Saturday, August 9, 2014

I'll Always Have Paris

So, Paris! My birthday weekend that I'm only now getting around to blogging, more than two months after the fact and over a week since I left France itself. That was such a great weekend that it makes me happy just to look at these photos again, remembering the long walks and sunshine and the magic of just Being. In. Paris. I first felt that magic when I was 21 years old, on my way back from a not very successful school year in Tokyo (also a neat city, by the way). I walked for two days straight, it seems, my back itching and peeling from a bad sunburn I'd gotten on the beach in Sri Lanka: from Notre Dame along the Left Bank to the Eiffel Tower and down the other side to the Louvre. I think no matter how many times I visit, I'll always feel that thrill when I think about where I am. Perhaps I should look into finding a way to live there for a while - not to make the magic wear off, mind you, but just because I enjoy being there so much. There have been some housesitting offers in Paris, but I don't want to go back and start the three-month Schengen clock ticking yet.

I walked for two days straight that weekend in May as well, in some of the neighborhoods I'm more familiar with, and into new ones. I arrived on Saturday and the weather was clouding over, with scattered rain, but Sunday was clear and warm, and the banks of the Seine and the canals were filling up with people enjoying the day.

The view from my hotel window, temporarily without pigeons.

I usually stay in a youth hostel in Paris because it's cheap and fairly near the Belleville neighborhood (gluten-free and international grocery paradise), but I decided to treat myself to an actual hotel for my birthday, and one that was more in the center of town. I stayed at the APPI Hotel on Rue Saint-Denis, in the middle of shops and bars and restaurants and on the southern edge of a fairly dodgy district full of sex shops and sex workers. On the plus side, it's close enough to Notre Dame that you can hear the bells ringing in through the open windows - but you have to watch out that the pigeons don't come in the windows once they're open. I stayed in a tiny narrow room at the top of a steep narrow winding staircase; on every other "landing" there was a tiny narrow toilet, with phone-booth-sized showers on the rest. But even with the sex shop next door and the bars all around, it was surprisingly quiet. Quieter than the youth hostel, in fact, especially since there was no one climbing into a bunk bed overhead at 4am.

I couldn't check in right away, but that left me time to head over to visit my Scottish relatives in another part of the city. Since I usually walk more than I ride the metro, I didn't bother with day passes, and just bought single tickets. I traveled to their flat (Châtelet - Opéra - Villiers - Rome) and enjoyed tea and conversation for a few hours.

We commiserated over the labyrinthine and contradictory administrative procedures in France. Anne had a story about going to the same fonctionnaire two times in a row while trying to gather all the paperwork for yet another dossier, and being told (by the same person) two different things about what she needed to fill out and provide as documentation. I countered with my difficulties in completing the application procedure for French schools, where in order to hand over the exact piece of paper they require I would have to go back 200 years and completely change the governmental structure of the United States.

On the other hand, that might not be a bad idea, come to think of it.

As I was standing outside the hotel that evening, waiting for a friend to arrive so we could visit over dinner, I began to feel after a while that I was getting some strange looks from the passers-by. I finally realized that I was probably being taken for a not very successful prostitute, there in front of the hotel and sex shop in my decidedly unsexy corduroy pants and black rain jacket, so instead of standing there I started walking up and down the street. I might have still been seen as a prostitute, but at least I wasn't noticing the looks any more.

Sunday morning I saw actual prostitutes in the red-light district to the north, five or six blocks away from where I was staying. It was only 10am but there was a woman in a black lace skirt advertising herself in front of what in Tokyo you'd call a "love hotel," her breasts pushed up and almost spilling over her bra, dark nipples reflecting the chill of the morning air. I thought about asking to take her picture, and now wish I had done, and given her some money for the photo. But I continued on to my hotel, where I dropped off the gluten-free treats I'd bought at Helmut Newcake, and set out again for Sunday brunch, and then the Opéra Bastille, my other birthday indulgence.

One of the things that I meant to do that weekend was go to the Palais Garnier, the gold-plated ornate 19th-century building where the Paris Opera and the Ballet d'Opéra also perform. I thought that the ticket I'd bought was for a performance there, but instead it was at the newer building (1989) at the Place Bastille. The ticket, even in the second balcony, was more expensive than my round-trip plane fare to Paris, but I'm glad that I was up in the balcony because then I could see all of the patterns, while avoiding the toe shoe noise and the fixed smiles that ballet dancers always seem to have. The first piece was particularly lovely, Balanchine's "The Crystal Palace" with music by Bizet: patterns and poses and precision. You have to be really precise when you're doing Balanchine's choreography because it's so structured that it's immediately obvious when someone isn't in the right place; a black tutu was out of line at one point, so that the dancers on that side formed a squashed triangle instead of a square. It's so old fashioned, but in a good way, like watching clips of Nadia Comăneci instead of modern gymnasts. I don't go see classical ballet all that often, preferring modern dance - some ballet positions are just silly looking, like the one I dubbed "laying an egg" (which can be done both as a soloist or in a lift with a partner). But the sparkly tutus on the corps de ballet glittered in red, or blue-black, or green, or pink, and all of the colors were on stage at the end for the rousing finale. Fun and pretty.

