Sunday, October 01, 2006

Paris, plus calme


My relationship with the city always shifts, at least temporarily, when friends visit Paris. Like a sponge, I absorb their impressions and find myself both loving and hating the city in new ways.

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?

14 comments:

Jonathan said...

It's not just living there. My happiest vacation times are when I try not to do too much.

amy said...

Ah! I could have written this post, except not as elegantly.

(especially the part about feeding foreigners... "cheap, real French, and vegetarian!" It's like you're living my life.)

J said...

Bien dit. It's true generally in Paris, I think, that the serveur/mangeur relationship is less pressed by demands for turnover (1 billion sold, whether it's McDo or McNamara's Bistrot)and less tainted by the genuflecting for tips. The stereotype can hold true as well: some serveurs blatantly don't give a damn, about being speedy or friendly. On the other hand, most restos with a following are often marked by a slightly hurlyburly ambience. Servers dashing about (often just one covering a huge floor), people talking livelily and sitting very bunched up/close-quartered, perhaps with some people hovering around waiting to pounce on the next open table. I don't always find the ambience calming. Yet,il faut dire, there's little pressure to shovel, guzzle and get out. One can enjoy one's time, one's experience. It's no wonder the Slow Food Movement started here.May it continue!
Yes, you're starting to settle in. Congrats!

Alistair said...

I love the clamer lifestyle here, the feeling that you're not rushing all the time. Each time I head back home I see the change straight away, people get into "rush" mode, that body language where you can see immediately that someone's under pressure. They switch from predators hunting out the good things in life, to prey glancing nervously around and hurry hurry hurry, phone constantly pressed to the ear, conveying a false swagger. You can "do" Paris, you can't do London, London does you.

LA Frog said...

You are settling in! True, Paris is not the same whether you live in it, or visit it.

When I was in Paris, I would always slow down the visitors, and force them to enjoy Paris the calm way. Better see a couple of rooms at le Louvre than seeing the whole thing. Better sit a café and watch the Parisian life go buy than trying to do everything in the guide.

The way I'd get them into "the mode" would be to start with a great petit-déj in a nearby café. As for food, I would always take them to small bistrots I knew had excellent, simple fare, rather than try to impress them with fancy restaurants. Or we'd go to the market and cook something at home. That would usually be enough to overwhelm them.

And yes, I particularly enjoyed Paris with tourists. Made me realize how lucky I was to live in such a city -- despite the not so fun daily routine.

stacey said...

You would probably get a laugh out of Ellis Paul's Paris in a Day. He's a storyteller who makes a Kansan want to try it. Check it on iTunes if the French government is allowing Apple to sell to you this week.

Cathy said...

Where do you find North African foods? We're looking for some!

yourfriendlyamericanneighboraroundthecorner said...

truly glad to see you that you are settling in. here's to many more lazy, wine-groggy, food-coma-inducing meals eaten amidst the calming din of paris bistros.

Maryam in Marrakech said...

The picture in your post is so beautiful. And everything sounds so delicious! But I am very sorry to hear about lack of interest in North African cuisine. I am finding most things delicious here in Marrakech. And my expanding waist line is living proof. (Deep sigh...)

Sedulia said...

I remember that the now defunct Spy magazine did an article on "The Six-Minute Louvre" (for New Yorkers, as it helpfully explained).

Feeding foreign tourists is touchy, as you say! Vegetarians have an especially hard time. The French tend to treat vegetarians as people who are either going through a silly phase (if young) or belonging to a weird cult (if older) and don't have much sympathy for them.

Adrian said...

wow. i wish someone would comment on my skanky paris blog

nardac said...

I like your photo of the Belleville park. The last time I met a friend there, he gushed about Belleville is his favourite park because it changes every ten meters. There's all these little nooks and crannies.

I have had to do a Welcome to Paris for friends and family in my time, and I always do the same thing. We go to the market, I cook them dinner and we drink till the wee hours of the morning. The next morning, I give them a map and some Metro tickets and tell them that Paris is a city to walk in. The hangover produces two effects: either they don't move and end up watching bad DVDs with you at home; or they get out and are so foggy that the city turns into some slow moving magic on a travelator that kills all stress.

day-twah said...

Le Meg, you seem to be imply a preference for walking. I can't understand it! Personally, I much prefer driving every last place I need to go. Why, its such a thrill to hurtle down the highway at 75/h, in the pouring rain, with enraged commuters passing me on either side! Instead of paying those pesky taxes for subsidized public transportation, I have the freedom to pay for my own car, fuel and insurance! And then there's the bonus weight gain to round out my figure (15 and counting since I left Paris). What's not to like? The French - and you too, le Meg - should really try a little harder to follow the American example.

LA Frog said...

Nardac, U rock!