France

A Day in Paris

 

I left the apartment late today, around 11 in the morning.  Its always a bit intimidating to begin a new day, not having a schedule or definite plans, although you know the day will always take on a unique character of its own once you actually plunge into it.  Today though I did have a vague plan.  For some time I had been intrigued by glimpses I’d had, from atop the Tour Montparnasse, the roof of the Samaritane department store, or the Tour Eiffel, of a hill on the outskirts of Paris, Mont Valerien, that seemed to me to be the highest point within sight.  To the southwest past the Bois de Bologne, its too far outside of Paris to be included on the city maps, and I could never find any information about it.  So I had decided today to make it my objective to get to the top, on foot of course.

 

Leaving the Ile St. Louis, I stopped first at my favorite bakery, Maison Kaysar, at 8 Rue Monge, just off Boulevard St. Germain.  Everything I’ve tasted there has been otherworldly.  Even the little madelaines which can be purchased for a mere 2 francs are the best I’ve had anywhere.  The fruit tartes, unlike the usual little round ones you find all over Paris, are baked in large rectangular sheet pans and then cut into generous squares—peach, apricot, strawberry, raspberry, or mixed.  Fantastic!  Then I stopped for a café au lait at a café on the little square at the top of the Rue Mouffetard.  A narrow little street that spills downhill starting from near the Pantheon, it’s the site of the most picturesque street market in Paris.  I bought some strawberries at the bottom, then headed off towards the Tour Montparnasse, bought a ticket to the observation platform on the 59th floor to get my bearings (Mont Valerian was still there!) and headed off to my destination.

 

It took what seemed like almost an hour just to get to the Seine, following the overhead metro on the Boulevard de Grenelle that reaches the Seine just below the Tour Eiffel.  Crossing the Seine on the Pont de Grenelle I discovered a new treat.  The river divides at that point forming a little island in the middle.  Halfway across the bridge you can take some stairs down to the island and take a walkway, which goes the full length of the island down to the Radio France building.  There it connects up with another bridge that I took to finish crossing the Seine.  

 

From there I traversed the 16th arrondissement until I reached the Bois de Bologne at its southern tip in the town of Auteuil, passing by the tennis center at Roland Garros where qualifying matches for the French Open, which begins next week, were going on.  As usual, a couple of prostitutes were standing outside the entrance just off the curb staring at the oncoming traffic, oblivious to the passing throngs of tennis fans.   I resisted the temptation to go inside and watch some tennis (it only costs about $8.00 for admission to the qualifying matches) and continued on past Roland Garros.  Once you reach this point you are beyond the area where any tourists ever go, but you are still in what turns out to be a very lovely part of the Bois de Bologne.  I stopped for a fresh squeezed orange juice at an outdoor refreshment stand, then continued on a short way until I came once again to the Seine (once the Seine passes the Eiffel Tower it curves south, heads west a short distance and then turns north again, thus explaining its reappearance).  There was a footpath following the Seine which is lined at that point with charming houseboats of all types, including one with a restaurant that looked worth trying.  I took it until I reached  a bridge which crosses the Seine into the town of Suresnes.  I was a little sad to leave the path, but rising in the distance behind Suresnes I could see Mont Valerian.  I had spotted it from near the refreshment stand in the Bois de Bologne and asked a passerby if one could climb to the top.  He had said no, it was a military base, but I decided to try to get as high as I could anyway.

 

After walking across the bridge and through a drab commercial area Suresnes started to get charming.  It was obviously a fairly nice suburb of Paris with its own little train station and nice houses, many of which had views looking towards the city.  I followed the signs to Mont Valerien, afraid I would be disappointed, but as with most things in France it turned out to be a pleasant surprise.  Although there was an old military fort (still in use) at the very top, there was a beautiful park with a path that wound all the way around just below the walls of the fort, offering spectacular views of Paris and the surrounding area from a perspective that few tourists see.  Halfway around the path, accessible only by foot, I even discovered half a dozen excellent public tennis courts that I vowed someday to return to play on.

How far had I come from the start of my walk?  From Mont Valerien you could clearly seen the Tour Eiffel, the Tour de Montparnasse, even the domes of Sacre Coeur, but the Ile St. Louis was well over the horizon.  From rough measurements on a map I would have to estimate I had walked at least 12 miles to get there. 

