My Private Paris

Everyone who’s been to Paris has their own favourite list of likes and dislikes. These are mine:

To and from the airport: (This only applies to Charles de Gaulle. Some charters and European discount airlines like Ryanair use other airports like Orly and beyond and I know nothing of these.) There are a number of ways to do this. I’ve never tried the Air France bus but I’ve heard it’s OK. I have used the RER-B and it’s fine although it does stop in a number of dodgy places on the way in and you do have to keep your eye on your luggage - but that’s pretty much normal when traveling anywhere and anyone who doesn’t deserves what happens to them. The main problem, though, with the RER is that the two main transfer stations, the Gare du Nord (Paris-Nord as it’s often called) and Chatelet-Les Halles are busy and confusing hell-holes. Best avoided (unless you have a dead-simple Métro connection), particularly after your relaxing, carefree overnight flight in cattle class. Taxis are wildly expensive (50 euros or more) and of interest really only to the Mercedes SUV set. My preferred solution is the municipal transit airport bus, the Roissybus, which stops at all the terminals at the airport and beside the Opéra station in the city. It’s cheap, relatively frequent and gives you a bit of a chance for a sight-see on the way in and out.

Pariscope (French-only): The local listings guide (it looks like a slightly oversized TV Guide for those old enough to remember what that is.) There’s a lot going on in Paris and Pariscope gets most but not all of it. It’s on sale at all news-stands and, occasionally, Maison de la Presse Internationale in Yorkville if you’re interested in buying one beforehand. I think Time Out also publishes an English-language events guide but I’m not sure.

City maps: Fold-outs to be avoided at all costs. Easily torn, conspicuous (not all the attention they attract is to be welcomed) and maddening. The maps in most guidebooks are worse than useless. My trusty friend is the spiral-bound Paris d’un plan à l’autre on sale at most book shops. It’s compact, very comprehensive and divides Paris up by arrondissements. It also has lists of things like museums and theatres, transit maps and even maps of some of the bigger cemeteries.

Let’s Go, Lonely Planet, et al: So much to read, so little time. I’ve bought and taken these guides along in the past and have always regretted it. I don’t read them, the maps are useless and I find they generally just load me down especially these days when travelling anything more than mostly naked is targeted for an excess weight charge. Make a list before you go and buy a small book of maps (see above).

Arrondissements: Paris is divided into a spiral of arrondissements. Addresses are easy as they invariably have a code at the end, of which the last two digits is the arrondissement. An address ending in Paris 75014 is in the 14th, one ending in Paris 75003 is in the third. Logique non?

Right Bank or Left Bank? Preferences differ but I’m partial to the Right Bank, eastern end (the 3rd, 4th, 10th-12th arrondissements). Each to his own.

English Bookstores: There are a number. My favourites are The Red Wheelbarrow, Village Voice and W.H. Smith. The W.H. Smith on Rivoli is nothing to sneeze at, far different from the de-based Smith’s you find everywhere else. And now a word on Shakespeare and Company - it’s OK but what it lacks in attitude it more than makes up for in attitude.

Churches: Not my cup of tea (with two exceptions - below). If you’ve seen one, you’ve pretty well seen them all. I should mention that I’m a little agoraphobic and given to panic attacks in big vaulted spaces so this might account for some of my lack of interest. St. Sulpice is to be avoided at all costs as people might think you’re still into the Da Vinci Code or have a weird thang for Tom Hanks or, worse, Audrey Tautou.

Sacré-Cœur and Sainte-Chapelle - the two exceptions: The view from Sacré Cœur is the best in Paris. The church itself is relatively new, 1870s or so, and represents the height of late 19th-century conservative Catholic reaction. I read somewhere that to this day there are continuous prayers for those souls led astray by the Commune. This was the period when the Church was chartering entire trains to take pilgrims to Lourdes. As for Ste. Chapelle, it’s very beautiful, not at all the usual dark Gothic tomb. The one complication is that it’s located within the central Paris court precinct so you and your camera bag will have to go through detectors to get in.

Bois de Boulogne: During the day - grass, trees, paths, a pond or two, so what? After dark - naughty, naughty.

The Louvre: Just the thought of the place and my energy starts leaking away. It’s immense and oppressive and I can only take about 45 minutes before I need to go somewhere and find a cup of tea. Avoid unless you’re heavily into the art thing or it’s raining. And the Mona Lisa - it’s not that big a deal and hidden behind enough safety glass to stop a 357 slug.

