Tuesday, August 27, 2013

a day in Paris

A last full day in the city. Except for two tiny errands (stamps at the post office and a discussion with madame at Monoprix about the virtues of having a functional umbrella when it rains), I have no agenda. None. The weather is again pleasant - part cloud, part sun, with a refreshing cooldown to the midseventies.

Where to go? What to do?

At an inspired moment some years back, I entered a Paris bookstore and looked for books on Paris for the French. I found a wonderful set of two books, on walks that take you to the heart of less visited districts of the city -- one for the right bank and the other for the left bank. I picked them up, vowing to someday replicate all the walks listed therein. But I wasn't careful and by accident, I found myself with two copies of the right bank walks.

Oh the irony! Except for one distant time when, as a child, I passed through Paris with my sister and mom and we stayed near the Arc de Triomphe, I have never ever stayed on the right bank. True, my daughter tells me that I always make sure that a visit to Paris has a walk through the Marais district which is very much on the right bank, but regardless: I'm a devoted left banker.

Over the years, I've leafed through this right bank book (I gave its twin away) and I would say to myself -- I should do the Canal Saint Martin walk. But I never did it. Too out of the way, too busy running around being, well, busy. But how about now?

I slip on a new pair of shoes (ah, the folly of this!) having killed my old one in the rain yesterday and I set out.

My walk (before I get anywhere near the canal) is past both insanely popular spots and more obscure places, empty, often with closed storefronts (perhaps still for vacation). Follow along! I'll provide minimal commentary. After yesterday, you need a break.

First, breakfast. At Les Editeurs...

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...because it's convenient and not crowded and I see now that the academic types are coming back to chat about existentialism or the perception that France is on the decline or both.

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And now I turn east and walk along the river's edge toward this great old building, celebrating its 850th anniversary this year.

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Somewhere just behind it, I come across a group of children -- I have to think it's a day care situation as schools haven't started yet. I feel for the little girl: she looks like she so does not want to be there.

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Off the Paris islands now...

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and turning due north toward the canal. It seems that my camera continues to focus on interesting cafes along the way (at home, we would call this name pretentious, but here, it somehow doesn't surprise)...

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...and on children.

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And there are quite a number of both.

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And finally, I am at the banks of the canal and the two photos I'll put up will lead you to think -- such a quiet and pleasant oasis!

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But it didn't feel that way to me, the photos to the contrary.

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Most of the canal is lined with very ordinary houses -- pleasant enough, but not especially exciting. Yes, it's quieter here, but there are plenty of lovely spots in Paris where you can seek refuge from crowds -- I'll show you one magical oasis in just a moment. I am glad I did the canal walk: now I don't have to do it at some point in the future.

Walking back, I pass the Place de la Republique -- it has an interesting rectangular space where the sidewalk dips maybe an inch and the dip is filled with fountain-like water. So that if you're not looking where you're going you might suddenly be surprised. Kids, of course, love it (the photo is misleading in that there is usually some child or other charging through, often on a scooter).

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Then, I am so close to Place des Vosges that I can't help but peek in, making this yet again a trip that includes this pretty square.

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(Let's catch that fountain -- and the meditating guy by it -- from the other side, so you can admire the buildings around the square.)

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Lunch. Small breakfasts cause big lunch appetites. When I see a cafe right off the square with a special of an omelet with cèpe mushrooms (porcini, for the Italian in you), I'm delighted. It's perfect.

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And then a strange thing happens. A three generational American family sits down next to me -- kid, mother, grandmother. And I see that they're studying the menu, unaware that there's a whole blackboard of specials to consider. When the grandmother thinks she might like an omelet, I lean over and put in a good word for the one with  cèpe mushrooms. And probably because I haven't been speaking English much, I suppose my (slight?) foreign accent has crept in again, on top of a curious local intonation, because I am like a parrot when I hear a foreign language -- I start mimicking the melodic rise and fall of sentences... (my kids always make fun of me for this: they think it sounds affected, even as I tell them it comes from being an immigrant). So perhaps for these reasons, the grandmother type thinks I'm a very kind and helpful French person! (Too, when you are an older woman and you are alone, people assume you're local; I get asked for directions a lot even though I am not wearing a scarf nor good-looking shoes -- essentials for a woman of this city).

I should have said right away -- no no, I am so from the same place you are! But I didn't, in part because it took a while for it all to register and then it was too late. Oh what a tangled web indeed! The lie stood firm and it rested so deeply there at my table, that I could not wait to leave.  I wished them a bonne journee on my way out.

I walk along the rue des Francs Bourgeois and I peek into courtyards of some very noble buildings...

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...and here's my secret tip for a quiet spot -- one I can't ever appreciate on my winter travels to Paris: if you enter the courtyard of the Archives Nationales...

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...and take a swing to your right, you'll find yourself in the most delightfully serene little gardens. Plantwise, they're perhaps not worth the detour, though I note that they, like me, rely on this staple to carry the garden through early fall:

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But in the nooks of the garden, there are benches, inviting you to sit down. And, it being the garden of the Archives --  to read. I found many such people, enjoying solitude here while the world raged outside.

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Alright, one more photo of cafe life, in the Marais district -- this one seemed so blue that I thought it would be a nice juxtaposition to my breakfast red.

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And then I walk past places that have been much photographed and documented here on Ocean -- Georges Pompideau Center (for modern art), Les Halles (the old market place, under construction for the next five years), Pont Neuf (Paris's most beloved bridge) -- all fine, all good, but I'll skip right over them and put you back into the heart of the left bank. Because my feet (new shoes!) are getting so very sore.

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No, wait: allow me one exception: someone asked me if I wanted my photo taken on the Pont Neuf. Maybe I was looking wistful, or happy, or something. Anyway, I said sure and they did and so there you have it -- my only photo (that is not a selfie) from this trip.

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Dinner. Where to eat on a Monday night? I had once made a reservation at the Boissonerie (a.k.a. Fish, I don't know why -- it doesn't especially have a fish heavy menu) and then cancelled at the last minute and ate a sandwich on the bed of my hotel room. This time, I did not want a sandwich. So I went back to it and I had a delightful, artful and quite fine and reasonably priced meal, served by a 100% female staff (I don't know if this is deliberate, but I have to say it must be, since you rarely see women servers in good and even not so good restaurants here). Would I go back?  Yes, but only if  I had a week in Paris and Pouic Pouic and Le Timbre were full and I couldn't take the no nonsense face of Pollard.

I ordered well at the appetizer level...

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...and at the dessert level...

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...and only just okay at the main course level: it was a vegetarian dish of eggplant and various other veggies. The girolle (chaterelle) mushrooms on the menu caught my eye. But they were scant. Hardly defining the dish.

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I am walking slowly, back to the hotel now, thinking how these last nights in my most favorite city in the world are hard. As usual, I want to take it all in. Not miss a single detail of the spaces around me. I see that the light is pink, an evening pink.

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That means only one thing -- a good sunset over the River Seine. I hurry. The play of light can be such a fleeting thing. Two minutes and the clouds take hold and the colors disappear. But they didn't disappear. They held on until I take my photo (with no enhancements or manipulations here). So, for you, from Paris -- a city that's showing off, of course, as it so often likes to do.

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