paris

Paris: Seeing the world through rosé-colored glasses.

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Here’s a great travel tip: Don’t bike in a foreign city when under the influence of alcohol. Especially pink wine. DSC_0048I nearly joined the ranks of Père Lachaise’s dearly departed shortly after polishing off a “farewell, Paris” bottle of rosé at Lavinia, a great wine cellar and restaurant near my hotel where you can pick out a bottle from the shop downstairs and drink it in the upstairs bar — at the shop cost, with no corkage fee. And Riedel stemware. And far be it from me to waste perfectly good wine; of course I was going to drink the entire bottle.

It’s possible I will never fully know what it is I ate along with that bottle of wine. But it involved four pieces of toasted baguette with four different toppings. One of them was smoked salmon; another was some kind of cheese. The other two shall remain a mystery, though one may have been foie gras. Which I will never eat again. Delicacy, my eye. Yuck. But without those mystery snacks, I’d have taken a fatal spill down the stairs or hit my head on the park bench unlocking my bike, and never have made it to the point in my evening where I, uh, hit a car.

Yeah.

Everything was going swimmingly with my ride back to the Marais, where I would return my bicycle and then walk (stumble?) to dinner. Until the gendarme at the gates to the Tuileries told me the park was about to close. So I took to the mean streets of Paris. During rush hour. Hammskied. But it was all right. Because Paris has dedicated bike lanes. Unless they’re bike lanes shared with buses. Which are much bigger than me. So I’m riding along, something startles me (probably a bus, but in my state, it could have been anything), and suddenly I am intimately aware that whatever separates the buses and bikes from the other cars is much more than a solid white line. Designed, presumably, to keep them from doing what I was about to do. I hit the mini-median in an attempt to drift out of harm’s way, lost my balance and keeled over, right into the door of a Peugeot. I am not a small person. That tiny Peugeot, which could have passed for a wind-up car, didn’t stand a chance. Obviously, when the woman in the passenger seat rolled down her window and started ranting in French, I yelled as loudly and rapidly as I could, “Non, non, d’accord! Je m’excuse! Désolé! Je me suis trompée! C’est d’accord!” Loosely translated? “I’ve never ridden a bike here before! And I’m wasted! I’m going to pedal away now and be long gone before you realize there’s a huge dent in your back door! Bye!”

The other people in the bike lane — in their damn rented Vélibs! — law-abiding citizens wearing helmets and definitely without a metric ton of fermented grapes in their systems, asked if I was all right. I wasn’t even fazed by all this, still knowing full well that it could have gone much worse. I explained (again, loosely) that Parisian drivers are nuts and that biking in Chicago is much less treacherous. They nodded understandingly, and I pedaled away as fast as my wobbly, inebriated legs could muster. After a few more minutes, I made it back to the bike return without a map — wine gives me super powers, apparently — then proved I am equally disastrous on foot as I am on two wheels: I promptly tripped on my feet and faceplanted as soon as I made it to the sidewalk.

And please believe I was back at a brasserie not three hours later, at it again. When in Rome…

Paris: Pedal pusher.

Not my leg.

Don’t get me wrong: I love walking. I do.Not my leg.

But any self-respecting pedometer would have given up after my first couple of days in Paris; my calves were so tired that the rest of my body would twitch with sympathy at the end of the day. I needed another way to get around, and you miss the whole city when you’re underground on the Métro.

So I spent an hour and a half a few days ago, standing in the hot sun with a line of impatient Europeans behind me, feebly attempting to rent a bike from one of the Vélib kiosks around the city. My Visa card, with its quaint little magnetic stripe, lacked the magical chip that would allow me access to the more desirable features of European banking — and one of Paris’ most desirable city services, this nearly free program that allows anyone to rent a bike from anywhere in the city, ride it around then leave it anywhere else there’s a kiosk.

Fat American tail between my legs, I returned to my hotel and Googled “Paris bike rental,” knowing full well that all those smug Europeans were laughing at my misery as they pedaled away on their matching bicycles. Grr. The city’s biggest rental and touring company, Fat Tire, had sold out every tour until after I left; even begging on the phone and choking back tears that I was SO ALONE AND REALLY JUST WANTED TO GO RIDE AROUND WITH SOME NICE PEOPLE was useless. The search continued. I happened on one company with a fantastic website, Bike About Tours. And within 10 minutes, before I knew what was happening, my blind rage had booked me a guided tour of the city for Monday morning. Well, all right.

