A life of Francophilia
I never left the country as a kid. Our family vacations didn’t even extend to Canada despite living in New England. Instead, we drove from our house to Cape Cod or to New Jersey.
The first time I actually left the country though was to Paris when I was twenty-four. Brian and I persuaded a family friend to let us stay in their tiny apartment right by the markets of Rue Monge. A free place to stay in Paris is always a thing you take someone up on, even if you’re broke.
Ever since, I’ve been (not-so-secretly) fixated on France. Not because I’m particularly a skilled being a francophile. My french begins and ends with cordial interactions in stores and a taste for ye-ye pop tunes on spotify. I think it’s just that feeling of first leaving the country, emerging into that lost aura of a lack of language, that sticks in my gut.
Though we travelled with friends who hadn’t been to Paris before, it felt like a a different kind of trip for me, like a return where I could be nostalgic but also feel changed, ignoring the touristy things I didn’t feel compelled to do, returning to places I went to before, all while assembling a scrapbook in my head.
This return to Paris happened serendipitously because we found incredibly cheap one way tickets to Paris on Wow Airlines (yes that is a real airline name that flew us across the Atlantic.) The flight was 99 dollars one way, though it involved a particularly interesting connecting flight in the dead of early morning in the Icelandic snow. I’d totally do it again for the right circumstances, but might just fly NYC to Paris direct next time. It would be a fantastic way to just get to Iceland, though. Think backpacker-style when booking. I excel at packing in a carry-on now!
Staying in Paris
We rented a unique duplex apartment-meets-house in the 11th arrondissement, with many beds and two little garden terraces.
Bastille meets Oberkampf felt local, like a not-so-touristy place to call home for a week. There were several Parisian-style brasseries and cafes situated on Rue Voltaire, ones where you could sit without much hassle with a single espresso, a single glass of wine. Nearer to the actual Bastille, ambling down side streets, you could find small stores, coffee shops, and a larger variety of food and nightlife that felt more New York City than Paris.
The neighborhood buzzed with the life of regular Parisians, not tourists. Though right near the attack sites of last November, it was not sullen. People were eating, drinking, and lining up for baguettes like you’d imagine.
Near the end of our trip, a student protest roarer up Rue Voltaire with a few break-off individuals smashing bank windows. We followed the protest a little bit, strolling blocks behind, watching the gendarmerie block off streets. After stopping in a cafe to use a bathroom, a woman behind the bar switched to English to explain that students protesting were normal. Welcome to France she said to me, handing over an espresso I bought to use the toilet, a bit sardonically.
Walking, Viewing & Arting in Paris
Walking Paris, even in the mid-40s weather, is a must. On foot you can play it off like you’re a local, seeing both streets with halal butchers alongside grand Haussmannian apartments of the Latin quarter.
We walked all over the city, from Bastille to the Seine to the Marais to the long stroll from the Louvre to the Arch du Triomphe, to the metal chairs of the Luxembourg Gardens, even up the hills to Sacre Coeur. Parisian doors in Saint German des Pres captivated me as we strolled by. We even walked right into Notre Dame, in a jet lag stupor before it closed, still awe struck.
Skipping both Versailles and Louvre–what iconclasts–two of us end up doing a magnificent tour of the Palais Garnier old opera house. On the tour we were even invited in to view the controversial Marc Chagall ceiling while the stage crew set up for the evening’s show.
D’Orsay was the only big, classic Parisian museum I wanted to stop in, even though I’ve been before, because I’ve got a soft spot for Cezanne and Van Gogh and that old train station clock view.
The quizzical Musee Carnavelt is free and a pleasantly strange place to meander, focusing on the urban history of Paris with a flair for the weird.
Pere Lachaise Cemetery was a neat irregular destination to take in during a morning walk. Come for the famed graves, stay for meandering the paths of moss covered stones. If you come early during the week, it’s mostly empty.
But the view from Tour Montpartnasse is worth the wait at dusk. You can see the sunset, staying for the Eiffel tower to glitter at night. Paris, you win, you’re so beautiful, I get it.
Shopping & Neighborhoods to Meander
My favorite shopping was a trip to the northern edge of the city, near the ring road that marks the boundaries of banlieue, to Marche Puces de Saint-Ouen. I’ve never encountered quite an antique and vintage market that rivals it before. Besides an array of classic french vintage, ceramics, and old bric-a-brac, I enjoyed just exploring the cavernous tunnel of tables.
The streets of the Marais were the best for meandering cafes, shops, and admiring Parisian architecture. Bensimon, that French brand known for minimal tennis flats, has a flagship shop in the Marais, too. On the edge of the neighborhood is the a curated and designer department store Merci Paris, which is worth a look at the very least for their used bookstore cafe where you can relax as others buy expensive but beautiful things.
Canal Saint-Martin was also a neighborhood full of smaller shop to stroll through, with Artazart, the best art bookstore I’ve been too located right on the canal for sitting and hip people watching.
An unlikely recommendation is the grocery meets department store Monoprix. Check out their French made soaps, they’re about a euro each, making them a perfect budget gift. The beauty department is noteworthy as well as the fact that most of them are also grocery stores. Stock up on butter at Monoprix!
Eating and Drinking
The everyday food of Paris is the food I like the most, the cheap things you can buy on the street or at the generale alimentation: crepes, croissants, macarons, bottles of wine, chocolate mousse, oh and yes the bread.
On the topic of delicious, heavenly bread, I will admit that our group ate 15 baguettes in a week. We liked them that much. You can read for days about finding the best baguette in Paris, but every single one of them is worth ripping into, so who cares which boulangerie you’re getting them from. The smartest tip seemed to be finding the local bakery that had a line in the morning or afternoon, with a peaking view of the actual kitchen in the back so you’d know they were baked on premises.
French butter, the kind just a little salt and bought at any old grocery store, takes a baguette to another level of heaven. Add grocery store 8 euro wine and you’re golden.
A bit fancier than the grocery store but also similarly everyday are the markets of Paris. On our last full day we ate an indoor picnic of cheese, bread, and spreads from the Marche Bastille. I think I’ll be forever chasing the salty texture of the green olive tapenade we bought from a friendly vendor who chatted us in perfect english about his brother in New England.
Local to the Marais, I would recommend the very un-french Cafe sudeois for a taste of Swedish Fika, a cafe full of cakes upon cakes that I could eat again and again. That fresh cream is definitely a good idea, trust me. And lastly, the very-Parisian Jewish Las du Fallafel might be the falafel I’ve ever had, and reason enough to visit the Marais over and over.
But seeing as we were in France, the best actual French meal we ate was had at neighborhood gastropub known for riffs on traditional tartares called Les Deux Cigalle. It’s was a welcoming, tiny spot with an inviting menu in Montparnasse. Brian ate a tartare but I ate a giant, delicious burger, feeling like a true American in Paris. Turns out Parisian loves burgers, too, so I feel a bit hippier than I had expected now.
Besides that French meal, I really just enjoy the tried and true French cafe, with a waiter who will ignore you yes but who will also let you simply order one glass of wine, or espresso and a croissant for breakfast, nothing more. There’s nothing as pleasing as being able to linger, ordering a chocolate mouse and a large beer because why not.
I think New York City could use a little less rushing in-and-out every day, especially on the weekend when you feel like you’re about to be stampeded for breakfast. I could use a perched table for watching the street any day.
See you next time, France. I’m keeping notes.