By Sandy MacDonald
The first time I splurged on a weekend in Paris, in 1969, I was twenty years old and happened to notice that, by some fluke, I’d managed to save up $500 – enough to cover either a few months’ rent or Icelandic’s “bargain” fare to Europe. Just think: I could leave Friday afternoon, fly into Paris (Luxembourg, actually, by way of the airline’s arctic homeland), live it up for a day, night, and day, and be back Monday morning, with no one the wiser, except possibly me.
In retrospect, I can’t imagine what possessed me – except that he was twenty-one and we did not see a single sight.
So I was amazed to find, while trolling the Internet one dull winter day last February, an AirFrance round-trip listed for a couple of hundred dollars – mere pocket change compared to the 1969 cost. How could I not go? Even if, with my husband committed elsewhere, I’d be taking in the City of Light, and Love, quite alone.
Solo trips to Paris really ought to be proscribed; some official should head you off at the airport and divert you to a more prosaic destination. It’s not just that Paris is so runaway romantic that you’re bound to feel lacking if unaccompanied. The problem is that the city’s most ordinary, unromantic aspects can be so intoxicating, it really helps to have someone along to share the sensory overload: the morning scent of freshly sprayed sidewalks and baking baguettes, the exotic symphony that is foreign traffic, the sensual wash of the world’s loveliest language . . .
The more I remembered, the less I had to self-sell. I didn’t want to overplan, and there’d be no time to anyway, before or during. Instead I’d wait and see where my wanderings would take me.
* * *
During the six-hour overnight flight, I had just enough time, before nodding off fitfully, to riffle through a superannuated guidebook and highlight a couple of promising walking routes. Just the basics really, Right Bank and Left, encompassing a couple of curious museums, if they happened to be open as I passed by. To tell the truth, I didn’t want any concrete expectations interfering with my real agenda, which was to cruise every boulangerie, patisserie, and confiserie that crossed my path. Everyone who has ever lived in Paris – I spent a school year there at age sixteen — has a cache of treasured memories. Mine are mostly oral.
An inexpensive airport bus links DeGaulle Airport to the place de l’Etoile (Arc de Triomphe), via the depressingly Americanized outer boroughs, striated with highrises and strip-mall sprawl. The core, for the most part, remains sacrosanct.
I had a couple of lodging recommendations to check out so I strode off down the avenue Georges V, where I quickly realized that I was way out of my league. Luxury hotels in Paris start at a couple of hundred a night, which I might not have minded had I been planning to share a bed. I figured I’d better keep walking, all night if need be.
I detoured riverward down the avenue François Premier – the site, I’d read, of several outstanding chocolatiers, but also, as it happens, a chastening number of fashion houses. How could I indulge with Dior looking on?
Approaching the art-nouveau Grand Palais alongside the Seine, I was drawn in by a fauve little park – one of some 400 scattered about the city. Paris seems to enjoy its own enchanted climate: as of mid-February the daffodils were in bloom, if snow-dusted. I’d had vague designs on seeing the exhibit there, but the line reached around the block – typical, as I was to discover, and the main impetus for buying a museum pass, which lets you skip to the front. In any case, Fauchon – international gourmet mecca – beckoned beyond the Place de la Concorde, behind the chunky Corinthian Église de la Madeleine.
I got sidetracked en route by a young woman seeking directions to the kiosk in the same square, where you can get half-price tickets to cultural events. Did I look like a local? I offered to show her my carte, by which I meant map, though it usually means menu. Ego nonetheless inflated, I floated into Ladurée at 20 rue Royale, an ornate tea room founded in 1862 and still so popular, it proved impenetrable, though I didn’t mind enduring the aromatic holding pattern.
Fauchon, at 26 place de la Madeleine, is a cluster of specialty shops that apotheosize what Julian Barnes labeled “gastroporn”; free-lance photographers are evidently non gratis. I was all set to snap a heart-shaped ham hock decorated with fresh pansies en gélée when a store functionary shooed me away with what seemed an undue dose of attitude. Suddenly I felt sixteen again, unable to afford more than nonstop nose-pressing at the city-wide array of tempting window displays. The ubiquitous soldes (“sale”) signs seemed to mock me, as did the presumably rèduit prices; they’re still plenty steep. Anyone who returns obsessively to Paris has unfinished business. Mine was that one-way love affair at sixteen, when I adored this repository of all things refined and beautiful, and it didn’t know I existed.
I’m a grownup now, I reminded myself; I can buy whatever I want, if I want to. As proof, I paused to acquire a white-chocolate rocher at a fussy little shop where the patronne boasted that they had no truck with “le chocolat industriel.” I nibbled on this nugget as I circled the glorious place Vendôme, where I used to make monthly visits to collect my meager student dole. It’s all high-end jewelry stores now: Bucheron, Van Cleef & Arpels. Dusk was descending, and the twinkling store windows were SRO: evidently I was not the only ex-beggar out dreaming. My rocher went nicely with the pricier rocks, although it did rather taste as if it predated the Industrial Revolution.
Where are the bargain basements? I’d begun to wonder, just as I happened upon a consignment shop (since vanished) within the Cour d’Honneur, a covered alleyway nearby. I mustered the courage to inquire about an Hermès bag, and the vendeuse eyed me suspiciously. “Vous êtes française?” she wanted to know before she would divulge the price: a mere $1,000 or so – for a secondhand purse! I put it back as if my fingertips might catch fire or, worse, leave prints.