The second piece was choreographed by Benjamin Millepied (fantastic name for a dancer, isn't it? even better than Lucas Threefoot) who - as I have just googled and found - starred in Black Swan, a movie I will probably eventually see some day. It was Daphnis and Chloe, music by Ravel, and with a live chorus joining the orchestra, though they stayed offstage. This was still essentially classical ballet, but modern-er, with everyone dancing in their white underwear. While not as intricately drawn, there were still nice patterns to see from the second balcony. I particularly liked it when a solo male dancer was in the middle of the stage, the lighting overhead casting shadows as he danced, as if there were another dancer under him, something I wouldn't have seen from lower closer seats. There was a nice use of reflections in the plastic shapes that were the only stage setting, as well. However, a sign of how dull this ballet actually is is that I got distracted by the flautists in the arpeggio section that starts with the sunrise theme, the best part of the music really (you know, this part). As far as the story goes, all I could tell is that one of the white nightgowns got kidnapped by the black yoga pants group (whose leader had earlier been cast out of the white underwear group), possibly got rescued, and then everyone dyed their clothes in bright rainbow colors, and they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Sunday evening I went to the top of the Tour Montparnasse, the second-tallest building in Paris. I'd thought about trying to get a ticket to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, but they were all sold out that weekend, and in any event that's a mesh-floored spindly sort of construction (yes, I know it's iron and has been there for ages) and I figured I would be more comfortable on solid concrete anyway. Plus there's a champagne bar at the top of the Tour Montparnasse - and one at the top of the Eiffel Tower, if I ever get up there. I bought a ticket for the elevator up to the 56th floor, where there is a 360-degree view of Paris through the floor to ceiling windows, if you can fight your way through the hordes of tourists to get near the windows to actually see it. Most of the floor space is taken up by souvenir shops and a café or two, and when you get off the elevator you have to go through a line that leads to a photo opportunity in front of a poster of a view of Paris as seen from the top of the building, for which you will be charged a considerable sum, I imagine, but I never went back to claim mine. Instead, I climbed up the stairs to the very top, and saw the view for myself.

I do regret that I didn't ask Aurélie, a friend of Florence's (from the Oloron region but living in Paris), to take a non-poster-view photo of me at the top, or that I'd snapped a shot of the two of us drinking champagne, but I was too busy chatting and looking at the city from above to think about it. I'd hoped to see all of the lights of Paris spread out beneath me, but we'd gotten there in the late afternoon and it would have been another two hours before those lights came on, and it was getting cold up there, so we went back down and found a little crêperie Bretagne, one of dozens in the area, and not far from the hotel where Mom and John and I stayed the year before. I wish I'd done more research before that trip, because we might have been able to eat at one, though it's hard to avoid the butter even with the gluten-free buckwheat-flour galettes de sarrasin. But they're good, and I enjoyed drinking cider from a teacup, which Aurélie said was the tradition in Brittany.

I also regret not going over to the Eiffel Tower after we finished eating and talking, and Aurélie got on her bike for the ride back to her apartment and I headed for the nearest metro station. I saw the top of the tower all lit up, and considered the trip, but decided I was too tired. However, now I have a reason to go back to Paris (as if I needed one).

And I regretted being there by myself, in a way. My morning coffee at the Place de la République was sipped at a table with an empty chair, one that I wish had been filled by family and friends, so that everyone could enjoy Paris with me that day, and my 50th birthday.

After I had my coffee and orange juice - trying to figure out why coffee and orange juice purchased separately are more expensive than coffee plus orange juice plus a pastry in the set menu - I walked over towards Belleville, thinking to go to the big Parc des Buttes Chaumont and wander around a bit until Helmut Newcake opened at 10am and I could buy bread for my brunch, and a treat for Monday morning. Instead, I found myself at a smaller park I'd never seen before, the Parc de Belleville, that starts at the top of a hill with an excellent view of Paris and then spills down stairways and paths through plantings of mock orange and roses, to the Rue des Couronnes.

Belleville is full of Chinese groceries, Vietnamese restaurants, Moroccan couscous and kebab takeaways, halal butchers, and places to buy produce where you'll have to know what you're asking for because all of the signs (if there are signs) are in another language, and the fruits and vegetables come from Thailand or Taiwan or Tunisia. The park was full of people doing tai chi.

