I moved to Paris with my family for six months in 1978 while my father worked for an energy organization there. We lived in a three-bedroom apartment on Avenue Carnot with a close-up view of the Arc de Triomphe and shared many of the kind of memories that make people smile and sigh just saying the city’s name. We ate waffles with powdered sugar from street cart vendors and sipped on syrupy sweet grenadine drinks at brasseries on the Champs Elysees. We visited Versailles and my ancestral town of Mouy. My sisters and I attended Ecole Active Bilingue with other international students, using the Carte Orange to make the metro part of our play time after school. Of course, not everything about that time sparkled. Some Parisians and our strictly French-only schooling could be intimidating. And one Sunday after we spent the day playing in the Bois de Bologne, we opened the front doors to our apartment to find it ransacked. The drawers and cabinets were flung open, the mattresses flipped, and the coins in my tiny change-purse–all of my savings as a 7-year-old girl–emptied.
I returned twice after that for short sejours with friends. When I came back this August, staying for about five weeks, I was surprised at the changes from my last visit. The Champs Elysees still has its brasseries, but it is now lined with chain store after chain store. To me, it felt like a mall. Much like New York City, tourism is booming, and parts of the city are too packed. I noticed the English language seems to have crept in to French culture much more than in the past–both in everyday language (while I was corrected in the past for saying “ok” instead of “d’accord,” saying “ok” now seems…ok), on T-shirts with English sayings, and in music I heard in boutiques or restaurants. Some Parisians still have a tendency toward the sour mood. One Parisian woman described it to me as as “sport.” Imitating them, she said, “It’s like, ‘It’s a sunny day….meh,'” as she shrugged her shoulders. Most people, though, were kind and even friendly. I wondered if Parisians had softened a bit.
I made a nostalgic trip to the top of the Arc de Triomphe, explored a bit of Montmartre and spent another afternoon in the darkly lovely Pere Lachaise cemetery. Pere Lachaise is, of course, the resting place to so many famous people, including Chopin, Moliere and Oscar Wilde. But it also just beautiful, with a mix of simple and elegant headstones; shards of sunlight and speckles of yellow-green leaves dusting the graves; and cobwebs on some markers that look as if they were strategically placed there by a Hollywood set designer. I was especially moved seeing the tender gaze on an old man’s face as he stood in front of the grave of Allan Kardec, who is considered the father of Spiritism, and a headstone I passed which read simply “Tant Aime” (“So Much Love”).
Mostly, though, I avoided the heavily trafficked spots, happy to live a simple, settled life after many months of travel. I cooked confit de canard and chicken soup with carrots and celery in my tiny apartment in the Marais. I swam twice a week at the piscine Suzanne Berlioux at Forum des Halles, dodging the arms and legs of fellow swimmers in the crowded 50-meter “libre” lanes of the pool. I saw films such as the premiere of “Histoire de Jeunesse” (“Testament of Youth”) where the producer and the female lead gave a brief talk. And I took slow walks along many streets, poking my head in shops and taking in the colors of the local markets–the Marche rue Dejean for some African flavor, as well as rue Montorgueil, Place d’Aligre and Saint-Ouen for general Parisian food/flea market experiences. Here were some of my favorite discoveries:
Gambetta/Menilmontant: With a more relaxed, local feel than the most touristed spots in Paris, this was the first neighborhood I felt like I could call home. I saw a mix of the old and the new in its buildings, people of a variety of ethnicities, and what seemed to be a strong creative element. I especially enjoyed going to La Bellevilloise to hear African music on Saturday nights and seeing an Algerian band called Bania at Studio de L’Ermitage. Twice I ate at a French/Thai restaurant called L’Echappee with a friend visiting from New York. We both agreed that it was the best food we had in Paris.
Belleville: On a narrow street called rue de la Villette, I wandered in and out of local shops selling vintage and modern clothing, as well as crafts and jewelry. Signs offered classes in classical singing, guitar and woodworking. A corner restaurant had a flyer for a writing workshop. It was another place that felt like it could be a home. The street ended at Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, where people were lazing on a late summer day. One family was celebrating a small boy’s birthday with a “Joyeux Anniversaire” sign and balloons. A few 20-somethings had tied a wide yellow band between two thick trees to practice tightrope walking. A couple snuggled by the water, and friends sat on the grass talking.
Buttes aux Cailles: I spent an afternoon exploring this quiet neighborhood with walls decorated with street art and progressive political statements. Another night, I ate with a friend at Chez Gladines, a casual and lively restaurant specializing in Basque cuisine.
Hammam: I spent two afternoons at the Hammam Medina in the 19th arrondissement, sinking into the heat of the sauna and steam rooms before getting the skin I had sun-dried all over Africa sloughed off during the gommage. Relaxing, revitalizing and recommended.
Parks: While much of Paris reminds me of New York City, its parks easily beat NYC. I especially enjoyed Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and Parc Bercy. One day after a walk along Canal St. Martin, I wound up at Parc de la Villette. Couples were dancing to tango music, seemingly lost in the bliss of the dance and deeply in tune with the moment.
Street Art: I love the grit and energy of graffiti and street art. These are some photos from my many walks throughout the city. Who knew I would see leopards in Paris?