Paris, France. Part I: The Local
I had one “simple” goal when arriving in Paris: to simulate being a wealthy, unemployed local who is writing a novel. Yes, everyone has their fantasy. I will just come right out and admit, mine is to be an unstarving artist who lives (not vacations) around the world. I’m off to a good start with my Indian and British experiences, but I do have a day job. So with Paris, for now, I’d have to fake living there. The first step in doing this was simply making the choice of staying longer than the usual weekend, or even the standard week. I chose two weeks; which is actually a lot of time for someone who has already seen the major tourist sites, is very familiar with the city streets, and has already accumulated a list of favorite neighborhoods and cafes. It would be two weeks of unemployed living, not touring.
The second step in enacting this fantasy was choosing to rent a fully furnished apartment, figuring locals prefer living in flats, not hotels. This turned out to be one of the best decisions I have ever made on any vacation, anywhere. First of all, I have been living with housemates for the previous two years in London, and had simply forgotten what having my own space felt like. (Pure bliss would be the best way to describe it.) The flat itself was everything a foreign-dude would want from a place in Paris – charming and centrally located. I found a place in the 6th Arrondissement near the heart of literary Paris, the Latin Quarter, and Sorbonne University.
The third and final step in this fantasy was quite natural for me: to camp out in a cafe for entire days at a time, mumbling poorly spoken French requests for the delivery of food, wine, coffee, and water. The cafe is my soft place to fall; my private beach. And while I’ve done this routine in every city on my travels, without a doubt it is THE thing to do in Paris. It is my common bond with all Parisians, and the reason I care so much about the burning white sticks emitting carcinogenic particles that interfere with my utopian view of Cafe World. If you find yourself in Paris and choose not to camp out in a cafe for more than a few hours every day, then you’re missing out on a big part of what the experience of being there is all about. It’s as important as staring at the Eiffel Tower or visiting the Notre Dame Cathedral.
With the groundwork laid and the plan in place, Project Local Parisian began. Two days in, everything seemed to be going just fine. I was sitting in my favorite cafe, full of hope, energy, and leftover bliss from my previous week’s vacation in Vienna. I proceeded to do my usual cafe thing: people-watching, chatting with others, reading, writing, and of course the daily-scheduled staring into space. Literally. I quite often look out into the universe, questioning a great many things: Do I have a soul? If so, where did it come from? If not, do the laws of unknown physics send me to a life after death? If not, then…wait a minute. Why is everyone around me making-out? I know that Paris is nicknamed the City of Love by us foreigners, but actually SEEING the love is something else entirely. Interesting, I thought. So with a smile on my face, content to be surrounded by the happiness in other people, I decided to finally put pen on paper (rather, forefinger on iPad) and began trying to figure out my novel’s devastating Act II story problems. Blank page…empty stare…blank page. Deafening inner silence…blank page…I wonder how many people are kissing in Paris at this very minute? Impossible to know for sure. I know of two couples kissing in front of me right now. Maybe fifty? Or is it closer to a thousand? Hey, I think I’ll keep track while I’m here. Oh my God! Sorbonne University is reflecting on my iPad! That is way too cool. Oh man the internet is going to love this photo. Surely more than five people will “like” this on Facebook. And…got it. That’s actually a cool picture. Wait a minute…If I don’t have a soul, and I don’t live after death, is that true for only me? Does the guy next to me have a soul, and does he go on to the afterlife?
After two more days of this pattern (actually, 40 years), the Universe remained silent with my questions, and Act II was still broken…but I had already successfully counted more than twenty kissing couples. With the ease of this game causing a rapid loss in my interest, I decided to challenge myself and see how many couples I could get doing their thing in one photo at the same time. I knew I could get 2, but more than that? Yes. The record: 3. (See the winning photo, on the right.) By mid-day, I became frustrated with the ease of even that accomplishment, and decided that this game was now over. Clearly I was vacationing in some kind of lover’s fantasy land, and would’ve found anything I was looking for in a matter of minutes, especially if I decided to take a stroll around the Moulin Rouge area. I needed a far more difficult challenge; something harder to find in Paris than all of the above, combined. I thought about finding the one happy waiter in Paris, or even the lovable crime-fighting Frenchman who agrees with opinions in his spare time. But even that wouldn’t do. I wanted the impossible: a non-smoking Parisian. A true born-and-raised local. Male, female; didn’t matter. I love unique people, and convinced myself that a non-smoking Parisian would exist on the fringe of local society, have an interesting life story to tell, and become a friend for life.