Monday morning arrived, and like every other day since I’d arrived, it was sunny, warm and breezy. I headed to meet my group near the Charlemagne statue outside the Notre Dame cathedral, but my keen sense of direction and total inability to read a map led me to the far opposite end of the Ile de la Cité, behind the Palais de Justice. So I arrived just a few minutes before we were scheduled to leave, cramming the last bite of a pain au chocolate into my face (fat American).

DSC_0026Naturally, as I was the only person in Paris not vacationing with the love of my life, I also was the only party of one on the day’s tour. Except for an obnoxious older man whose fiancée had elected to stay behind and do something else in Paris that day. So, in his codependent boredom, he asked inane architectural questions. Like what those round rooms on the corner of that building were called. Or why there were so few buildings made with red brick, like the façade of the Place des Vosges. Wish you’d come along, Dear Fiancée, and kept your husband-to-be’s mouth erstwhile occupied!

Now, our guide. Oh goodness. Let’s ignore, for a moment, the very obvious wedding ring and constant mentions of his wife. Our tour guide, Paul, an ex-pat Aussie who moved to Paris nine years ago to be with the woman he loved — all right, so I can’t ignore it — well, he was hot. And hilarious. And offbeat. And totally rocked the rugged cyclist look. With his shaggy hair and perfect calf muscles and logo T-shirt for this company he and his friend had started three years ago, the one his dad still refuses to acknowledge as a real business. And his mind-boggling combination of perfect French skills and this endlessly endearing Australian accent, and the way he uses the word “discover” to talk about showing us places. And his sick sense of humor, like showing us a sculpture along the Seine that he calls “the Masturbator” and a mermaid fountain near the Centre Pompidou that shoots water from its breasts. Also, he wasn’t French. (I may get to that in another post. Really.)

So we hopped on our fabulous folding bikes — how very European — and began our tour. Which started in the Marais at the Holocaust museum then wound its way through back streets of the fourth arrondissement, including a stop to stare at the Republican Guard’s thoroughbreds in training, at the apartment building where Jim Morrison died in his bathtub (No. 17) and a look at a few “works” by Paris’ most famous graffiti artist, Space Invader. The most subversive mosaics I’ve ever seen, if that’s even possible. He invades spaces…with little tile pictures of ‘80s video game characters. Space Invader: get it?! Yeah. I didn’t either.

From the fourth, we headed to the Bastille and biked across the canal, gazed into the distance at the four glass buildings of the national library, designed to look like open books, then past the Jardin des Plantes and Paris’ largest mosque. Then we crossed the Seine and were in the fifth arrondissement, the Latin Quarter, where were darted through more back streets, peered into “secret courtyards” and saw the city’s oldest restaurant, which I’d never have been able to find on my own.

We stopped for lunch at a beautiful boulangerie and patisserie, Paul, which turned out to be like a French Panera. (Gross.) Tour guide Paul stood at the counter and helped everyone order, then I stepped up like a BADASS and was all, demander-ing mon déjeuner comme une vraie française. Don’t act like you’re not impressed, hot tour guide. There’s still time: Move. Be with me. We need bike tours in Chicago, too. I practically huffed my sandwich — my ham sandwich, my ham and BUTTER sandwich — and snarfed down half a chocolate éclair before we got back on our bikes to finish out the tour.

My favorite part of the tour had to be breaking the law — probably because we were breaking the law — riding our bikes through the entry and all around the pyramids and fountains of the Louvre’s courtyards. During this time, a guy in our group broke the seat off his bike (I don’t even know how you do that) and someone spotted Joshua Jackson of Dawson’s Creek fame walking with his girlfriend. Excitement, ahoy: Celebrities, they’re just like us!

By the end of our four hours together, I was kicking myself for not booking this tour immediately upon my arrival. Though there are a lot of things I’d have done differently on this trip, like researching restaurants more in advance (every meal was a anxiety attack waiting to happen), but Paul was an amazing resource for the sorts of off-the-beaten-path things I would have loved to spend more time seeing. Next time.

Paris: Back in the USA.

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I still have a few more posts to write about my abbreviated week in Paris (I left Tuesday and returned Tuesday but really had only five days on the ground in France), but I'm sitting at the airport in Charlotte just happy to be home. And I'm not even…home, really. Flight home.But in less than four hours, I will be.

