Friday, December 30, 2011

My Paris 50

In honour of my 50th post, I have composed a list of my favourite 50 things about Paris.

Those of you who read my blog regularly will know that I am fond of describing my love of Paris as “straight-up”, as in you won’t find me underground at the catacombs or traipsing up a hill on the back side of Montmartre to find a just-so authentic, French restaurant. Instead, you will likely find me browsing for shoes in Galeries Lafayette or eating my fourth confiture d’abricot crêpe of the day from the stand overrun with tourists at the bottom of the la Tour Eiffel.

My 50 thing may not be impressive or original but they are what I love about Paris and what makes me happy when I am lucky enough to be in Paris.

1. Musee Rodin
I have loved this musée since my first trip to Paris in 2003. Romantic, intimate and not overwhelming in either its size or number of tourists, it is always on my Paris itinerary.

2. Cats sleeping in restaurant windows, usually on one of the tables
Not an uncommon sight in Paris and one that never fails to charm me.

3. Confiture crêpes that cost 2 euros
I am not going to pretend that I search Paris for the most authentic crêpe. Almost any crêpe stand with confiture d'abricot will do but I have eaten particularly good ones in Les Halles.

4. Hot dogs stuffed in stale baguette buns
This is a very guilty, somewhat dirty, discovery from my last trip in September. My husband and I were at the end of a very long day that concluded on the steps of Trocadéro. Too hungry to walk any further and too tired to track down a brasserie where we wouldn't face a 20 euros dinner of frozen frites and packaged soupe l'oignon, we ordered baguette hot dogs from one of the many food vendors. Sorry to say the baguette hot dog was delicious and I believe (ok I know) I ate at least one more on the trip. It won't be my last...

5. Churches, especially Église Saint-Eustache and Notre Dame
If you ever find yourself lucky enough to be in Paris, even for just a day, these two beautiful churches are worth visiting. Just remember to walk quietly, talk only in a whisper, and leave your Starbucks (I see it every time!) outside.

6. La Tour Eiffel at sunrise
Not sunset. Set your alarm for an hour before sunrise and make your way to la Tour Eiffel. You will almost be alone. No vendors, no tourists, nothing but a few joggers. It looks different in the early morning and it feels different too. Its almost more imposing and you can imagine it in Paris before luxury tour coaches and pre-sale tower tickets.

7. The 360 degree view when standing in the middle of Place de la Concorde
When I miss Paris, this is the view that comes to my mind. My husband and I always make it one of our first stops and it never fails to bring tears to my eyes. It doesn't matter how chaotic it gets or how many Japanese weddings are taking place, when I stand in the middle of Place de la Concorde, it's just Paris and me.

8. Chocolate mousse bar at Chocolat Chapon
Exactly as described and so not like anything I could ever get at home. It also happens to be located on one of my favourite streets in Paris, Rue de Bac.

9. Jardin du Luxembourg

10. Eating every meal outside, sitting close together in chairs facing the sidewalk
I have visited Paris in every season, except summer, and I can count on one hand the meals I have eaten inside. I don't think there is a better way to see Paris then from a table at a well-situated brasserie.

11. Wine in cans
I think this is slowly making its way to North America but when I first visited Paris in 2003, this made me so happy. No struggling with a corkscrew, no wasted half-bottles, just delicious, easy access wine in a can.

12. Louis Vuitton
Since I first stood outside the store on the Champs, too terrified to go in, to present day where my husband has made a "tradition" of adding to my collection each Paris trip, LV is what I consider the ultimate expression of French luxury.

13. Dogs allowed everywhere, not "no dogs allowed"
I never tire of seeing French dogs enjoying the good life in Paris. Whether it's a designer miniature poodle shopping at Chanel or a drooling Labrador running along the banks of la Seine, I love how dog friendly Paris is. And for record, five trips to Paris and only one shoe ruined.

14. Hermes store on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, especially la Sellerie
Fashion fantasies aside, I doubt I will ever be a woman who carries a Hermès Birkin bag. Thankfully they sell scarves! And thankfully my absolute favourite thing about Hermès is the Paris Sellerie where I can trace my fingertips across saddles that cost thousands of euros more than my own horse. The craftsmanship is stunning and if you are a horse lover, la Sellerie is a Paris must-see: "Hearts & Crafts" saddler portrait

15. The shoe department in Galeries Lafayette
One-stop shoe shopping. During a fall trip to Paris, way too over-excited about the possibility of overloading my suitcase with French boots, I actually felt faint upon descending the stairs into their incredible "shoe basement". The selection is overwhelmingly good with every style (glittery Uggs to classic Louboutins) and every price range. One tip that will earn you respect with the sales staff is to know your European size, i.e. take your North American size and add 30. Then learn to say it in French.