It took a few days, but I finally found a patch of clean, fresh air at Cafe Delmas, near La Place de la Contrescarpe in the 5th Arrondissement. It remained that way for an obscenely long period of time as well: seven minutes. Shocked by this, I turned to the girl next to me and asked, “Do you speak English?” With the most amazing ice breaker of all time out of the way, we talked for a few minutes, and then I questioned, “May I ask, why aren’t you smoking?” With the second most amazing ice breaker of all time out of the way, I soon found out she had never smoked a cigarette in her life. I became shocked at how you can find anything you are looking for in this world if you set your mind to it. Those whacky dreams really do come true! At this point, I called off all future silly immature games that a procrastinating artist could possibly conjure up. And besides, even I was getting tired of myself by this point. Thankfully, she wasn’t there yet, and right before leaving, offered to show me around a few neighborhoods the next day.
24 hours later, I found myself not on the streets of Paris, but somewhere I never thought I would be: sitting in a complete stranger’s car, in the middle of a 2-hour road trip, somewhere in the French countryside on the way to a small town named Giverny. What’s in Giverny, and more importantly, why would a non-smoking Parisian kidnap a babbling American and hideout there for a day? Good question. Well, it turns out Giverny is the home of the famous French impressionist painter, Claude Monet. I will just admit right now, my artistic historical knowledge mainly centers around western classical music, with a recent exploding interest in western literary history. (We should throw in modern cinema and visual effects as well, since this is my day and usually night job.) However, my knowledge of art and architecture is currently at the extreme novice level. So I’m not going to pretend I know a lot here, but will simply stress that I definitely know and understand the significance of Monet’s standing in art history. As the French musicians Ravel and Debussy ushered in the impressionist era in classical music, so too did Monet for painting. And any artist who changes the course of art history, who stands at the dawn of a new era…well, I should at least walk around their house, stroll through their gardens, poke around their backyard, and take as many pictures as I can without boring my kidnapper, right? Right. All kidding aside, escaping the urban jungle for a day was truly a great idea. I spend the majority of my time hanging out with concrete and steel in epic mega-cities like Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris. Seeing trees, grass, dirt, rivers, and ponds for several hours served as a gentle reminder that not everything down here is man-made. I forget sometimes.
What I haven’t forgotten since my time in India, however, is that it’s people, not places and things that make life and cities worth running around in. This belief was validated even further in Paris with my new friend, and by others as well. I would go on to meet a cool guy who turned out to be a published comic book writer in France. When I met him, he was beaming with pride that an American publisher had just picked up the rights to his book, and would be seeing his work printed in English for the first time. And get this…the universe also stranded an airline passenger in Paris who was on her way to Vienna, from Mexico. The tides of chance shoved her into the Starbucks near my flat, where before long I found out she was a professional opera singer and composer, living in Vienna. If all the universe ever did from this point forward was connect me with talented artists like these two, how could I ever complain about anything ever again? And finally, a friend from Los Angeles just happened to be vacationing in Paris as well. He thankfully reached out to me, and later that night I found myself in his friend’s flat somewhere near the Eiffel Tower, eating a home-cooked meal she had prepared for us and two of her friends. She may never truly know how much I appreciated being there that night, attending my first French dinner party.
If you would’ve told me that I’d be at a dinner party, on a road trip in the French countryside, meet a published comic book writer, and a Viennese opera singer (all complete strangers to me only two weeks before), I would’ve made fun of you for being overly optimistic. In which case, you would’ve had the last laugh, as Project Local Parisian was executed to an extreme level of perfection because of them. For two weeks, I felt like I belonged; that Paris said “yes” to me. If I bought into the stereotype that all French people are cold and rude, I would’ve missed several opportunities to connect with people on this planet. The French are fine…pretty much (one of those smiley-face things here). They helped us fight off the British a few centuries ago, have a subway stop named after Franklin D. Roosevelt, and even gave us a cool statue. It was French people with open minds, willing to say hello to a dude who spends his time counting kissing couples that made me feel like I belonged. Which, by the way, those kissing souls? More than likely…tourists. All of them. Probably Americans on vacation. Contrary to popular American belief, I believe the French were busy working.
Paris, France. Part II: How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm?
Paris is an extraordinarily cultural and diverse city, rich in history, and completely epic in scope. Consequently, there are several paths the travel writer can take for the presentation of this fine city. The first is to assume the reader has never been to Paris before, which means a Paris 101 focus on major landmarks like the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame Cathedral, the Seine River, the Louvre museum (the Mona Lisa), the Basilique du Sacré Cœur, and a walk around Montmartre neighborhood. Another angle would be to discuss some of Paris’ best neighborhoods, which would definitely highlight Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, the Bastille, and St-Germain-des-Prés. For another kind of tourist, I could talk about the history of literary Paris, highlighting famous cafes like Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore in which famous authors like Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Oscar Wilde wrote their novels. The travel writer can even make a fourth choice and focus on food, wine, and fine dining experiences, highlighting a list of the very best French cuisine Paris has to offer – if you’re in the mood to drop over $1,000 on dinner for two, you could poke your head in La Tour d’Argent. (No, I didn’t eat there. Are you crazy?) And finally, how about movies like the Da Vinci Code, Amelie and so many other films the reader may love? A guided film-location tour of Paris is quite an easy thing to accomplish with this city indeed. So there’s just too much to share and explain about Paris. Way too much. Personally, my Parisian interests center around neighborhood walkthroughs, the cafe experience, basic literary history, and of course the constant mocking of us tourists. So let the Jeff Kasunic-style commentary begin.