 

Just to the north of Mont Valerien, on the other side of the town of Puteaux, is the modernistic La Defense with its vast esplanade surrounded by modernistic office buildings.  I headed in that direction, thinking I would then take the metro which goes directly from La Defense to the Hotel de Ville only a few blocks from my apartment.  But after a café frappe on the outdoor terrace at Alain Ducasse’s Malongo on the esplanade I felt reinvigorated.  You could see the Arc de Triomphe at the other end of the Avenue de la Grande Armee shimmering in the evening sun.  It seemed impossibly far away, but it beckoned irresistibly so off I went.  In almost no time it seemed I was there, and then the next objective—the ferris wheel in the Place de la Concorde at the other end of the Champs Elysees—came into view, so I kept walking, past the Place de la Concorde, through the Jardin des Tuileries and finally reaching the arch at the entrance to the Louvre.  Looking back through the arch the setting sun hung in the sky just above the Arc de Triomphe. 

 

At the Louvre I had to take a detour to walk out onto my favorite bridge, the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge just below Pont Neuf and the tip of the Ile de la Cite.  With the Louvre on one side and the Institute de France on the other, and the magnificent views up and down the Seine, you feel you are at the center of the Western world.

 

From there it was only another mile or two back to the apartment and up the 103 stairs to the apartment—the last 103 steps out of what I estimated to be the day’s count of  40,000.  The idea of food seemed unappealing after all this, so I settled for a single scoop of Bertillon chocolate ice cream, as far as I’m concerned the foremost attraction on the Ile St. Louis.  It was 9:40 pm, still just barely light, the end of another day in Paris.

 

 

Return to Paris

 

 

Something happens when you return to Paris that confirms the fact that you are hopelessly in love with the place.  This time I was on my way back on the 11:15 TGV from Bordeaux, but as I looked out the window at the familiar countryside my mind was not on my destination.  I had just spent twelve days exploring the southwest corner of France and was relishing the memories of my trip. 

It had started in Arcachon, a charming seaside resort town not far from Bordeaux where I had stayed in the beautifully restored Villa Térésa and climbed to the top of the amazing Dune du Pyla, the highest sand dune in Europe, gazing out at the endless pine forests of the Landes region planted by Napoleon III.  I then headed south, stopping in Biarritz to find the exact spot on the cliffs above the sea where the old man had explained the phenomenon of the rayon vert in my favorite movie by Eric Rohmer.  I spent three days in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, just below Biarritz, where I swam in the Atlantic, dined on plates of freshly grilled sardines at the little Buvette de la Halle in the downtown covered market, and wondered why the sunsets seemed to linger on forever (perhaps the sun just doesn’t want to leave).  I drove into Spain to visit San Sebastian, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen, strolling the long promenade bordering the sea and washing down plates of tapas with endless glasses of sangria.  But the best part of the trip had been the delightful small towns of the Pays Basque nestled in pristine valleys surrounded by the Pyrénées—places like Ainhoa, Espelette, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and especially Saint-Etienne-de-Baïgorry, where I spent three nights at the wonderful Hotel Arcé situated on a river just on the edge of town. I hiked high in the surrounding hills breathing the fresh air and listening to the tinkling of sheep bells and the chirping of birds, a far cry from the heavy air, urban noise, and mobs of unruly pigeons I had left behind in Paris.  One day they had a festival where the children of the town dressed in native basque costumes and danced through the streets, winding up in front of the church that was filled to the rafters with Sunday worshippers.  Local farmers set up booths offering all the traditional basque delicacies—sheep’s milk cheese, Bayonne ham, and gateaux basques filled with cherries grown in the neighboring town of Itxassou. I felt I had found an idyllic paradise touched little by the passage of time.

But all this was now just a memory as the train pulled into Montparnasse station and I took a cab to my hotel near the Place St. Sulpice, one of my favorite parts of Paris.  I dropped my bags in the room, went downstairs and up half a block to the square, sat down and ordered a coffee at the Café de la Mairie.  It was then that I felt the indescribable rush of exhilaration that always strikes me when I return to Paris.  I never really anticipate or expect the experience, but it always seems to happen at that moment when it finally sinks in where I am and my senses are overwhelmed by the sensual and visual feast that is Paris.  

