My mother loved champagne. She smoked cigarettes in an extravagant holder, crossed her long legs (she was proud of those legs!), and ordered first my dad, then after he died, me, to uncork a bottle of “the stars!” (As Dom Pérignon was said to have exclaimed: “Come quickly! I am tasting the stars!”) It’s a tradition I perpetuate: drinking the stars.
We got here during Paris fashion week, and though my invitations to the shows got lost in the mail yet again this year, we did spot a model from the Chanel runway gliding around our neighborhood one evening. I knew because she was about nineteen years old, five-eleven, slim as bamboo, with a platinum Dutch boy haircut, and also I saw her on YouTube. She was with two vastly inferior guys who trailed behind her.
A howling wind came up the other night. We like to leave the bedroom window open when we sleep, for the air and the murmur of the city, but I awakened at 3:00 AM to what sounded like a hurricane. Leaves were blowing into the bedroom. Spooky! It’s October, so spooky is good, but the howl of the wind whistling through that huge crane tested my tolerance. What keeps it up when the wind howls?
This morning it’s still standing (see above), so we seem to have survived that brush with disaster.
I just hafta talk about food. Our first night in a restaurant was spent at Beaurepaire, a Basque restaurant on a corner nearby, offering what may be the best veal stew in the land. Our second night out was spent at Auberge de Notre Dame, a goofy restaurant with a mix of Eighteenth-Century chandeliers and what look like late-50s lava lamps. In spite of the atmosphere, the chicken-liver salad (flambéed in cognac) was spectacular.
There have been other restaurants—ten or twelve in all: Stupendous truffled ravioli at Le Grand Amalfi next door, Sicilian pizza at Respiro up the street (twice!), and an exceptional entrecote at Café El Sur, an Argentinian steakhouse a ten-minute walk away.
We’re living in the heart of the Latin Quarter, where competition among restaurants is fierce. There are 23 of them in the picture below, and they’re all within a five-minute walk. They’re all ambrosial and, surprisingly, affordable: The three-quarter pound entrecote was $26. It has been our most expensive meal of the stay.
To me, Paris is composed of many things I love. Food is near the top of the list, but at the very top is … hope.
Some have noticed that our blog of late rarely tells tales of adventure in Paris. There are no ascents to the top of the Eiffel Tower. There’s no strolling along the Champs-Élysées or dodging vendors atop the Montmartre. We didn’t come here for that. This time, we’re here simply to live—to fix a simple breakfast, to bring home a croissant from a boulangerie, to stroll the back streets of the Latin Quarter. Our 2021 Parisian lifestyle doesn’t feed the appetite of a travelogue, but it does feed our joie de vivre—the joy of living that has become so elusive back home in Portland.
That huge crane across the street is the crowd-funded embodiment of hope, charity, and faith. Faith, yes, with a capital “F,” but faith also in what’s to come. Here, people know that soon the scaffolding will come down, the crane will disappear, and Notre Dame will again glow in the light of dawn. People stop, cameras come out to capture not the chaos of reconstruction, but the confidence in the future.
We have a week remaining in Paris. Louise doesn’t want to go home. I’m ambivalent. While Paris gazes upon the reconstruction of Notre Dame in anticipation, Portland huddles behind boarded-up windows in dread. Portland’s most-beloved icons have been spray painted, ripped from pedestals, even burned to the ground. In Paris, icons are revered. There’s an optimism here. Anticipation is palpable.
It’s morning in Paris. We’ve made a date to visit a corner café for a streetside petit-déjeuner—a simple breakfast before the bustle of the day. After that, we will aimlessly stroll the avenues behind the Centre Pompidou, where stalls of vendors hawk Mona-Lisa T-shirts and tiny statues of la tour Eiffel. It’s a simple plan, an effort to immerse ourselves in the faith that is Paris. That’s why we’re here.
And that—along with that chicken-liver salad—is the Paris I love.
Paris is the most densely-populated city in Europe. When we were last here, traffic jams ruled. Bikes split lanes, riding between cars idling in traffic. Buses and Métro de Paris were SRO.
Then came COVID. Mass transportation ridership plummeted. Impossibly, traffic got worse. Parking was as precious as platinum. Something had to be done, and it was bicycles that did the job—an estimated one million of them—and bicycle lanes. Over 400 miles of bicycle lanes were constructed in the city in 2020 alone, mostly at the expense of traffic lanes devoted to cars. The picture above, taken from our living-room window, shows two bicycle (and scooter) lanes created where cars used to travel.
The bike lanes remained after COVID, but a transportation upheaval didn’t occur until recently, with the arrival of affordable electric bikes and scooters.
Three years ago, when Louise and I embarked on an electric scooter tour of Paris, we were the only people on electric scooters in sight. Electric bikes were unachievably expensive, and electric mopeds were nothing but a gleam in Dean Kamen’s eye. (Kamen invented the Segway.) But today, electric vehicles are like preteens at a Billie Eilish concert: unruly, skittish, and thick as thieves. Today, then, a discussion of les électricités: the electrics.