Our first stop: that painting everyone goes to see, even though they have very minimal understanding about it’s artistic significance, and just want to say they’ve seen it. So if you are an art connoisseur with dreams of lazily strolling into the Louvre and staring at the Mona Lisa in a state of meditative peace, pressing your nose up to the glass and analyzing her beauty in extreme detail, you will walk away from this day’s dream with the words “Epic Fail” written across your mind’s eye in bright red neon text. Sorry. The closest you’ll get will be about 20 feet. You will, however, have a lovely view of one dude’s head and another kid’s camera. You’ll be pushed and poked and bumped and prodded, fighting your way to the front of the crowd, only to gaze at the glass reflections from museum ceiling lights in all their glorious detail. It would be far more productive to fantasize about being in the middle of a press gallery instead. But the people in this press conference don’t shout “Mr. President! Mr. President!” They just shout. I actually found the sea of cameras attached to the human bulldozers in tennis shoes and shorts more visually appealing than the Mona Lisa itself, and in fact just realized I have more pictures of the crowd than the painting. I have good news, though. If you want an extraordinarily pleasurable Mona Lisa viewing experience, I know of someone that can help you: Tom Hanks. Rent the movie, The Da Vinci Code. Go home, put a fake log in the gas fireplace, make some fresh instant coffee, and relax on your Ikea couch while admiring Tom’s abilities as both an actor and a tourist repellant. I say repellant, because just about every scene in this movie was filmed at all the major tourist attractions around town…minus all the tourists. You will not see one tourist in that movie, ever. Not…one. Very clearly this a work of fiction, and it takes me out of the movie every time as I always bark at the screen, “That’s impossible!”
Speaking of movies, one of my all-time favorites just happens to be the French film, Amelie. I absolutely love this movie, and will just come right out and admit I’m trying to learn the French language, not because I care about speaking with French people in their native language, but because I intend to one day watch this movie without English subtitles (after that, Nikita). I mean sure, when I finally take Audrey Tautou to that $1,000 dinner at d’Argent, speaking French during the emptying of my bank account would also gain me some “awesome” points I would think, right? Regardless, it’s now time for me to throw away any tourist-mocking credibility I may have had, because when it comes to the locations this movie was filmed…yeah, I’ve been to all of them. And by all of them, I mean the neighborhood of Montmartre, our next stop on this Jeff Tour.
If you’re looking for the quintessential Parisian neighborhood with stunning views of Paris from above, definitely take a 20-minute subway ride to the 18th Arrondissement (from central Paris). I promise you won’t regret it. One of my favorite routines is to jump on the Metro 12 Line near my flat in St-Germain-des-Prés, exit at the Lamarck-Caulaincourt station, walk directly south and eventually arrive on corner of Rue de l’Abreuvoir and Rue Girardon. It is at this corner that an internal battle begins to rage within me: enjoy the moment or find the perfect photo that changes the world and saves it from a thousand years of darkness. I always fail at enjoying the moment and instead go hunting for “The Photo.” My solution to the problem has been to visit Paris 10 times in 3 years, splitting moment-enjoying accomplishments into many small chunks of time. Problem solved. Regardless, Montmartre is a street photographer’s paradise, making it the most likely place where my own interest in the art form was born.
Back to the corner of Rue de l’Abreuvoir and Rue Girardon, I eventually start my stroll and quickly arrive at a restaurant painted in pink (La Maison Rose). I will actually sit down, order a cup of coffee and a plate full of crepes. It is always here that I slip into my daily routine of staring into space and sometimes mumble the words, “Only in Paris can one enjoy a cup of coffee while sitting inside the painting itself.” And yes, I do enter another round of existential questioning – if we’re all in the painting, in what museum in the universe is it hanging?…and who is looking at me? With more unanswered questions in my head, I toss more than a few Euros on the table and continue on my slow walk through the neighborhood. I make my way to Place du Tertre, otherwise known as Artist’s Square, the heart of Montmartre. Basically, this is where all the painting happens. Picasso, himself, used to live here back when he was a poor starving artist. But he left the painting in 1973, and now the entire neighborhood is over-run with us tourists, trigger-happy photographers, and talented artists convincing people to have their portrait drawn or painted. My head starts to gently pulse in some kind of low-grade rumbling pain-sensation around this time. It never fails.