16. Carousels

17. The short plane ride to the south of France
On my first trip to Europe, I didn't know how inexpensive and convenient it was to fly from city to city and from country to country. I made the mistake of purchasing an expensive and difficult-to-use Eurail pass. Consequently I cried a lot at train stations and often arrived in the middle of the night at less than desirable locations. Now, I know better... try Air France or EasyJet for well-priced flights around Europe. My favourite is the 45 minute flight from Paris to Nice!

18. Renting apartments from CobbleStay
Before I discovered CobbleStay in 2010, I spent hours and hours before each trip trying to find the perfect accommodation. I second guessed every web site, every online review and worried about being stuck in a windowless hotel room that cost 200 euros a night. Then I Google-searched "Paris accommodation with Eiffel Tower view" and found CobbleStay's apartment 026. My husband and I will never stay in a hotel again. CobbleStay has a select group of Parisian properties, all extremely well-located, and something for every budget. Their online booking is easy, there are no ridiculous hidden fees and you can always speak directly to someone on the phone. I can't wait to stay in 037 in April!

19. The art of serving the customer
I read a lot of blogs, Paris guides, newspaper articles, etc. and I know that the French, particularly in Paris, are often criticized for the way they treat tourists. Fortunately, I have rarely experienced their alleged, famed rudeness (just once when I tried to return a pair of socks on a Saturday!) and most of the time I am charmed and amazed by the level of service. I have had magical experiences in stores like Gerard Darel, Louis Vuitton, and Bruce Field and not only when I was buying something. One thing I adore about shopping in Paris is the formality, sophistication and ritual that makes shopping an event. Sales staff are generally educated and excited about what they are selling - whether it's vegetables, macaroons, bread, handbags, or shoes - and want to share their knowledge.

20. Baguette sandwiches from Paul, especially saucisson de beurre
Paul has been making bread since 1889 and there are locations throughout Paris. My two favourite locations are directly across from Galeries Lafayette (to avoid the line during peak times, you can order sandwiches from the express line outside) and the stand in Jardins Tuileries. Paul is a sentimental favourite of mine, leftover from my backpacking trip in 2003, when my daily food budget was about 20 euros. Their sandwiches are predictably delicious, easy to eat while walking down the street, and cost less than 6 euros.

21. Flower markets and flower stalls
Paris is full of flowers. One of my favourite moments from our September trip was when Chris suprised me with a bunch of rich, purple dahlias from Cler Fleurs, 16 Rue Cler.

22. Full fat, full cream everything and never having to say the words “non-fat”

23. Antique bookstores and book stalls

24. Vintage clothing stores (Dépot-Vênte)
A couple of trips ago, after some success at Didier Ludot, one of the most famous vintage stores in the world, I spent a half-day visiting the dépot-vêntes listed in my Time Out Paris guide book. It was a lesson in fashion history and I couldn't believe what I found in consignment stores. Brands like Chanel, Christian Louboutin, Dior. At home I am lucky to find a GAP t-shirt without a hole in it.

25. Cocktails at The Ritz or Hotel Crillon
This is the perfect way to experience a slice of luxury without going bankrupt. I also think it is one of the most romantic things to do in Paris. At The Ritz my drink came with a long-stemmed white rose. At Hotel Crillon, our two flutes of pink champagne were accompanied by a tower of cocktail snacks that made eating dinner impossible. "Dessert" was a tiny, silver tray of hand-made chocolates.

26. Kissing my husband at Pont Alexandre III

27. Tuk-Tuks Taxis
Available for modest fees at most of the major tourist destinations, Tuk-Tuks are my new favourite way to get around Paris when I can't walk another step. Perhaps a bit dangerous but way more fun than a regular taxi.

28. French pride
I appreciate French pride as I live in a country, Canada, where we rarely raise our voices and lip sync to our own national anthem. It's refreshing to go somewhere where pride is worn on the outside, respected and celebrated without apology. There is a dignity and confidence, not arrogance, that most French people possess. They also have a tremendous love for their country that is endearing and goes far beyond the surface. Talking about the history of France with a native French person is a great privilege and education.

