictures inside any kind of store, and most of them have large signs up and will really yell at you if you violate their policy. They couldn't stop me from taking a few on the outside though - Stohrer has a beautiful shop front and mosaic entry as well as a dazzling display of pastries, breads and sandwiches.
Just around the corner from Rue Montorgueil is La Droguerie - stocking ribbon, yarn, buttons, beads and other accoutrement for sewing projects. I did snap a photo in there when I thought no one was looking, just before the clerk dove in front of my phone screeching at me.
One area I would have liked to explore further was the Rue des Martyrs and Oberkampf. I biked up there on my first day in town, but everything was closed for the holiday. I had a book with me full of listings for trendy stores called the "eat shop" guide - and it had listings for a lot of fun places in that area - vintage stores, thrift shops, antique shops and cafes - most of which looked to be relatively affordable. When I go back I will definitely try to spend more time there. I will also try to make sure I go on a day when the flea market is open. That is something I have always wanted to do but it's never worked out quite right. There is a vendor at the flea market selling nothing but used vintage Hermes and other high end bags. (Be still my heart!) Speaking of Hermes, after exploring the Les Halles/Montorgueil area, I hopped on a Velib bike and rode uptown to find Pierre Herme and pay a visit to the Hermes flagship store on Rue Faubourg. (No relation between the two, at least that I know of.) I'm a bit of a fangirl. I used to have a vintage Kelly bag but I sold it to buy a plane ticket many years ago. It was a tough decision, but it had worn through holes in the corners that couldn't be fixed. I have a couple of scarves and am jonesing for a belt, and maybe a bag again someday - but on this occasion I was just window shopping. I didn't take any pictures at Pierre Herme, because - guess why - but the shop is a gorgeous little jewel box just a few blocks away.
All in all, Paris is great - amazing even. It's something you just have to do, but you just can't expect it to be the be all end all compared to everywhere else in the world. I've eaten better (on the low-ish end) in San Francisco and New York - maybe that is in part because I know where to go in those cities and they're a little easier to navigate without the language barrier - but I don't think that's all there is to it. Other cities have gotten better, while Paris has stayed largely the same, or maybe even become a bit bogged down by all the tourist hordes that descend on a daily basis, looking for the flakiest croissants, the most sublime oysters, and most ethereal bread. If you look in the right places, I'm sure you can find those things - but you can in most other major cities in the world these days too. In spite of all my complaining, I did manage to eat pretty well while in Paris. I'm working on a separate post about that - coming soon!