Sunday, October 01, 2006
Playing tour guide breaks my routine and forces me into neighborhoods that are usually avoided. Travelers generally don’t care about the merits of Belleville or my favorite dive bar. They want to stroll along the Seine, chase after ghosts, visit postcard Paris. And in accommodating them - usually in the 1st, the Marais, and the Latin Quarter - I’m always reminded just how beautiful this city is. I become a booster, a hack historian. “Look at this!” I squeal, impervious to the wearied faces of my companions.
And wearied they usually are. For visitors, Paris is exhausting. To get around, unless you spend a fortune on cab fare, you need to walk, climb stairs, and spend hours in the Métro. I myself was drained during my first visit to Paris. I had to buy a special numbing cream (Nifluril) for my aching feet, much to the dismay of my guides. Walking doesn’t faze me anymore, though, and I will drag visitors around for hours before I notice that they are half-crying. A Saturday stroll for le Meg can be a death march for someone used to driving.
To complicate matters, the “rest” afforded by cafés or restaurants can be quite stressful for visitors. American tourists in particular are overly-sensitive to how servers are treating them, and a five euro coffee (in the tourist zones) can feel exasperating. For dinner, I often struggle to find a restaurant that can accommodate friends’ requests for something “cheap” and “real French” that has vegetarian options (and is also open on Monday).
It’s hard to tell a tourist that they need to spend 30 euros to have a decent meal in Paris (excluding the good North African or Asian options that visitors never seem to go for). But there’s nothing worse than spending 21 euros on something awful, knowing that you could have had something delightful for 10 euros more. And when it’s awful, these wearied travelers (with high expectations for French food) seem to be slightly broken.
On the other hand, when it’s good – when Paris performs brilliantly on the food front – I find myself feeling so proud. I had this feeling the other night at Chez Casimir with friends who were returning from 3 months in the States. Chez Casimir, for those who don’t know it, is the cheaper sister bistro of Thierry Breton’s Chez Michel. We’ve been three times over 2 years and have never been disappointed.
We were just beginning to catch up when the first starter, a terrine de campagne, was brought to the table. Served in a giant ceramic terrine with a knife in its heart, this was slightly edged out by the deliciously salty tartare de haddock à l’ancienne.
By the time the plats arrived, we had landed again on our regular topic – comparisons of the US vs. France. Andy and Caroline, who lived together in the States and spend months there every summer, couldn’t wait to return to Paris. After months of eating in New York, Andy was happy to be back at the French table. “This is exactly what I want,” he said, while taking bites of his confit de porc et son gratin. “Talking with friends at a restaurant like this, where you can eat like this for not much money. It’s so calm.”
And he was right. Because I live here, it’s not exhausting to zip by Métro over to Gare du Nord, walk three blocks, read a menu, order, and then relax. I know how to speak, I know this food. I’m not freaked out over the 100 euro bill (for four) because I don’t eat out every night. For visitors, this whole experience would be completely different.
As I explained to a dear friend visiting from Norway who asked how on earth can you live here? our Paris has nothing to do with the one she witnessed around Châtelet. I work. I go to the market. I ride my bike. I walk the dog. I see shows and expos, but not three per day. It is calm.
Could this mean that I’m settling in?