29. Watching the runners in Jardin du Luxembourg
Complete guilty pleasure! If you have ever seen a French runner in full flight, you will know exactly what I mean. It's everything from what passes as exercise clothing (scarves, Converse, baggy swim trunks) to the style of running. To be fair, I live in an obnoxiously fit part of the world where people run for fun and rarely change out of their spandex and sports bras.

30. Food markets, like Rue Cler and Rue Mouffetard
If you are ever in doubt about what to eat in Paris, just find a food market, wait in the longest line at one of the stalls, and order anything from that vendor. I guarantee you won't be hungry or disappointed.

31. Boulevard St. Germain

32. How much my husband loves Les Halles
I have to admit that except for its beautiful church, I don't love Les Halles. It's not pretty enough for my idealized version of Paris. However, it's one of my husband's favourite places to relax over a beer and people watch. Les Halles is growing on me each trip if only for the reason Chris loves it so much.

33. "Look up!"
One of my favourite ways to see Paris is to walk a street looking up. Not just because you will glimpse unexpected views of La Tour Eiffel but because you will gain slight entry into beautiful Parisian apartments and the lives lived inside. Over the years, I have watched dinner parties, piano playing, arguments, and even a golden retriever walking itself along a wraparound Juliet balcony.

34. Scarves
Both French men and women wear scarves and they always look perfectly put together. Not as though their scarf is wearing them. I have successfully adopted scarf wearing, at home and in Paris, and last year built my spring wadrobe around 5 black pieces of clothing and 3 Hermès scarves. Very French!

35. People watching

36. Les Bateaux Mouches
Even for me this is unoriginal but I think a Bateaux Mouches tour is one the best, and most relaxing, ways to see Paris.

37. The jambon, fromage et tomate salade in Jardin Tuileries
There are several outdoor cafes in Jardin Tuileries and yes, I know they are tourist traps. In 2009, I made the unfortunate mistake of booking us into a hotel on rue Rivoli, smack in the centre of stores selling Haagen-Dazs and 3 for 10 euros scarves. It was overwhelming and not in a good way. Chris and I spent a lot of time escaping to Jardin Tuileries and eating jambon, fromage et tomates salades. Every trip we go back for at least one salade and they are still just as delicious.

38. The bar at Laduree on Avenue des Champs-Elysees

Maison Georges Larnicol (Meilleur Ouvrier de France), Boulevard St. Germain
If I had to choose just one thing to eat in Paris, it would be a kouignette caramel beurre sale from MGL.

40. Public displays of affection
I love that Paris inspires extravagant displays of affection. Amusing to watch and wonderful to participate in.

41. Feeding ducks at Jardin du Luxembourg
Chris and I are incapable of passing a bakery without stopping to buy something which makes for a lot of leftover stale bits and pieces. Solution? We started going to Jardin du Luxembourg early every morning to drink our cafes aux lait and fatten the ducks with croissants and baguettes. This is now one of our favourite ways to start a day in Paris.

42. Attention to detail
Just across the street from our last apartment in Paris was a "restaurant à emporter", Le Relais Gourmet. Their diverse and sumptuous menu meant we were frequent customers during our stay. No matter how long the line, no matter what time of day, when I reached the front my choice of tarte a l'oignon was given full attention and consideration. Monsieur or Madame would then carefully wrap my tarte as though it was a piece of Limoges porcelain. This same attention and care is standard in Paris even when you are buying something so disposable. Another reminder from Paris to slow down and that beauty is found in details.

43. Lécher les Vitrines
Literally "lick the windows". The French art of window dressing turns shop windows into some of Paris' most dynamic and best museums. Obviously, stores like LV, Louboutin, Printemps, Roberto Cavalli, and etc. all have lavish and ever-changing displays but wander down any side street and you will be equally impressed.

44. Cat sitting on the organ grinder outside of Galeries Lafayette
You have to see it to believe it. If you have seen it, you know why it is on my list.

45. Feeding stray cats croissants on Île de la Cité
Unlike the poor ducks, Chris and I ended up giving our still-warm breakfast to this group of starving chats living in a restaurant doorway on Île de la Cité. I still can't get over how much they loved the croissants. My cat at home won't eat anything that isn't organic, grain-fed, humanely killed and subtly flavoured with cranberries.

46. Beautiful, confident women
I want to be a Parisian woman when I grow up.

47. No bad bakeries
After Rodin, my second favourite musée in Paris.

49. Jambon sandwiches cut right from the pig's leg
The best baguette sandwich I ever ate in Paris was from a small brasserie behind Élysée Palace. Chris and I followed some government workers on their lunch break. It was standing room only at the bar and directly in front of us, sitting on the counter with the absinthe and jugs of red wine, was a freshly butchered pig's leg. We immediately ordered jambon sandwiches.

50. Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Mon Amour Parle Français

Every year around this time I start to get frustrated with Christmas shopping. Despite good intentions and a strict budget, I look at all the bags piling up and all I think is, "Crap!" And Christmas shopping gets harder as I get older. Gone are the days of buying Body Shop gift baskets and boxes of Pot of Gold chocolates. My parents claim they "don't need anything" and my husband, Chris, is quite simply the most difficult man in the world to shop for.

Yesterday I was out Christmas shopping for him and became paralyzed by a $20 pair of Diesel hot pink and black striped socks. Sweating, I carried the socks around the store for over thirty minutes before abandoning them on a rack of discounted boxer shorts, finally deciding the word "Diesel" in yellow across the ankle was too ugly.

In my twenties, I Christmas shopped for my boyfriend off the Gap sale rack. Anything in a neutral, size medium, or a 32 x 30 was perfect. If I was feeling fancy, I went to Banana Republic and hunted for on-sale cashmere sweaters. I never even bothered with a gift receipt. And us women of a certain age will remember how we spent our teenage years happily shopping for red silk boxers and designer impostor versions of Drakhar Noir and Polo cologne. Those were the days!

I honestly wouldn't mind not shopping for Chris if he was a terrible giver of gifts. If I had endured December 25th's of waffle irons, stuffed teddy bears holding stuffed red roses, deep fryers, and value-packs of pantyhose. But I haven't. The first Christmas we were together, when he had every reason to get it wrong, Chris gave me a silver pleated skirt and a delicate pink silk shirt. Both fit perfectly and nearly ten years later, I still wear them. I have been given exquisite leather gloves, always in the right size (I think knowing a woman's glove size is just as romantic as knowing her ring size), lipsticks in colours more flattering than anything I have ever bought myself, and a silver ring from Tiffany. Last year he had our horse professionally photographed by our wedding photographer. The year before that he purchased a commemorative plaque in honour of my grandfather that now has a proud place at one of our city's Navy memorials. Chris is not just generous, he's also incredibly thoughtful.

Which is why I feel like a total loser for agonizing over a pair of semi-designer socks.

Earlier this year, not Christmas or even our anniversary, I received the most unexpected and fantastic gift. It started with Chris saying something like, "Don't forget the légumes."

"Légumes? Where did you learn that word?"

Légumes is French for "vegetables". While it is not a difficult word, it's not exactly common and certainly not in our household where the kitchen is stocked with chocolat, Nespresso, riz, bière, et biscuits.

I was suspicious and a couple of weeks later, Chris revealed during a Saturday morning hair bleach session (mine, not his) that he had been taking private French lessons for several months in anticipation of our September trip to Paris. Later that day at home, he showed me his notes and work books. Pages and pages of notes conjugating French verbs and translations of common French expressions.

I was overcome. While Chris has done many wonderful things, his learning French is near the very top of the list. I know he loves Paris but I have worried that there is a part of him that simply tolerates my obsession, waiting patiently for the trip when I say, "Enough Paris! Next time, we visit Rome. Or Florence. Or anywhere but Paris!"

And there is another part of me, the part that speaks passable French in Paris, that worries he must get annoyed or bored by having me try to translate everything or, in the case of a few too many early afternoon cocktails, becomes suddenly fluent and spends the better part of an hour discussing the finer points of LV wristlets with a very patient sales clerk.

This year though Chris arrived in Paris with an impressive new confidence and ease. It was as if he came to Paris to say, "Yes, this is home.". We both felt the change and we were more relaxed than ever, sinking into the beautiful city rather than being swallowed by it.

Another precious gift that I will never be able to thank him for.

And now it's Christmas again and I still don't have the perfect gift for Chris. I know it doesn't matter in the way things really matter. Every year Chris assures me that he is happy with his stocking full of things he could just as easily buy himself. Just once though I would like to get him something amazing.

I guess this blog is kind of my "something amazing" for Chris. It's not a new language, it's not tickets to the World Juniors, it's not a great watch, it's not the newest Leafs jersey, and it's not even the promise that I won't eat at least half of each and every one of your pain au chocolat on our future trips to Paris. Not any of those things, just my words. Donc....

Joyeux Noël mon amour. Je t’aime plue que Paris et je ne peux attendre l’Avril.