When we first came to Paris, we didn’t know what we were doing, and because of that, we did everything right. We didn’t know where the best hotels would be, and we wound up in an unremarkable neighborhood along the rue Monge. Because it was unremarkable, it was the perfect location to discover a Paris where people work and live, rather than the part where businesses are set up to tap the passing tourist for his Euro. We didn’t know when to go, and so we wound up seeing Easter mass in the cathedral. We didn’t know that Parisians were supposed to be rude, and we had nothing but the friendliest and warmest interactions with the people we met. April in Paris.
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Tout de Paris c’est ferme
Monday, April 1
We came to Paris to find out what the city is like. Instead of hopping on a tour bus or hitting all the usual suspects, we planted ourselves in a small hotel in an out-of-the-way neighborhood and took to walking around the streets.
One bonus of this strategy is coming to be known by the people in the neighborhood. This one, at the corner of Rue Monge and Rue Cardinal Lemoine, is at the edge of a student district, below the Pantheon and about 500m south of Notre Dame. It is filled with little grocery stores — alimentation generales — a few green-cross pharmacies, a computer game store, a couple of flower shops and a sprinkling of bookstores. As mortar, there are the brasseries and cafes, the restaurants and creperies.
The woman who works mornings at Le Petit Cardinal knows our regular breakfast order; she smiles and says “Bon jour,” and asks if we want “deux pain au chocolates, un cafe au lait et un chocolate chaud.” We do.
This morning, she talked to Carole about how to make the cafe au lait. She hissed the steam tube in the espresso machine for us, showed us the stainless steel decanter that holds the milk, and explained how to use a whisk to foam the milk if we didn’t have an espresso machine. She is very pleasant.
But so is the older man, with short bristly gray hair and a wrinkled nose, who waits at L’Etoile d’Or at the bottom of the hill. He recognizes us, too, and usually makes a joke about what we had last time we were there.
Despite its reputation for rudeness and smugness, we have found Paris to be friendly and cheerful. Certainly, there is a good deal of opportunism and grubbing in the tourist zones around Notre Dame. But here around the metro stop called Cardinal Lemoine, everyone — with the possible exception of our concierge, who merely seems constitutionally surly — has been a delight.
The man at the Mona Lisait bookstore knows us by now, too. He refrained from closing up shop tonight at the usual hour, just to make us feel comfortable browsing. We were only browsing this time, but his kindness will certainly bring us back with money the next time.
I mention all this about the neighborhood because there wasn’t much else to write about today. Tout de Paris c’est ferme. It’s Easter Monday and nearly everything is closed.
We had planned to shop at Le Samaritaine today, picking up keepsakes for friends. But when we got there, it was all shut down.
We walked the quai along the right bank — a few of the book stalls were open — and Carole bought a small “cute” print of a cat wearing a corset for Susie.
Earlier in the morning, we took the metro to Montparnasse to scope out the Gare Montparnasse, check the timetable for trains to Chartres and take the elevator to the 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse.
“It’s smarter to use this panorama,” I said, “than to climb the Eiffel Tower. From here, you can see the Eiffel Tower; from the Eiffel Tower, you can’t, and then Paris just looks like a city.”
Well, that’s not really true. Paris has a look all its own. Even from the air — or the observation deck of a giant office tower. First, Paris streets never go anywhere. With a few notable exceptions, all of the streets in Paris run for a short distance and then give out. It’s rare to find a street that continues for as much as a half mile.
And even if it does, chances are it does not have the same name at one end as at the other. Over and over, streets run a few blocks and then change names, changing yet again in another four or five blocks. It is disconcerting, and makes finding places by their addresses a nightmare.
The Tour Montparnasse (Montparnasse Tower) is a nondescript office building above the gare, or train station. It is considered by many the ugliest building in the city, but to anyone who grew up in any American city of size, it would simply be invisible — it would fade into the background as white noise.
On its top floor — the 56th — there is an observation deck from which you can see all of Paris spread out like a carpet below. Parisians say it is the best view in Paris because “from there, you cannot see the Tour Montparnasse.”
From the top, you can see those streets, a maze with no plan, grown like a crystal structure, or like the frost on a window, filling in here and there, but always cut off by a larger road at the end of a short run. You can get on the boulevard, too, and in a short while, it is an alley ending in a church and a no-parking zone.
From the air, you can see the architectural result of this helter-skelter urban planning — and I use the word “planning” ironically. Just as it is rare to find a through street, so is it rare to find a rectangular building. Blocks tend to be triangles or trapezoids, and the buildings follow suit. Usually, they look perfectly normal from the street, but from above, you can see how their back yards are skewed, backed up to another building, nothing square, nothing even.
Just as the back of our hotel, which abuts two other buildings and leaves a “courtyard” in between — a kind of donut hole — but is not square, not oblong, not anything recognizable. Right angles might as well have been legally banned.
Perhaps that is what makes the people so accommodating. Their philosophy is “tres systematique” because their lives are not. The dissonance gives them a knowing tolerance.
After the tour of the tower, and the frustration of a closed magasin, we came back to our hotel, which I have inadvertently begun calling “home.” Carole wasn’t feeling too well. Perhaps we overdid it yesterday, but she took a nap in the afternoon and was pretty well dead to the world.
I went for a short walk, brought “home” some groceries, including a couple of apples for Carole.
As I passed the flower shop on the rue Monge, the proprietor smiled and asked where my wife was. I told her she was feeling low and resting at the hotel.
About 6 p.m., we went for another walk in the hood, stopped at Mona Lisait, walked up to the old Roman arena, stopped to photograph the fountain honoring Cuvier, made goo-goo eyes at a few babies and finally stopped at Le Mitra for crepes. Mine was gooey with cheese, salty with ham and enriched with mushrooms. Carole asked for banana, and when the crepereuse asked if she wanted chocolate, you could see Carole’s face light up, as if she had recognized the inevitability of it all.
We sat on a bench and finished our wrapped-up dinner, came back to the hotel, got our key from surly joe, and plopped down for the night.
Even when you have a blah day in Paris, it seems a little more alive.
Carole’s highlights, such as they were:
The cafe au lait and pain au chocolate at Petit Cardinal. I saw a young lady walking down the street with a flowering lily of the valley in a tin can. And I saw the latest French fashions in the store windows and they were chiffon slip dresses with spaghetti straps and little embroidery on one side of the skirt. And they were worn with chiffon scarves at the neck on which silk flowers were sewn. I liked the sculptures of animal heads at the Cuvier fountain at the gate of the Jardin des plantes. And today we saw many flower stalls. And one with blue roses, in the metro. Found a cat-in-a-corset print for Susie in one of the stalls along the quai on the Seine. Saw Notre Dame from a distance and that was wonderful. Tonight I was standing at a book store window looking at children’s books and a little boy was standing there, about two years old, and he was naming all the animals he could. Today I did not feel well. The woman at the Petit Cardinal told me how to make cafe au lait at home without an espresso machine.
It was a day of few magnificences, but there was the Indian lunch with the chicken korma and spinach, at a restaurant called Chez Gandhi. And the buckwheat crepe filled with cheese, ham and mushrooms that stood in for supper. As usual, the food in Paris comes through for us.