As a Christmas present, Madeline sent me to Paris, by myself--no children, no cooking, no marching around a European capital in the cold, looking for a playground and a children's menu. So what I did was march around a European capital in the cold, looking for a grown-up's menu and some things to buy for children. Here's what I now have to offer:
A Book to Read if What You're After Is History of Parisian Personages: On the two-hour train ride from Lux, I read Edmund White's The Flâneur, which I was led to believe--by the title and subtitle (A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris) not to mention the jacket copy ("an exhilarating adventure")--would be about the exhilarating adventure of strolling through Paris. Now, I have to admit that I've written my fair share of book-jacket copy, which often involves a certain degree of, um, exaggeration, often consisting of appending effusive modifiers to anywhere they might possibly stick: to nouns, to verbs, to other modifiers, and even (if you're a real pro) to the occasional preposition. You name it, you can also name it better, livelier, lyrical, ground-breaking, downright brilliant. But The Flâneur's jacket is misleading on a whole different level: this book is simply not about what it claims to be about. What it's about is strolling through the history of Paris, which is a different thing. For some people, it might be a very interesting thing--a more interesting thing. But it's not the thing I wanted to read, before I set off on the exhilarating adventure of strolling through Paris.
A Place to Go for Sunday Brunch: Even though the book disappointed me, it did propose an intriguing question: what makes a place a big city? (Intriguing, though perhaps meaningless.) As soon as I got off the TGV in the Gare de l'Est, I realized one of the things a big city means to me: it's a place where everyone takes the subway. It was brutally cold, and windy, and it was noon and I was hungry. So instead of walking a half-hour, I took the Metro a few stops, to get myself to the Marché aux Enfants Rouges, a little covered market in the north Marais. We've now been to not a few European markets, and the territory is pretty familiar: the cheesemonger, the butcher, the fruits and vegetables, repeating themselves like the chain stores on Route 9 in north Jersey. But here in Paris, another big-city difference from the small-city markets: a Japanese stall, with fresh-cut sushi as well as hot dishes, cheap, people huddled at picnic tables inside big flaps of weather-resistant plastic.
But the Japanese stall was not where I was headed; I was going to l'Estimanet d'Arômes et Cépages, a little eatery in a corner of the market, far from any actual street. (And far from any bathroom: the restaurant's restroom is nothing more than the common facilities for the market.) It's a nice little place, with a laid-back atmosphere that feels more Seattle or East Village than Paris. My food was not extraordinary--a not-rich-enough mushroom soup, and a pig's foot that required a huge effort to get at the edible meat. But I passed this way again 48 hours later, on my way back to the gare, and noticed that it was pleasantly mobbed, and that Sunday brunch here means charcuterie, and that this is what the place is there for, and probably worth going to, because it looked like everybody knew they were in the place to be, for a Sunday brunch of charcuterie.
Charcuterie alone isn't enough for me; there's plenty of good ham in Europe. But at Sunday midday this market was bustling, and the street outside, rue de Bretagne, was fantastic: within the space of 50 yards, there were 3 separate shops--the butcher, the baker, and the maître volailleur ("master poulterer": what a spectacular claim!)--each with lines of dozens of people on the sidewalk. Everyone seemed to be carrying baguettes and cut flowers and two or three lit cigarettes plus a dog's leash, and talking to one another, and there was a catercorner face-off of packed cafés, and various wares to browse or buy, and as much as anyplace I've ever been in Paris, it felt like a little village in the middle of the city. This was a nice place to be.
A Place to Buy Antique Table Linens: Speaking of a little village, the Village St-Paul, just south of the rue de Rivoli at the St-Paul Metro, is another aspect of the big city that I miss, now that I don't live in one: a place where there are distinct neighborhoods for different retail specialties--one quarter for lighting, another for the garment trade, another for Korean restaurants. St-Paul is a pedestrian-only warren of a half-dozen connected courtyards, with perhaps a couple hundred antiques/brocante/crap dealers, a lot of which are open on Sunday, unlike most of the rest of the city. One of them, called Au Petit Bonheur la Chance on rue St-Paul, features stacks and stacks of those worn old off-white table linens that are so perfect, and sets of tins for pantry commodities (Sucre, Sel, etc.), and other stuff that if you're, say, me, you want to hoard.