On my way back towards Rue Bichat and the bakery, I passed a large Asian grocery store, and went in and rummaged around for a while. I bought some really excellent wasabi peas and a bag of freeze-dried durian, but I couldn't buy as much as I wanted as I only had a carry-on, and I didn't want to carry too much on the plane anyway. There were two big bins of banana-leaf-wrapped steamed somethings - sticky rice, maybe? All the signs were in Chinese, and I had already scheduled a brunch reservation and didn't want to spoil my appetite, so I didn't buy any. I'll bet they were good, though. I looked for the seaweed paste I fell in love with in Tokyo (gohan desu yo!) but couldn't find any. I suppose that means I'll have to go back to Tokyo, too.

So many places to visit again. So many places I've never been. I'd like another 50 years, please.

I bought gluten-free rolls at Helmut Newcake, where they're making their own bread now, as well as sweet treats and beautiful pastries. The rolls were for brunch, and I bought a slice of lemon-cornmeal cake and another of banana bread for Monday's breakfast. I walked back to the hotel to drop off the breakfast breads and Asian snacks, past an open-air seafood restaurant where - had I not been headed towards brunch - I might have stopped and slurped up some oysters from the bar at the end of the stall. Expensively-dressed Parisians were eyeing the expensively-priced shellfish, but I went on, over the Canal St. Martin, where tourist-filled tour boats were going through the lock. I thought about canals and locks, and the fun (wet, cold, rainy fun, but still fun) that I had with Mom and John on the Marne. I'd like to do that again, too.

There will always be new neighborhoods for me to discover in Paris, I think, even if I do go live there for a while. It's not a huge city, but it's full of so many little streets and alleys and interesting buildings that each time I go there I see something I've never seen before. Often because I've gotten lost. That weekend it didn't matter most of the time if I got lost, because I didn't have any particular place to be at any particular time for the better part of three days. Perhaps that's the best frame of mind to be in when wandering around Paris.

Monday morning I didn't have to check out of the hotel until noon, so I decided to go to the Les Halles area for my morning coffee, where the old food market used to be. It's now a modern shopping center, currently under construction. I found a café where I could stay out of the off-and-on rain, and drank two espressos while eating my lemon cake and banana bread, and watching the people pass by on their way to work. The sparrows got the last half of the banana bread, as it was somewhat dry and I'd already eaten the lemon cake. Also I think they might have attacked me if I hadn't shared.

I'd never been to this area either, or seen the Bourse de Commerce de Paris (not the modern Bourse that is the stock exchange building). It's a circular building dating back to the late 18th century that was built to store the wheat coming in off the barges from the fields around Luzarches to the north and Brie to the east. That's where all of the grain for Paris was weighed and measured, and prices set. Over the next century it turned into the main commodities exchange, with not only wheat being bought and sold, but also other grains, sugar from the colonies, alcohol, coffee, and cocoa. In 1998 the commodities market shut down and combined with the stock market at the Bourse de Paris at Palais Brongniart, and now it's the home of the Chamber of Commerce.

The church of Saint-Eustache is nearby, on the northern edge of the Jardin Nelson Mandela (whose head you see above). It's another place I'll have to go back to visit; I could have gone in but there seemed to be a food-distribution event inside, and the weather was clearing up, and I had other plans.

I decided to take advantage of the rent-a-bike system and see a bit of Paris à vélo on my last day there. The rain had sort of cleared up, but I had my jacket and I didn't care if I got wet. There's a bike stand near the hotel, and I put my carte bleue in the slot to unlock one, checked to make sure the automatic headlight was working, adjusted the seat, and was off.

I crossed the Pont Notre-Dame over the Île de la Cité and followed the bike path along the river all the way to the Eiffel Tower, and then went back over the Seine via the Pont Iéna. I bicycled along the Voie Georges Pompidou and the Quai des Tuileries, and made my way back to the stand near the hotel, where all of the slots were full. Fortunately the bike stands are scattered fairly thickly and I was able to find an open slot a few blocks away using the handy map provided by the Vélib' organization.

Although I'd flown in to Charles de Gaulle, I was leaving via Orly, and since I'd never done that I decided to start in that direction, even though I had a few hours to spare. There's a bus that goes directly to Orly from Place Denfert-Rochereau and even though it takes longer than the shuttle you can catch from the Antony metro stop it's a lot cheaper and I had plenty of time.

Enough time to have lunch, in fact, which I needed after my early and sparrow-scavenged breakfast and my hour-long bike ride. Though I'd pledged to finally eat in a "real Parisian bistro," I never did get to one - on Saturday they were all full of tourists, and on Sunday I had brunch with cats (more on that in the next post) and a galette with Aurélie. There were a few restaurants along the edges of the Place Denfert-Rochereau, and I chose the Japanese restaurant across from the bus stop. Not traditionally French at all, but fairly good, and cheap, and filling. And I read a French newspaper while I ate, so that counts.

And that was it, then, for my Paris weekend. I will go back again, possibly as soon as next February. Maybe someday I'll decide to get an office-type job again, and I'll find work there, or there will be a housesitting gig of three months or so. Part of me will always be there, I think, locked tight in its embrace, always and forever in love with Paris.

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