My "knight in shining Camry," as one of my friends calls him, is coming to O'Hare to collect me, and I am so excited to see my apartment that it's really…sort of ridiculous. Being homesick after just a week in one of the most beautiful cities in the world means one of two things: that I really love Chicago and have amazing, totally missable friends, or that I'm totally pathetic.

Maybe a little of column A and a little of column B. Either way.

I found out yesterday morning, when attempting to read a French newspaper (horoscopes, en français!) that rail workers on some lines, including the one that goes to the airport, were going on strike today. (They do that a lot; I think they get bored because they all have such great lives, so they have to invent problems and stage protests or strikes.) So I had to improvise a new route. Which meant: THE BUS.

The trip out of the city wound through more places I hadn't seen. But near the end, we climbed a hill that felt familiar: It was an area of Montmartre I'd explored on foot the first morning I was in town, totally delirious after a long flight and stinging a bit from the culture shock. Full circle.

My God, what a wonderful trip this has been. Rejuvenating and exhausting all at once. Yesterday was the best day of my entire visit. I will write about it later — in great detail, or as much as I can remember from everything I saw and did — but for now I'm just going to soak it up. After four hours of sleep last night (I'll write about that, too, oof), I wound up sleeping for almost my entire flight, waking up only to eat some surprisingly delicious chicken and watch Bride Wars, which made me cry and filled me with shame.

What a rude awakening, though: This morning, even the prerecorded announcement on the bus to the airport seemed beautiful and romantic; here in North Carolina, some people could read Shakespeare in their twangy, Dirty Southern accents and still sound common.

Still? Elated to be back on American soil.

Now, if you'll excuse me, there's an iced chai somewhere in here with my name on it.

Paris: Bois du matin.*

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My hotel, of course, isn't air conditioned. (Why would it? I don't even have a clock. I miss the United States.)I sleep with the French doors flung open to let in the fresh air, which usually means I'm rudely awakened at intervals by incoherent shouting or loud trucks on what I originally thought was a quiet, almost residential street. But right now, between the crashes from a garbage truck that's taken up residence down the street, I can hear someone practicing the cello. If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.

So. this is what morning in Paris feels like. DSC02295Staying up until 2 a.m. — 3:30, at the latest (why can't I ever stay up that late when my social calendar demands it?!) — isn't terribly conducive to a bright-and-early wake-up. So I've been rolling out of bed around 10:30, making it to a brasserie just before breakfast service ends and then beginning my sightseeing around noon. I nearly died of exhaustion yesterday. Bound and determined to go to Versailles despite the blistering heat I found when I woke up, I threw on a dress and my favorite brown flats that have served me so well walking around Chicago. Well, apparently walking 9,000 miles of gardens on gravel, dirt and stone paths that are hundreds of years old isn't the same as strutting the mean streets of Chicago. After my tour of the gardens, add in a little exploration of the town of Versailles (which I actually loved, far more so than that overpriced tourist trap that calls sprays of water from jets a "musical fountain show") and an impromptu visit — after, you know, getting lost for half an hour in Les Halles, to the modern art museum at the Centre Pompidou. Yeah. After about nine hours of straight walking, I was done. F-i-n-i, DONE. Unable to walk, arms shaking from hunger. Just a mess. And, after a seriously subpar salad, too much day drinking in the hot sun and several failed attempts at finding a Magnum to snack on, I wanted sushi. So I ordered some. To my hotel. Which was quite possibly the scariest thing I've done since my plane landed. The restaurant's website itself had translation available, but no such luck on the ordering page — and was I going to make a phone call to place my order? Um, no. It's harder for the Internet to tell how shabby my French skills are. It took me about half an hour to figure my life out and get an order placed…and about half that for it to get here. A beautiful black man on a moped zipped up outside and brought it to my door; I gave him a Euro for his expedience, and he told me I was beautiful. (Not that I want them to, but damn, why don't delivery guys do that in Chicago?) Now that's service.

So I watched CNN and ate like it was my job. Then I passed out.

And, well. Today, I have a new lease on life! It's not even 8 a.m. and I am raring to go! Which is good, because I have a four-hour bike tour ahead of me. After an infuriating, two-hour-long ordeal that ended as it began: in me being unable to rent a bike on my own from the kiosks all over the city — damn my SmartCard-less, American plastic! — I buckled and, in my blinding rage, booked a guided tour for this morning. Not with Fat Tire, the bike groups that are only a minor step up in coolness from Segway tours of the Plaza in Kansas City, but with a smaller company whose tour meets up at Notre Dame.

Un croissant et un café express, stat!

