France: My Last Summer in Paris
by Karin Ling
Paris was never a city I romanticized. It just happened to be where I’d been living for over three years… all the while dreaming of more exotic locales.
But when the chance for relocation came through, I was suddenly faced with what would be my last summer in the city. That was when I looked up at the grumpy gray sky and thought, “Aw, I’m living in a black and white picture postcard.”
Maybe I’m getting soft, but it looks like something about Paris will stick with me after all. Here, in a rambling ode to the city, I leave you with a few cherished tidbits that have me, in spite of myself, suddenly reluctant to say goodbye. Head out and savor for yourself some of these experiences worth living and reliving.
In the heart of Paris
Think cobblestones and open air. Think of an expanse of bridges, twinkling in the dew of dusk. When the stress and crowds threaten to suffocate the city, you can always count on the Seine. It is history, good looks, and breathing space rolled in one.
Quai Saint Bernard has the most personality. Young people spread out picnic blankets anchored in place by wine bottles, candles, and the occasional strumming guitarist.
From July until the weather gets inhospitable in late autumn, swing dancers fill the esplanade of the Musée de la Sculpture en Plein Air. In the Argentine Tango area, the mass of bodies sway denser. Nearby, daredevils launch themselves into Caporeria moves just inches from the edge of the river bank.
Very young French culture
My favorite time for a stroll through the park is in the afternoons when parents and nannies bring their kids around. Check out the high percentage of French kids dragging around a “dou dou” (love-worn stuffed animal). At snack time, the same kids shuffle around with chocolate-smeared mouths. How lucky they are to live in a culture that encourages cakes and cookies every afternoon.
The sandbox sets the stage for another fascinating phenomenon: toddlers checking out each others toys, chatting it up… not bothered in the least that they don’t speak the same language. At the Jardin du Luxembourg, local kids hang out with tourist kids while at Parc Monceau, the foreigners are of the rich expat variety.
I bet you’ve never considered the voyeuristic opportunities on the Metro. Metro line 6 has the distinction of running on outdoor elevated tracks, taking you right past apartment building windows.
Get on at the Charles de Gaulle Etoile station around sunset when inhabitants start turning on their lights but have not yet remembered to close their shutters. Keep your eyes alert for snapshots into their cozy little worlds.
If you find yourself exhausted from too much running around, don’t drag yourself back into the tunnels of underground transport. Get on a bus instead. From the comfort of your fuzzy seat, remind yourself what an attractive city Paris is when you don’t have to be out there, pounding the pavement, dodging the dog poo.
Chose a route that covers the city’s hot spots (Bus line 80 or 69) or one that takes you through areas you wouldn’t normally pass through. Bus 96 goes through a diversity of neighborhoods, from lively Montparnasse to the working class districts of the Right Bank.
This very bus takes you to Belleville, where market stalls line the main boulevard on Tuesday and Friday mornings. Though the food market is traditionally a French phenomenon, at Belleville it’s gone through an evolution of its own: the fruit selection is more exotic, the permission to touch the produce more explicit.
The neighborhood is at the crossroads of several cultures: the second Chinatown of Paris intersecting Boulevard de Belleville with its large North African Jewish community. On the perpendicular street, Rue du Faubourg du Temple, you find halal food markets. So in Belleville, squeeze in, squeeze the fruit, and join the chaos. Here, being a foreigner means you fit right in.
Access to the world
You will find a similarly diverse population at the Bibliothèque Publique d’Information. Enter from the back of Centre Pompidou for an airy space with more than your predictable library offerings, all free of charge. Most impressive is the television area where foreigners line up to watch their favorite shows from back home (programming is broadcast live from around the world).
In the language center, put on a pair of headphones and learn a tongue you didn’t even know existed (tapes, disks, and books for 148 languages and dialects). Otherwise, to relive your youthful studious days, get a seat by the international magazine section on the second floor. It’s got the best views.
I half regret not having a regular café to frequent like in the movies, but there are too many to choose from. One that my friends and I keep returning to is Les Etages. It might have something to do with the décor (colorful mishmash of chairs) and their generosity (free refills of honey roasted peanuts). At this café, just being around the very trendy people makes us feel a little more stylish ourselves. Enough to sit a little straighter and wish we could keep our fingers out of the peanuts
I go to La Rotonde when I want to be classy and serious. And especially when I feel like filling up on a chocolat à l’ancienne. (Your order comes with a pitcher of thick melted chocolate and a larger pitcher of steamed milk. Enough there to make yourself three hot chocolates.) Though it was one of the cafes frequented by the Picasso-Chagall-Surrealist gang, it has a less touristy profile than the old Saint Germain literary cafés.
When French cuisine lives up to its reputation
For a lively night out, you must go to Ave Maria. It’s genuine and vibrant, a world apart from the other blandly hip places in the Oberkampf area. Ave Maria doesn’t take reservations so if you come after 7 pm, you might be stuck in the pressing crowd by the door. It’s no fun just watching while the diners savor their world cuisine (with a French/South American touch).
Another option would be to arrive late for a mint tea and their “mourir de chocolat”, the “death by chocolate” cake packed with flavors and spices. Around midnight, the music gets pumped up and the cocktails-by-the-pitcher work their magic as dancing commences in the narrow space between tables.
Les Fous de l’Ile, on the other hand, would be the kind of place you could take your parents. Like Ave Maria, it’s decorated with random objects for a laid-back feel but here, you get the impression of being in the funky dining room of a traditional French family. The place changed ownership in spring of 2005 and the new chef gives his clientele the same warm attentiveness he gives his food. The menu is full of well-done classics often with an inventive twist (mussels topped with the garlic butter sauce usually reserved for escargot).
Digestion in the night
After a three-course dinner, I usually have to roll myself out the door back onto the streets. It’s the perfect time for a digestive walk, one of those evening strolls traversing riverbanks and neighborhoods.
The best areas for wandering at this hour are those that tend to get too crowded in the daytime. Areas like the Marais mostly clear out but stay lively enough to make for an interesting walk.
Make your way over to the Louvre and its fountains and sway along to the lone violinist in the Cour Carrée. Cross the Pont des Art full of chattering in foreign tongues and turn down Saint Germain des Près. On Rue Buci, stop for a digestive drink or flip through art books at Taschen before continuing towards Saint Michel. Bet you’ve never felt so revived after a three-course meal.
Flâner: The challenge
Ultimately, what I will miss about the city is the activity of flâner. Endless wandering with no destination in mind, knowing only that inspiration and the unexpected await around the next corner.
In Paris, I had checked off my touristy to-do list early on but have to admit that there remain ways to impress the jaded local. To give you a sense of what I mean, I propose the following challenge: get on the Metro, get off at a random stop near the peripheries of town, and make your way back to the center.
Metro stations Guy Moquet or Lamark Caulaincourt are good starting points for a rewarding walk. Sample the village ambiance hidden in the hills of Montmartre. Know the general direction you want to head in but let yourself take random turns at whim.
Browse through streets with unusual shops (Rue Durantin will probably be happening in a few years) but when you start seeing tourists, choose your next path with more strategy. Duck back into an alley and keep yourself lost. This is a gem of a neighborhood that many Parisians don’t even know exist.
If I had to put my finger on it, that’s probably why I suddenly got fuzzy-eyed and warm-hearted about the city. When I moved to Paris, at first I took it for granted. But knowing that so much of the place will stay with me while so much remains undiscovered leads me to only one conclusion. That if Paris was once my home, then I can always go home again.
Originally from San Francisco, Karin Ling has worked as a freelance designer and writer in Paris for more than three years. She heads for adventures in Tokyo in Fall 2005.
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