But my heart was throbbing – “le coeur qui bat,” as Piaf put it. Twice now I’d been mistaken for a native, just by dressing unobtrusively and, no doubt, opening my mouth an absolute minimum. It’s funny how the words come back: haltingly at first, my vocabulary that of some farmer from the Midi (grunts like “beh” and “ouais” the extent of my expressible thoughts), but soon in a torrent. I was in a daze, éblouie – dazzled by these narrow, gray, mist-drenched streets. Paris is, impossibly, prettier in the rain.
It seemed a good time for a break, and I found a perfect respite around the corner, chez Jean-Paul Hévin, Chocolatier, at 231, rue St. Honoré. The object of my keenest desire, and perhaps the entire trip, was a barquette aux marrons, or pastry “boat” of sweetened chestnut puree. I spotted a close analog and somehow must have consented to have it sent to the tasteful modernist tea room upstairs, even though my usual modus operandi in such places is to point and eat on the run. “I don’t know what to do,” I confessed to the dapper young man in charge, but there wasn’t much to it: sit, be served, and delectate, for under $5, the most exquisite morsel I’ve ever tasted. The barquettes I’d remembered so fondly were mere Mallomars beside this Olympian confection. Hévin, I learned upon picking up a carte (menu, not map), is a former protégé of Joel Robuchon and an international prizewinner, for very good reason. This was art.
Continuing along the rue St. Honoré, the favored haunt of treasure-seekers since Henry James’s day and long before, I soon hit a lode of antique joailleries, of the kind all but extinct in the United States, and quickly regained my will to shop. Other muses could wait; for the moment, Mammon ruled. It’s probably just as well that the stores were starting to shutter up. I was spared the impulse purchase of a 6,000-franc set of carved amber scallops, still in their delicate nineteenth-century box, just the way some lovesick seafarer must have carried them home, and the entire contents of the Louvre des Antiquaires, a multi-dealer arcade that flanks the Louvre’s own Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Luckily, I found compatible lodgings nearby, at the Hôtel de la Place du Louvre at 21 rue des Prêtres,a stylishly updated hotel with fourteenth-century underpinnings. Dropping off my laptop briefcase stuffed with a single change of clothes (it helps to travel ultra-light when you don’t know where you’re going), I rejoined the flâneurs out enjoying the twilight.
Parisians, despite their haughty rep, are really quite “sympa.” They like to stroll; they’re crazy about dogs, even little weird-looking ones. They seem to adore cell phones. Eavesdropping on one-sided conversations — “D’accord, ou tu mourras” (“Okay, or you’re dead”), delivered, mock-threateningly, by a pretty young woman – I felt like a child, getting the general gist but clueless as to context.
Heading toward Les Halles – a park that has supplanted the food markets, the former “belly” of Paris – I came across all sorts of congenial restaurants, including La Poule au Pot at 13, rue Vauvillier, a 1935 bistro serving snails, the proverbial “chicken in every pot,” and tarte Tatin till dawn. Somehow that scenario seemed best reserved for a return visit á deux. At the end of the rue Berger, I could see the odd extrusion that is the Centre Georges Pompidou, France’s foremost modern art museum, which, with its faithful throngs of indolent, itinerant youth, has given rise a lively neighborhood replete with street stalls profering elements of the international backpackers’ uniform. Within the bustling Châtelet-Les Halles metro station, I found a self-service candy shop where I could fill an entire ballotin with fabulously fresh, if “industriel” chocolates and marzipan cabbages for my petit chou back home.
My hotel-ward path took me past the place Igor-Stravinsky, its “Rites of Spring” fountain brimming with bizarre and playful automata created by Niki de Saint-Phalle and Jean Tinguely. This is one place – Paris has many — where you’d want to bring children, as is the free skating rink that flanks the nearby Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s over-the-top Belle Époque city hall. A PA system pumped Crosby, Stills & Nash from the rooftops as a mirrored disco ball sprinkled the laughing, shrieking skaters with shards of light.
Who can sleep in Paris? Sated lovers, maybe, but not me. In the dexedrine-like grip of décalage (jet lag), I kept plumbing the tourist literature for don’t-miss destinations, knowing full well that my time was running out. How could I possibly skip the graceful place des Vosges, or the haute-bourgeois pleasures of the parc Monceau? Next time, I promised myself.
I started walking again before it was even light — watched the sun rise over the Seine from the eastern tip of the Ile St.-Louis, wandered amid the comfortingly formal vistas of the Jardin du Luxembourg, where various pavilions had been claimed by practitioners of yoga and tai ch’i. Still seeking my lost youth, I headed up the broad “Boule Miche,” the boulevard St. Michel, whose artsy-studenty cachet, alas, has been thoroughly eclipsed by the likes of McDonald’s. “Les américains = des sals cons,” someone had annotated this shrine to billions sold, and I had to agree, if only because we probably exported our pandemic graffiti habit along with our tasteless, greasy burgers.
It was a relief to duck into the medieval cloister of the Musée Cluny, a fourteenth-century abbey built atop the ruins of Roman baths. The famous tapestries – Lady and the Unicorn et al. — hadn’t much impressed me fifty-odd years ago. They’d just looked old — at that age an all-encompassing category, easily dismissed. What struck me this time was how contemporary the characters seem, each face expressive and particular, some of them sly, as if in on some joke: “We’ll outlast you,” perhaps?
I’m just glad to know they’ll still be there upon my return, which had better be soon – even if, faute de mieux, I find myself there on my lonesome once again. Any relationship with Paris, however fleeting, is worth pursuing.
About Sandy MacDonald
Sandy Macdonald is a theatre critic and travel writer; details at sandymacdonald.com