A Great Place to Have Lunch in St-Germain: If there's anywhere in the world that doesn't need another good place to have lunch, it's got to be St-Germain. But still, you must choose, and a great place is preferable to a good one, and so: Le Comptoir de Relais, on the Carrefour de l'Odéon, just south of the boulevard. The carrefour (literally, "intersection") is a lively little corner, in exactly the center of the part of town where I've found myself practically every day I've ever been in Paris. And the Bar of the Inn (the inn being the hotel next-door) is somewhere close to an ideal lunch spot: agreeable service and a quick turnaround; not-devastating prices for great food (my cochon de lait, poché et roti, sitting on a bed of superb lentils, is one of the great plates of the year); and people-watching par excellence, in the perfect location.
I get there at about 1:30 on Saturday, a sunny and relatively un-freezing day--maybe it's gotten up to 35 degrees. The soldes are on, so the whole city is out, buying stuff, and then apparently walking through this carrefour. The tiny interior of the restaurant is crammed, and there are a good number of people waiting on the sidewalk, but there's one free table on the terrasse, and the harried hostess/waitress gives it to me, after an unclear exchange with other waiting would-be customers. The heaters are going full-blast, like a bank of stage lights suspended over the tables; there are thick fleece blankets for laps, in coordinating colors. A lot of the men in this part of town have refused on principal to wear proper outerwear, and instead they've got three or four layers under sport jackets, and of course scarves, all knotted identically. All the women are wearing hats--real hats, not ski caps or baseball caps. I feel like a leper because I'm not wearing sunglasses. Today, everyone in Paris is pretending it's not winter. Or, rather, pretending that the winterness of winter doesn't bother them. And so we're all sitting out here, in the cold and the struggling sunlight, watching one another watching the passersby, with a glass of wine in front of every single diner.
A Place to Have Dinner: Le Chateaubriand, on Avenue Parmentier in the 11th. No carte at all, just a five-course menu; the only choice you'll get is whether to have dessert or cheese. Some of the food was a little silly: one course was billed as a duo from South America, and it was a small bowl of decent chili and an unspecial ceviche, though I guess both could've been interesting to people from the east side of the Atlantic, who haven't spent the past 15 years getting barraged by ceviches. On the other hand, the meat course was extraordinary: a piece of Iberico pork--I think it was described as "un tranche"--that was cooked rare, and was by far the tenderest, tastiest (and reddest) piece of pork I've ever eaten. The staff were warm, and the room had that lively, chic buzz that is another hallmark of life in the big city, where people are not only waiting for tables at 11:30, but the crowd is still growing.
A Thing to Never, Ever Do: Go to a big department store for the soldes. It's one thing if the ship is actually going down, and you really do need to fight through such desperate crowds to get to a lifeboat; but not for a 40% discount on anything. Unless they start selling apartments.
A Place to Have a Drink, in the Middle of Nowhere: Mama Shelter was my hotel, way the hell out there in the 20th on rue de Bagnolet. I don't recommend staying here, because (a) it's way the hell out there, and (b) I saw no evidence that there's anything charming about the 20th, and it doesn't have any of the basics that make everywhere else in Paris so great, and I couldn't shake the feeling that I was in the Bronx, and (c) the darkness of my room was laughable, and the whole aesthetic is much more acceptable to visit than to live in. But if you're having dinner anywhere in the northeast direction of town, and you want an actual mixed drink instead of a glass of wine, this is the place: everybody here is drinking real cocktails, made properly by bartenders who knew what they're doing. And it's physically a great bar, an under-lit rectangle surrounded by barstools, in the middle of a giant room with dozens of tables, very contemporary industrial-chic (something like Lot 22, but laid out better, and more upright). I don't know what the restaurant serves, but it's clearly a destination resto for people who don't live in the 20th. Plus there are taxis to be found outside, what with all the well-heeled people constantly arriving from the better arrondisements. (Yet another tic of the big city: fashionable people heading out to oases of chicness in des bas quartiers.)
A Place to Have Coffee, Heading Toward the Middle of Nowhere: If for some reason you find yourself east of the Bastille, tired and cold and maybe needing to pee, and you're in the vicinity of the Ledru Rollin station, then by all means glance around the intersection for a brasserie that might look a little down-at-the-heels. If it's winter, you'll need to push aside the semi-opaque plastic curtain that shelters the terrasse, where you don't want to sit, because that's not the point, not here. Go inside. Clamber up onto a barstool and order a cafe. Then let your eyes wander around at the walls, the bar, the ceiling . . . all a small Art Nouveau masterpiece, fluid forms carved from wood, surfaces painstakingly painted in now washed-out colors, then neglected for a century, not exactly in disrepair but certainly in need of at least a good cleaning. There's the clatter of spoons on saucers and the rustle of newspapers and the hushed tones of a low-key lover's quarrel in the corner; there's the surge of a small crowd coming in from the subway, familiar Bonjours all around. It's a remarkable little unremarkable little place.