Moving on, and right around the corner from Artist’s Square, you can’t miss that cool looking white building, the Sacré Cœur. Parisians started building this monument in 1876, but I only saw it for the first time in 2010. It’s not the monument itself that interests me, rather the view of Paris from its steps. This location is actually the highest point in Paris; higher than the tallest part of the Eiffel Tower, thanks to the hill it rests on. The view is definitely worth the tourist overload and the few hundred opportunities to buy those cheap little plastic Eiffel Tower things from annoying sales dudes.
At this point in our journey to the 18th Arrondissement, we may as well maximize the tourist-thing to its fullest and seek out that red windmill surrounded by sex shops. With a little research, it’ll quickly become clear that the Moulin Rouge is a 20-minute walk away. So if this is the kind of building you’re interested in, then you’ll never be any closer than when you’re walking around Montmartre. Besides, the journey there is a beautiful one. I absolutely love the walk from the Sacré Cœur to the Moulin Rouge. You could choose to walk down the infinite number of steps at the Sacré Cœur and be just fine. However, I prefer walking around areas where people actually live; neighborhood streets. So I’ll usually turn around and head back into the Montmartre neighborhood itself and walk down the scenic street, Rue Lepic. If you just stay on this street all the way to the end, and turn right on Blvd. De Clinchy, you’ll be fine. However, I recommend getting lost on all the side streets as well. (Here’s a map of my typical Montmartre walkthrough.) Regardless, I’ll eventually make it to the Moulin Rouge and look at it for a grand total of 11 seconds before I have a pulsing headache and feel tired from the last few hours of walking. I’ve heard that the shows inside are actually interesting to watch, and I will definitely do this one day, but I always hit the eject button before I get to the ticket office to ask for more information. With the Metro Line that takes me “home” right in front of me, I sprint down the tunnel and retreat to my flat in St-Germain-des-Prés, where it usually becomes time to settle into a nearby cafe with a great book.
Our last stop: the cafe scene. Cafe life is something the Parisian people take very, very seriously. It turns out that the simple choice of choosing the cafe you sit in, displays an awful lot about your personality and how you represent yourself to the world. If you’re interested in the snootiness behind all of this, there is an interesting article on the subject, outlining the battle between Cafe De Flores and Cafe Deux Magots as just one example: A Tale of Two Cafes.
In the beginning, there was a neighborhood named Place de la Contrescarpe, not too far from the Latin Quarter. And in that neighborhood was a street named Rue Mouffetard. Spread out over many visits, I found much joy walking up and down that street, eventually trying every restaurant, walking in every store, and nosing around every outdoor food market. Well, this was the first area in Paris that I liked…and when I like something, I have a habit of running that thing on repeat for near-infinity. Eventually, my cafe of choice became: Cafe Delmas. In fact, this is the cafe where I met the friend who kidnapped me and drove me to the French countryside. It’s the place I met the French comic book writer. And for a long time, it was the place where I did all my creative writing and brainstorming. It’s a lively place at all times of day, but at night it can turn into quite a scene, as it’s open well past midnight.
Times change, though. I eventually discovered the St-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood, where I fell in love yet again, and to the point of making this neighborhood my “home.” In fact, St-Germain is where I always stay when I’m in Paris now. And so with this area as my new home base, I also started dating other cafes. Before long, the one I became most comfortable in was a place across the street from my flat, Les Éditeurs. And after doing some research, I discovered the place is named The Editors for a reason. Yes, it turns out to be the favorite cafe for many book publishers in town. Books with French titles I’ve never heard of stacked on their tables. Laptops being worked on. Manuscripts being marked up. Faces looking all serious. I don’t know why, but it’s interesting to me – watching publishing folk be all…publishing folk. I guess I’ve always been fascinated by art of all kinds, including the business behind it all.
If you are interested in researching your own literary/cafe path while in Paris, A Literary Tour of Paris is a good place to start.
There’s an old 1920s American WWI song titled, “How ‘Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)”. The question being, when soldiers from rural America gain exposure to the infinite possibilities big city life has to offer, how will fathers be able to convince their sons to return home and work on the farm? When you study turn-of-the-century American history, you learn that the answer is, “You don’t.” And so I have to ask, when the 2012 vacation in Paris comes to an end, how ya gonna get ‘em back in the office? If you study modern society, you learn that one of the answers might be, “With debt.” And with that, I heard the faint cries of “the man” calling me from London. On a beautiful sunny Monday morning, I stepped on the train at Paris’ Gare du Nord, stepped off in London’s St. Pancras, found the Piccadilly Line, jumped off at Piccadilly Circus, and walked up Shaftesbury Avenue to my office in Soho. With an amazing vacation at an end, and a smile on my face, I thought, London’s farm ain’t that bad either.
For my complete portfolio of Paris photography, please visit my online gallery.