March 25, 2010

Look Up or You'll Miss Half the City's Delights

On my late evening walk tonight, I went down some streets that I don’t usually frequent. Upon lifting my head, I was welcomed into a world that is largely unknown to visitors to this city: the Parisian’s apartment. (I single out Parisians because they are still somewhat of an anomaly to me. The way they dress, the way they live, the way they manage to have any money to spend… I digress. That’s a topic for another day.) Now, I have always appreciated this about nights in Paris –walking around when it’s dark out means you can peer into the lighted apartments and see things that aren’t at all visible during the day. Tonight I wandered farther and farther into unfamiliar territory and eventually happened upon a house.

In just the last day I have come to learn that houses, real houses, exist in the Paris city limits. Huh? Maybe I’ve been living in a box the last few years – oh no, that’s just my studio! – but I never thought this was even possible to have a bona fide house in Paris.  Dreaming of bringing together two things that I feel I can’t live without – Paris and space - my mind immediately goes to a conversation that might take place in one of these houses… “No, Sweetie, it’s upstairs in the salon.” Upstairs? Downstairs? Ha! I’m only used to the limited options of “it’s in that corner” or “it’s on that shelf.” Not that easy to lose stuff when you live in a shoebox!

Where was I, though? Had I wandered into Neuilly? I know they have houses there. I thought that had to be a bit farther than I had traveled. In the end, turns out I was still in the 17th and had strolled along Boulevard Pereire. I praised the darkness for allowing me this glimpse of molded ceilings, impeccable décor, and impressive art work that seemed to be hanging in each and every lighted apartment. My dream of having one of my own was again in the forefront of my mind.

March 19, 2010

Line 5: Look Quickly or You'll Miss All Those Landmarks

Back on the metro topic, I have to share what I think is one of the best metro routes in the city. This isn't that hard to accomplish because most are of course underground, leaving one to find entertainment in all those fellow voyageurs whose most exciting activity the entire ride might be nothing more than a glance up from their iPods.

See, I used to have a metro route that initially I didn’t care for but eventually came to be one of my favorites. I regularly needed to take Line 5 from almost the top of the line all the way down to its termination of Place d’Italie. It requires passing through three not-so-pleasant gares, but what is sandwiched in the middle of this line makes it all worth it.

For those who don’t know the line well, it comes above ground between Bastille and Quai de la Rapée to cross the Seine, which in and of itself is a truly glorious moment. Any relief from the darkness of the tunnels is welcomed, especially if its accompanied by a slew of Paris' claims to fame. As I took the line more and more, I kept spotting more famous buildings, monuments, and bridges. It became a game to see what else I could spot in those short seconds of exposure, a game of speed and positioning.

For optimal viewing, the key is to position yourself in a seat on the right side (again, we're going south here). I probably haven’t noticed them all but what I can confirm is in view, if even for a second, includes: Bastille tower, Centre Pompidou, the Louvre, Hôtel de Ville, Tour Montparnasse, the Panthéon, the Eiffel Tower, and many of Paris’ beautiful ponts, or bridges. I welcome you to challenge yourself to this little game that, by the way, only takes place between Bastille and just after Gare d'Austerlitz. It's a great little tease to get your bum out from underground and go enjoy the city.

March 17, 2010

The Paris Métro

For me, one of the most necessary experiences to have in Paris is not necessarily the obvious towers, etc. Rather, when people visit Paris I tell them they must ride the metro. As much as possible.

I am a fan of the metro for several reasons: efficiency, convenience (don’t they say you’re never more than 750 m from a station? Well, I’ve been every bit of that 750 m distance in the pouring rain!), the “green factor”, but most of all, the experience of it. It’s like Forrest with his box of chocolates… you never know what you’re going to get.

At times it’s peaceful. Others, you’re forced to listen to the pounding bass of someone’s house music being blasted. Sometimes you have a car to yourself. Others you’re packed in like sardines. I’ve witnessed acts of violence and acts of extreme kindness. I’ve heard music – some good, some bad. I’ve smelled the stench of someone who hasn’t bathed in weeks contrasted by another’s sweet French perfume. I’ve seen vomit. I’ve seen dogs, mosquitoes, and mice. I’ve seen homeless people and exploited children. I’ve heard more languages than anywhere I’ve ever been. I’ve even heard of love beginning in the Metro.

It’s the best and the worst of the world. It is a microcosm of a place called Paris.

March 13, 2010

L’Oisive Thé: A Delightful Little Parisian Tea Room

The first time I moved to Paris, I had someone, a Parisienne, tell me that I must go to La Butte aux Cailles, a street in the 13th that she described as quaint and pleasant. Her enthusiasm for this street was enough to ensure it made it to the “must-do before I leave in three months” list without me ever questioning it. I suppose I must have finally gone there on a Sunday because I found very little on that street. I checked and re-checked the map- was I in the right place? Had I taken le mauvais chemin? Nope, this was it – a non-descript dead couple of blocks with nothing happening. Needless to say, I was very disappointed.

Then I met Chloé. Chloé is French, lives in the 13th, and finds interesting blogs – often about Paris – like it’s her job. She eventually became my afternoon tea buddy, and it was with her that I found myself truly discovering La Butte aux Cailles. She had come across a blog of an American who had opened a salon de thé on the very street I had failed to find excitement on, so we made a date to try it out.

L’OisiveThé was indeed a charming little spot that in the end made up for what I still found its neighbors to be lacking. The corner location gives the space a lovely brightness, and the cozy room was bustling on that Saturday afternoon. The mismatched tables and chairs is a design practice that I love, so I felt good about the spot before we were even seated.

As I recall, the tea choices were slimmer than other tea rooms we had frequented together, but the gateaux and patisseries were definitely on the mark and very fresh. There’s a delightful mix of the pastries people travel hundreds of miles to savor in France with those we love in the United States. I am reminded of the traditional American coffee cake, which we allow ourselves to enjoy at any hour of the day, as long as it’s accompanied by a good coffee or tea. An American who embraces the two cultures, the owner of L’OisiveThé has outdone her neighbors and created a lovely escape from the busyness that in Paris.

Update: Since our visit, L’OisiveThé has started to sell yarn and offer knitting “parties” on a regular basis. It sounds like it’s quite the success.

at rue de la Butte aux Cailles and rue Jean-Marie Jégo
Tél : +33 (0)1 53 80 31 33
Métro: Corvisart ou Place d’Italie
Open Tuesday to Thursday 12h to 19h and Friday to Sunday from 12h to 20h. Closed Mondays.