Jacquemart André: Much higher on my museum list. He had money; she had taste. Or was it the other way around? Anyway, their immense rambling house is filled with the stuff they collected over their lives together. (There are also special exhibitions from time to time - I saw a brilliant one of Jacques-Louis David a few years back.) Although married, they slept in very, very separate bedrooms. Taste, money, a big Paris house, not too touchy-feely - for many of the French haute-bourgeoisie the ideal relationship. And, after you’ve had enough art, there’s a classy tea-room serving coffee, cakes, and the like.

Rodin Museum: An excellent place to visit. Another rambling museum-house, this one with lovely grounds. The Thinker is impressive in person - so to speak. The grounds are often filled with attractive 20-somethings with sketch-pads giving themselves over to their muses. Eye-candy everywhere.

Musée d’Orsay: Nothing much I can add - go.

Place Pigalle: Hookers, touts and priests, ‘nuff said. The priests stand out, but just a little.

Favourite Subway Station: Abbesses. The train platform itself is buried deep so it’s a walk up and down. There’s an elevator, though. The station entry is one of the last of the original designs. The surrounding neighbourhood in Montmartre has great sightlines, lots of restaurants and a nice, tiny French bookshop.

Panhandlers in the Tuileries and around the Place de la Concorde: OK, I was going to write gypsies but then thought that might be unfair. Don’t fall for the: “Is this your ring?” scam. The racket is well organized with look-outs. ‘Dégage’ is French for scram. That might work. ‘Dégagez-vous, s’il vous plaît’ is a bit formal for the situation. The Place itself, while now a tourist hotspot and racetrack (obey the lights unless you’re curious about the French health-care system), was the site for frequent confrontations between left and right during the ‘30s. Maybe history will start again. Who knows?

The Eiffel Tower: Go and get it out your system. You know you want to.

The Princess Diana Memorial Thingy: Near the site of one of the more famous Hollywood stops of recent history but, in even 100 years, who will know or care about the Eurotrash-obsessed nihilism of our time?
Rue St.Honoré: You can’t even afford to be seen here. I had no idea that Mercedes actually made a 12 cylinder passenger car until I saw two in a row.

Théâtre de la Bastille: A small theatre not far from, well, the Bastille. Whenever I’m in town I check to see what’s going on here. Once, I sat through a three and a half hour presentation of My Dinner with André where the cast actually cooked and ate dinner on stage. Needless to say, after about two hours, some in the audience were getting a mite peckish what with the smells wafting down. One couple got up and started to leave. An actor (maybe André) called out: “Why are you leaving?” The husband replied: “You don’t understand. We have to go. My wife is going to pass out.” On another trip, I saw a cabaret-style show about the life of Pierre Molinier, the noted surrealist photographer and transvestite (noted to some of us anyway). The actor playing Molinier spent most of the evening on stage in bustier and heels. As a TV interview clip showed, he was a dead ringer for Molinier. Remarkable. And this is just one theatre among dozens. Even if you can’t understand French, there is some English-language theatre as well as endless cabaret and dance and music.

Tipping the usher: In most of the big theatres, someone will guide you to your seat and expect a tip. A euro or so seems to do. I didn’t dare give less although maybe I could have.

The Marais: Avoid gay-tourist ground zero for dinner (streets like Vieille du Temple, Blanc Manteaux) especially on weekends (see below). Otherwise, the Marais is an interesting warren of small streets of galleries and shops (perhaps a slightly higher percentage than elsewhere specializing in skinky male underwear designed for 20-year-olds and the rest of us just kidding ourselves.) An exception to the food caveat above are the falafel stands and bakeshops in what remains of the old Jewish quarter.

The weekend: Unfortunately, Eurostar, Easyjet and Ryanair cheapies have ruined much of central Paris on weekends for sophisticated adventurers like ourselves. The good news, though, is that most of the weekenders spend their time taking pictures of themselves in front of Notre Dame and gobbling down chocolate crêpes nearby so most of Paris is still very pleasant. Avoid the tourist areas until about 2 on Sunday afternoon when the hordes start to make their way back to London, Amsterdam, Budapest and points beyond. If you feel like even more exercise than normal, you might make this the day to hike along Paris’ version of NY’s High Line park (actually Paris was first), an elevated walking trail along a disused railway line. It starts behind the Bastille Opera and extends almost to the Pèriphèrique (I’ve never gone that far).