Cars & Buses. Of course there are thousands of electric cars and buses on the streets, but they’re hardly noticeable, blending in as they do. One interesting observation: the most frequently-encountered American car: Tesla. In Switzerland, Tesla was the only American brand I saw, and I was there for ten days. Interestingly, cars built before 1997 are banned in Paris on weekdays (classics excepted: what would Paris be without the deux chevaux?). Diesels 25 years old and older are also forbidden. And yet another proposal is afoot (pun intended) to ban internal-combustion-engine (ICE) cars in their entirety by 2023. (Good luck with that!)
Bikes.Lordy-lord! Electric bikes are everywhere! Bike estimates generally range in the one-million range, and as many as a third of those are electric. Vélib’ Métropole—roughly, “cycling freedom”—offers nearly 10,000 electric bikes for rent. Others include Bolt, Lime—even AirBnB. And why not? E-bikes have access to all 400 miles of those bike lanes mentioned earlier, rent for about fifteen cents a minute, and are available everywhere. The scary days of bike riding in Paris are past. All you need is a credit card, a phone, and a good mapping app.
Electric Scooters. OK, I fell off one once. In Paris. But it had small hard rubber tires and its “throttle” was either on or off. Today scooters have larger balloon tires and variable throttles—some even have suspension. They’re half the price of e-bikes and as easy to ride as a park bench. Consequently, they’re all over the place. The picture above was an attempt at a selfie in the Jardin du Luxembourg, photobombed by two green Lime scooters. Paris used to have rats; now it has scooters. Everywhere.
Electric Unicycles. Wanna see goblins roaming the streets of Paris on electric unicycles at night? Click on this link. We don’t see too many of these (they’re expensive), but they’re mass-transportation friendly (they all have handles for carrying) and thus, perfect for commuters. They get to use bike lanes too.
The streets of Paris are a glimpse into the future of urban transportation, especially when you consider the future beyond 2023 (two years from now!) when ICE-powered cars may disappear. I say great! There’s no better city in the world for strolling, and with nothing but electric bikes and scooters (and, I suppose, a few electric cars), it will be even more of a Paradise than it already is.
It’s normal to be wary of what is foreign, so we understood completely when our friends questioned this trip to Europe. But Covid-wise, we feel very safe here. We are asked for our “passe sanitaire,” or vaccination certificate, at every restaurant, museum, and theater, even outdoors. (This is a QR code on our phones, but they like our cardboard ones too.) Everybody wears a mask indoors or risks one of those disapproving Gallic callouts complete with frown, or at worst, a bevy of waiters running towards you to block the door.
I love President Macron’s sensible vaccination passport idea: “Skip the vaccine if you want, but we won’t let you go anywhere fun.” That is so sensible. There is a much more laid back atmosphere here about Covid: people get vaccinated, wear masks, and carry on.
We’re in a new neighborhood for us, on the Left Bank just across the Seine from Notre Dame. We have a terrific view of her, and her scaffolding, and most impressive, a crane twice the height of the cathedral that moves things around by day, and stands tall and lit like a light sabre by night. It’s our night light, in fact. It’s one of those places where you can be indoors and still feel like you’re outdoors, because the street is lively 20 hours a day.
Since we spend so much of our time sitting in cafes and eating, it was thrilling to find bistros in abundance all around us, most of them cheaper than those in Portland. Still, we eat at home a lot because it’s hard to resist the morning markets with their fresh melons, amazing baguettes, roast chicken, and a host of yummy things with melted cheese on top.
But we don’t just eat. We’ve done things. The wonderful Musee de Carnavelet has reopened and we went to see an exhibit of Henri Cartier-Bresson photos of Paris in the ’40s and forward, black and white and grainy. One of the joys of this city is though people dress differently now, the streets and tall Haussmanian buildings have not changed, and ornate store fronts with painted glass are still treasured. The croissants, the baguettes, and the eclairs they buy are the same. People—alone or in twosomes or in rambunctious groups—still go to cafés to write, to think, to gossip, to flirt, and to argue about the meaning of life.
I do think that the amount of hugging and air kissing has decreased, but let’s hope that’s temporary.
We also stopped by the Arenes de Lutece, the ruins of a 2000 year-old Roman amphitheater which had been slowly buried by a cemetery, a convent, and buildings along Rue Monge. It was 1869 when a team excavating for a tram station began to uncover the stadium seating, the lion’s den, and a generous stage area. Gradually dug out and revealed, it’s now a public park that one just wanders into to eat a sandwich or meet a friend. During our visit, we were gifted with the rare appearance of two of Paris’ finest mounted police, who trotted in, looked around, and trotted out. (Police also appear on bikes, motorcycles, and in cars, but rarely on foot. Though scooters, electric and otherwise, have taken the city by storm, there are no scootered police, yet.)
Alas, already, after only eleven days here, there are many more adventures to recount. But I think I hear a café calling. Watch this space.