As I sat looking across the square at the comings and goings of the upscale flea market that seems to be a regular fixture, I remembered my first return to Paris, four years before, after a trip in which I had explored the coast of Normandy.  Like most Americans, I thought of Normandy as dark and gloomy, experienced only through grim black and white World War II footage. I was amazed to discover a totally different place–the bluest sky I had ever seen, green hills riotously dotted with red poppies, chalky white cliffs meeting the soft sea.   Completing my trip at Mont St. Michel, I turned around and headed east to Paris, driving back roads through peaceful countryside lit by the evening sun, smoking a cigarette (an affectation I have since dropped) and listening to jazz on Radio FIP, imagining I was a Frenchman on my way home to Paris.  The closer I got the more my excitement swelled, until I hit the streets of Paris and was swept up into the flow of traffic, miraculously finding my way to my hotel opposite the Pantheon.  It was late at night but still light.  I looked out from my balcony to be almost blinded by the columns of the Pantheon brightly lit by the rays of the setting sun and felt for the first time that sense of exhilaration that I was again experiencing now.  I knew that wherever else I might have been, Paris was the place to be.

As this was my last night in Paris, I decided to revisit my favorite little bistro, Au Bon Saint-Pourçain, located on rue Servandoni, a quiet cobbled alley a block from Place St. Sulpice.  I arrived at 8:00 just as it was opening.  Exactly as on my last visit the proprietor was standing outside the front door waiting for the first guests.  I took one of the four outdoor tables. Looking up the alley in one direction I could see the black wrought iron fence with gold trim and the trees beyond that mark the boundary of the Jardin Luxembourg, and at the other end the massive bulk of the Église St. Sulpice. 

I started with a shrimp salad, remembering it from last time as being the best I had ever had.  Normally I would hesitate to order the same thing, fearing disappointment, but my intuition told me I would not be let down, and I wasn’t. 

Arriving at the same time I did, another single gentleman had seated himself at the next table with his back to me.  After a few minutes he changed seats so he was facing me and we began a conversation.  It evolved that he was an 81-year-old ex-lawyer from Chile, born to a French mother and a Chilean father, who now raises almonds and walnuts on a large farm outside Santiago.  He had been visiting Paris regularly for the past forty years and obviously shared my love for the city.  “What an inspiration!” I thought. “At my relatively young age of 54, that means I have at least 27 more years to enjoy Paris!” 

After dinner I walked with him back to his hotel near the Jardin des Tuileries on the right   bank.  Along the way he showed me some of his favorite places: a little wine bar called Le Rubis, a restaurant called L’Absinthe—“better than Saint-Pourçain,” he said, a claim I found incredible, but to be verified on my next trip.  He invited me to visit his farm in Chile, if ever in the neighborhood, and we parted.

I walked back to my hotel alone.  It was midnight and the streets were beginning to empty.  Paris at that time of night is shimmering and luminous.  I stopped and stood for the last time on the Pont des Arts watching the lights playing on the water of the Seine, observing for one last time all the famous buildings and landmarks softly glowing in the night. The next day I would board an Air France flight home to San Francisco, but for now my return to Paris was complete.

The Perfect Shirt 

Life for me has been the search for the perfect shirt. For as long as I can remember, clothes have been a source of disappointment and misery. Going to movies as a child left me with a certain impression of my fate as an adult. I would dress up in a stuffy tweed suit and hat, have a stiff drink and head off for an evening at the local nightclub. But in the meantime my own experience of getting dressed was torture. Once a year we would go shopping for my one new school outfit and for weeks thereafter my body would recoil in agony as it adjusted to this latest humiliation of the flesh. Why did nothing

every fit right, why was everything so scratchy and uncomfortable, and why did I never look dapper and dashing, or casual and cool, like everyone else? If I ever had the good luck to find something I liked I wore it, every day, until it was in shreds.

During high school my mother took me with her on shopping trips to the G. Fox department store in Hartford.  Wandering through the men’s department I discovered a secret world of grace, ease and comfort represented by the piles of neatly packaged Arrow dress shirts in luxurious soft fabrics, classic solid colors and stripes with button down collars and box pleats for $5.00 each. Awakened to new possibilities of sartorial transformation, I found that, like all things in life, the magical vision proved elusive. Those shirts must have been meant for someone else. For me nothing really changed until I discovered Paris.

My first few visits to Paris were not about clothes or shopping. By then I had pretty much given up on my quest and relegated myself to the dreaded Banana Republic. Gradually, however, I discovered that in Paris there were stores that had clothes that were different from what I was used to. Clothes that actually fit and were comfortable and stylish, in contrast to American clothes that seemed never to fit right and were always ncomfortable and poorly made (I can still wander through an entire Macy’s or Nordstrom and not find a single thing worth buying–no wonder American men find it so hard to dress well!)