* Just making sure you're paying attention.

Paris: Because there's no Yelp here.

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I've been eating like a poor, fat (happy) kid since I got to Paris.Lots of low-priced brasserie food; a croque monsieur here, a Nutella-banana crepe there.

DSC_0176My favorite "meal" may have been on the Ile Saint-Louis; I'd originally planned to have dinner at Le Tastevin, which a coworker had recommended. But it was my second day in France, and I still wasn't quite on board with the fact that dinner service doesn't start at most real restaurants until 7 p.m. (Also known as 19h; French signs always, always, always make me feel like an idiot — I much prefer 7h le soir; work with me, Paris.) So when I walked in, famished, at 5:30 and asked for a table, I was laughed back out the door and je vous en prie'd to come back in two hours. Right. Not happening. Excuse me, I'm a fat American and need food now. So I took a deep, brave breath and plunged into the fromagerie I'd passed walking down the Rue Saint-Louis en l'Ile. Glass cases lined with cheeses I'd never heard of, all of which I was dying to try. And I was totally incapable of communicating it. I left with a massive wedge of brie (3,50 €) then wandered down the street and bought a baguette (less than 1,50 €), biting the top corner off the loaf — with conviction! — as I walked out of the shop. Christ, I'm so French. And that baguette was so good.

I took my new acquisitions — sans assiette, sans serviette, sans souci — and sat on the curb at the edge of the bridge leading back to the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. I listened to the jazz band in residence on the bridge and ate myself toute bête. Washed down with a coupe de champagne from a nearby brasserie overlooking the Seine (yes, now I'm just showing off), I was about as satisfied as I could have been at that moment.

Il Vino But now I have seen that there is more to French dining than these bargain-basement delights. And having seen this more, there is less to my bank account. Much less. When we left our heroine, she was in another blog entry, fleeing Pierre-Olivier eastward on the Champs-Élysées. But my growling stomach was propelling me as much as anything: I was on a mission for haute cuisine at a restaurant in Les Invalides called Il Vino, which a Yelper with a highly refined palate had recommended when he found out I'd be in Paris.

I circled the restaurant's spot on my map and wrote the address directly in my guide book, determined not to get lost as I have so many other times. I wasn't about to eat at — oh, shit, is that Petrossian?! — if I couldn't find Il Vino. Well, I found it. And as I turned onto the Boulevard de la Tour-Maubourg, it started to rain. It was pouring by the time I reached Il Vino, but when I peered through the meticulously Windexed windows, I thought the restaurant might be closed. No one inside but a well-dressed man absentmindedly fingering the edges of a napkin on one of the beautifully clothed tables. But a sign outside said "déjeuner 7/7 midi at 14h30." That means OPEN! So I pulled on the door. And pulled. Remember that scene in Beauty and the Beast when Lumière and Cogsworth rouse the rusty, grouchy kitchen staff to make Belle a glorious feast when she arrives at the chateau? Same thing. "WEHAVEAGUEST?!"

And so it began. Silk napkin in lap, still water poured, champagne ordered and brought to the table. After a short glance at the menu, I spotted what I'd planned to order all along in the top corner, dégustation à l'aveugle (blind man's tasting menu). The general idea: I agreed to give them money. They looked at me and decided what I should eat and drink. No safe bets here; I was hungry putty in the chef's hands. Soit gentil. The server, who was essentially my date for the afternoon and whose halting English made the experience even more enjoyable, brought a warm amuse bouche to start, a perfect warm-up after getting caught in that unexpected rain shower. It was…before I started taking notes (Yelper) but I remember there being carrots involved. I wanted to get a big mug of it to go (American). While my bouche was occupée, I amused the rest of myself just taking in my surroundings: A Diana Krall concert recording was looping on the stereo, and the room was absolutely stunning. And calm. A curving bar backed with alternating glass shelves of clear and black steamware, deep violet velvet banquettes, white tablecloths, mahogany-stained wood, single black calla lilies in shallow, wide-mouthed vases. I could have stayed all afternoon. But that boisterous candlestick and those singing, dancing plates demanded my attention. My first course, paired with a wonderful white wine from Argentina, was a white fish tartare with pink peppercorns and roasted chestnuts from Piemonte, Italy. (Let me note how wonderful it was not to hear anyone going on about "local" this or "organic" that. They don't care here; it's more impressive to fly ingredients in. How glorious.) Garnished with a citron caviar (there's my 70 € worth) and an apple gelée, that graceful start had me delirious with anticipation. My next wine came in a black glass, because apparently it's a game to guess what kind of wine you're getting next — because apparently people who actually know wine go to Il Vino — and find out how close you were when they come back to present the bottle. Well, I got as far as "red" and was pretty proud to be correct. This red wine, a Burgundy, went with a duck breast served with a red wine reduction. I don't eat duck. Well, I haven't really eaten duck. But this was so wonderful: tender, flavorful, perfectly suited to the wine. (But that's the idea, right?) It came with some sort of red cabbage that I wasn't wild about, but…well, I ate it. And then there was dessert. Starting with a sparkling muscat — WHICH I GUESSED; WHAT'S MY PRIZE?! — that tasted like the airiest angel food cake. Followed by a delicate cannoli, lightly scented with orange and served on a little pillow of diced mango and papaya. Good god. Is it greedy seeming or rude to clean one's plate when dining in Paris? If so, I am beyond gauche. I was this close to licking the dishes. Sheer gluttony. When my poor server returned to my table, I was pretty blissed out and…also completely drunk. I'm pretty sure he only inferred the latter. I blame the language barrier. I told him that muscat had been "the best ever" (implied OMG: out, out, damn sorority spot!) then tried to play it cool, languorously sipping my espresso and finishing the article I'd started reading when I came in. Visa paid my bill and I floated out the door (pull) into the steady rainfall, along the Seine and back through the Place de la Concorde to my hotel. No longer caring that my hair was a mess, ignoring the fact that the dress of my dreams was getting soaked. Dancing to my Fall Out Boy as I traversed the nearly empty square next to the golden obelisk. This is what amazing food does to me. Actually, it does this to me anywhere (and, truthfully, the food doesn't have to be exquisite), but in Paris? Meals like this are what I'd dreamed for this trip.

Paris: Champs-Élysées Red Light District.*

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DSC_0074The dress of my dreams has what could be described as a "keyhole neckline." I probably would describe it, in retrospect, as a huge gash in the chest. In the dressing room at Anthropologie, it wasn't so dramatic. But when I wear it in public and suddenly feel European eyes on me, I realize the girls are in the show. In a big way. So.

I paid my 9,00€ to go to the top of the Arc de Triomphe today. Then I strolled — well, speed walked — the length of the Champs-Élysées on my way to lunch. The concentration of overweight, idiotic tourists was suddenly exponentially higher than anywhere else I've visited in Paris so far, so I moved at a clip to be away from them.

Blaring Fall Out Boy on my iPod — très français, n'est-ce pas? leave me alone — I slow only when I spotted a man in the corner of my eye. He was a different brand of smarmy than the other men I've met since I got here: slim-cut navy-blue suit, a crisp pink button-down Oxford and had his hair slicked back like a very fancy European might. His name was Pierre-Olivier, and he flat-out propositioned me. In the middle of the sidewalk on the Champs-Élysées.

Yes, other men have stopped me on the street; their intentions seem pure enough. (Charmante seems to be their word of choice, followed closely by jolie. The only one who's gotten past the first conversation had me at mignonne.) I fumble with my French, I misunderstand; they grapple with a bit of English, then I excuse myself and run in the opposite direction.

But when Pierre-Olivier said, "Vous êtes charmante," he meant, "I can see part of your breasts in that dress. And I want them." I was so shocked at the situation that I lost my ability to speak French entirely. And he spoke English. Systems go. He complimented my décolleté then touched my arm, made some comment about how I was sticky from my lotion (it was humid!) then said, "That's OK. It's good for making love." Sir!?! I laughed in his face. Vraiment? It seemed like one of those situations where, if I lost my mind completely and were to call the number he wrote down in my little leather journal, to "take a European lover" for the night — he actually said that, in addition to offering me a few French lessons — he would hand me a bill after we had finished.

He really wanted to hang. I did not. I wanted to go spend a fortune on lunch, get drunk on my wine pairings and dance back across the Place de la Concorde to my hotel, in a beautiful spring drizzle. Not get herpes from some Parisian lothario. So I excused myself, as I am wont to do, and put my earbuds back in for the only sweet nothings I was really in the market for. I guess, anyway, it's nice to know I'm wanted. Free love or sex for hire: Either way, it's nice to know.

* I am not this into myself. I swear. This is just what happens in Europe, I think; men are more forward here and go after what they want. I bet they would want you, too. And you. Ehh. But maybe not you.