Demonstrations: Highly recommended. These should be considered opportunities to cast off your miserable cloak of apathy and make your courageous case for social justice, or at least a full pension at 50, without running the risk of showing up on Citypulse or being interned on Eastern Avenue. Demos (manifs in French) usually happen on Saturday. The normal route starts at République and runs along Boulevard du Temple/Filles du Calvaire/Beaumarchais to the Bastille where everyone mills around for awhile and then goes out for drinks. The tail end of the parade is a bonus often consisting of a running confrontation between riot-police and a band of rent-a-voyous, their faces covered to protect against identification and the tear gas which often flows luxuriously. Being teargassed, even as bystander, should be counted a definite plus as this will raise your social standing at Riverdale parties and over beer at the Cameron. Very soixante-huitard.

CDs: There are small CD shops scattered about town, most specializing in jazz or classical. There’s a big HMV on the Champs Elysées, just down from Etoile. There’s also a French chain of stereo/CD/book shops called FNAC (phnac) with stores around town. I’ve never been able to figure out why it’s called FNAC except that it may have something to do with May ’68 when shoplifting was considered an honourable social gesture (it’s not anymore so don’t bother unless you’re curious about the French justice system). Don’t forget that DVDs can’t be used here without re-setting the geographic licensing default on your player.

Restaurants: Times have changed in Paris, I’m afraid. Many neighbourhood restaurants are still very good but when they’re not, they’re really not at all. The big central tourist areas should be avoided, particularly on the chow-down weekends - this is true around the world. But, sadly, you can strike out anywhere. In a place off the beaten track, I once had a pavé d’espadon which could have been better used as the sole of a Mountain Co-op assault sandal. On the other hand, I’ve had some great meals too. If you have to ask about high-end prices, you can’t afford. Dinner mains at the Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower, for example, run around 45 euros. The French dine in packs: 7:30 - empty; 8:00 - empty; 8:30 - a couple of people nursing kir and trying to look as if they know something about the wine list; 9:00 - a few tables; 9:15 - jammed. Unfortunately, the School of Insufferable Service still has many graduates working in restaurants around town, but then I’ve witnessed some pretty insufferable diners too. There’s a guide (French) I like - Pudlo’s.

Breakfast: Unless your breakfast is included, you’re probably going to pay about as much as you would at a big chain hotel back home. Not really worth it unless it’s one of those mornings you want to hang around your room for awhile. A lot of cafés/bars serve light breakfasts (café crème - don’t ask for café au lait - croissant/baguette, jam and maybe OJ). There are also bakery chains which are like Brioche d’or and fine for coffee and a bun. If you’re really into self-humiliation there are always McDos and Starbucks but if you wander down the street venti in hand you might as well have Old Glory tattooed to your forehead. The French, by and large, don’t do breakfast fry-ups except in tourist areas where they got tired of Brits and Americans complaining. Note that bars/cafés generally stop breakfast after a certain point to give the staff time for a smoke or two before lunch set-up.

Movies: You’ll find movie theatres almost everywhere although the street entrances sometimes don’t stand out. This is France so adults go. There are big cineplexes along the Champs Elysées and the grands boulevards. In contrast with Québec, many if not most American films are subtitled, not dubbed, so there’s no language barrier.

Tickets or Navigo: The Navigo is new since the last time I was there, replacing the Carte Orange but the idea seems the same. I generally buy a carnet of tickets since I walk a lot but each one is good for one trip only and can’t be used to transfer from, let’s say, the Métro to a bus. For heavy users, a weekly Navigo seems a better bet as it’s unlimited use. The downside is that it only runs Monday through Sunday so if your trip is Thursday through Thursday, it’s not such a great deal. As well, the card includes your picture and I don’t know whether they just scan some photo you have with you (passport?) or whether you have to go to a booth in a train station and get one taken (if so, keep an eye peeled for Audrey Tautou). Why couldn’t they simply have adopted London’s Oyster Card?

Métro Line 1: The tourist line as it links many key spots. Pickpocket central, or so I’ve been told. I find the impromptu klezmer band, which always seems to set up right next to where I’m standing, really loud and annoying.

Cemeteries: To die for. There are three big ones: Montmartre (Truffaut); Montparnasse (Beckett, Simone de Beauvoir, and the inexplicably famous Jean-Paul Sartre); and Père Lachaise (Wilde, Proust and Jim Morrison). I’m fond of Père Lachaise even though it can get confusing - now where did I misplace Edith Piaf? - and seems a bit cruisey. There are basic maps in most guide books but, to make the most of your visit, get a really good map at one of the ‘pompes funèbre‘ shops just outside the gates.

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