So now, each visit to Paris finds me repeating a methodical tour of my favorite shops and department stores looking for the latest fabrics and styles, seeking to satisfy that eternal quest for the perfect shirt.

First, to get a quick overview of what’s new in the fashion world I head to the Galeries Lafayette at 40, Bd Haussmann, the best of all the major department stores (forget about Printemps next door, a total waste of time). The mens’ department just underwent a major renovation and now, according to the ubiquitous ads, “Men have the same rights as women.”  I confine myself to the second floor, which consists mostly of mini boutiques for various leading designers. My favorite is Blanc Bleu, which specializes in excellent shirts, comfortable pants, and a wide variety of pullover shirts and sweaters, all in fine soft fabrics. Blanc Bleu can be found in virtually all the Galeries Lafayette, and has its own chain of retail outlets in most major cities and resorts across France. Be sure to ask for one of their blue cloth bags to help you carry your purchases home in; if you spend enough they will give you one for free.

Next I head over to Rue St. Honor where there are many nice shops, but my favorites are the two Zegna outlets on the same block just west of Rue Castiglione near Place Vendome. On my recent visit to the regular Zegna I found several wonderful shirts in exotic colors while just down the street at Zegna Sport I stocked up on slacks made with the latest trendy soft cotton stretch fabric which can be machine washed and dried and requires no ironing! Blanc Bleu has shirts in this same fabric. Then I cross the Seine and walk up Rue Bonaparte past the flagship Blanc Bleu store on the corner of Rue Jacob. Things sell out fast there, but if you are lucky you will find some nice things that just came in.

Continuing up past Place St. Sulpice, I check out the Agnes B. Homme at 10 Rue du Vieux Colombier, just off Rue de Rennes. While they have nice designs and colors, the quality of the fabrics is usually not up to snuff, but I did find a wonderful coat there on my last visit. For more whimsical shirts pop into Victoire Homme, also on Rue de Vieux Colombier, on the other side of the street from Agnes B. I bought a short sleeve shirt there with pockets on the inside that generates a lot of comments and one with a wild psychedelic pattern that is probably better suited for Austin Powers.

Also in the area is the Bon Marche, a slightly more upscale version of Galeries Lafayette where I always seem to find something worth buying. Finally, one must not forget shoes. As I do a lot of walking, especially in Paris, Mephistos are a must. Their store at 78 Rue de Saints-Peres is always packed with American tourists, prices being about half what you would pay in the U.S. But Mephistos, at least for men, aren’t terribly stylish. For something comfortable and a bit more hip try the busy Camper store on the opposite corner, or for something more elegant, and even more comfortable than Mephistos, head straight for Paraboot just around the corner at 9, Rue de Grenelle.

I should point out that since I am self-employed and have no need to wear suits and ties, my own quest is for clothing that is casual and comfortable, but also stylish at the same time. The above choices reflect that preference.

Also, the wonderful thing about shopping in Paris is that you can often find beautiful things most unexpectedly. For example, the Marais is packed with small boutiques that are worth investigating, and almost every neighborhood has something to offer. Arriving home from my last trip I unpacked my acquisitions on the bed and marveled that this unruly little pile had set me back several thousand dollars. I made a quick count: 18 shirts, 11 pairs of pants, several sweaters and pullovers, 2 coats, 3 pairs of shoes. Enough to last the six months until my next trip to Paris. Some of these things I might wear only once or twice, but others were destined to become new favorites that would provide constant comfort and pleasure.

I put on one of my new outfits and headed out for coffee. It was a beautiful day and I noted that it seemed as if Americans were dressing a little better. The proof was two nicely dressed middle-aged men just leaving Peets with their lattes. But as they passed by I could hear they were speaking French!

That evening I drove over to the Mission District of San Francisco to revisit Delfina, still my favorite restaurant even after the delights of Paris.  On my way I strolled down Liberty Street past the immaculately restored Victorians, then turned left on Valencia. A new boutique caught my eye.  I walked on by, but something propelled me to turn back and go inside. There I found hanging on a rack a beautiful rich green shirt in a soft woolen fabric. I tried it on and felt new, inspired, reborn. It was the perfect shirt. I paid for my new find and headed off down Valencia towards Delfina, happily anticipating the perfect meal.

 

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

 
%d bloggers like this: