Wednesday 17 April 2013

Viven : Advice for Paris

Dear Viven,

There are books, magazines, websites, television programmes, groups online and off, in most of the tongues of the earth, for those inside and out, French or not, all dedicated to getting the most out of Paris.  It’s the most visited city in the world, and perhaps the most iconic.  Couples kissing (read: making out (read: practically fucking)) on the lock-and-key bridge, the Eiffel’s nightly flashing lights, the subsequent nightly gasping breaths, rotten-eyed service, gleaming-eyed bicyclists, and wallets stolen in front of the Mona Lisa – clichés here are as common as Parisians pissing on the street.  So I’ll try not to shovel on some more; but then, here I am, writing about Paris.  Get your grain of salt ready.

I didn’t fall in love with Paris.  I still don’t know if I’d use the word ‘love’ to describe our relationship, but maybe, ‘mutual respect’ – a working understanding?  What’s the term married couples use when they stay together for their children?  Necessary intimacy?  If Paris and I had children, we’d share dinners, split the weekends, and have bedrooms on opposite ends of the house.  I do think we’d enjoy watching them grow up together, though.  We might even hold hands, rocking back and forth in our squeaking plastic swing set.

Sorry, I digressed.  What I meant to say is, if you’re like me, Paris grows on you.  You need to give it time.  There are indeed secrets and treasures; locals-only knowledge and locals-only hangouts.  The city plays hard to get, and won’t just tear off its clothes on the first date.  Especially not if you don’t speak French.  But assuming you’ve considered the guidebooks and websites and words of mouth, here’s a few other tips on getting it to second base:

Dining.  Throw a rock in Paris and you’ll hit four or five establishments with a kitchen.  Throw a rock with good taste and an eye for value (it’s a special rock), and it’ll probably hit the ground.  There are actually hundreds, if not thousands, of good places to eat for a decent price.  But here’s where I advise you to throw:

1)      The university cafeterias dotted around the city, open variously for breakfast, lunch and dinner – squeeze in with an adequate tray of food for €3.10, and you don’t actually have to be a student.

2)      Bocca della Verita, a superb Italian restaurant on 2 rue du Sabot in the 6th.  Get anything with truffle.

3)      For the Petit Déjeneur Américain alone: Café de Métro, 67 rue de Rennes, 6th.

4)      Not supremely cheap or special, but always good, is Le Nord Sud at 79 rue du Mont Cenis in the 18th.

5)      Hard to find in Paris is a decent place for non-meat eaters.  The Hope Café in Montmartre is excellent for vegetarians, seafood lovers and the ecologically conscious.  64 rue Lamarck, 18th.

6)      Best Turkish sandwiches in Paris.  Maybe even best sandwiches.  Urfa Dürüm, 56 rue du Faubourg Saint-Denis, 10th.

Bread.  A rule of thumb for Paris boulangeris: go where the people are queuing for ten minutes, when they could easily take two steps next door to where it’s empty.  One of such is Maison Landemaine on 4 rue du Poteau in the 18th, right by métro Jules Joffrin.

Where to work.  Paris is not like London, which is the ultimate for free culture and free indoor public space.  If you want to do some work outside your flat or office, you’re expected to find a café and get a coffee; and it’s true, you can go hours without a bother.  But if you just want a table, chair and a roof, try:

1)      The bibliothèque publique d’information at the Centre Georges Pompidou, 1 rue Beaubourg.  The library opens too late (11am on weekends, noon on weekdays), and for much of the year (for school) there is an enormous queue that will often wrap around the whole building.  People cut the queue all the time, and worse: no one speaks up or stops them.  When the lines get really bad, as at exam time, whole crowds rush and cut to the front when the doors open, literally shoving aside others who have been waiting.  Still, not a word from anyone, including the security staff, who – you guessed it – couldn’t give a rat’s ass.  Inside it is crammed, and the free wi-fi stops working around 2pm when it becomes overaccessed.  However, this is an incredible and admirable public resource (books, video, television, music, public computer stations, language learning material, and excellent services for people with disabilities) which is glorious in the summer when the students are gone, or if you can brave the morning shame.

2)      The mairies of the 20 arrondissements.  Each is open to the public for regular hours, offers free wi-fi, and usually has a place to sit.  Only two that I’ve found, however, have space with tables, chairs and power plugs: the 6th at 78 rue Bonaparte, near Saint-Sulpice; and the 10th at 72 rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, near Chateau d’Eau.  The latter is a beautiful building, worth a visit regardless.

Sitting in the sun.  Cafés, of course, especially along wide boulevards such as the Champs-Elysee, Saint-Germain or the Grands Boulevards, are perfect for sun-catching, people-watching and time-sinking.  But if you want a guarantee of the sun on your face on a clear day, go along the Seine, or find a large park, such as the Tuileries, the Jardin du Luxembourg, or the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.

Running or jogging.  Go along the Canal Saint Martin in the northeast, the Seine if you’re close, Montmartre if you want steps and sights, Bois de Boulogne or Bois de Vincennes for size – or pretty much anywhere else if you’re early enough to beat the commuters.

Learn French.  Go to the daily French practice group (Monday to Friday, 2-7pm), open to non-French native speakers only: Cercle International de l’ARC, at 5 rue de l’Abbaye, 6th.  For a small annual fee, unlike some extortionate conversation groups out there, you can go as much as you like.

Books.  Go to Shakespeare & Company, across the river from the Notre Dame, for a photograph and a whiff of sweaty armpits as you attempt to move around; but don’t buy anything at this outrageously priced joint.  A whole series of linked bookstores called Gibert Jeune choke the Saint-Michel area just down the road, with one containing a decent collection of books in English and other languages.  But the best anglophone book barn is just around the corner: the Abbey Bookshop at 29 rue de la Parcheminerie.  It’s the sort of old-world bibliophile’s paradise: too much to sort, too much to read, and too much scent of ageing paper; it gives you that tight, tactile sense of being packed to bursting not by gaggling iPhone photographers, but by story.  It’s owned by a wonderful and very helpful Canadian named Brian Spence, who will probably offer you tea.

To Do.  After Napoleon’s Tomb and the Arc de Triomphe, of course.

1)      Watch the men (sadly, there are very few women involved, yet) play speed chess in the Jardin du Luxembourg.

2)      Sunset on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.

3)      Sunrise on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur.

4)      Walk around early on a Sunday morning, before the late-rising French get going. 

5)      Cycle to get around.

6)      Pop in to the English Café Philo (Philosophy Café)  on the first Wednesday of each month, at Café de Flore, 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain, 6th.  Or the weekly French Café Philo, from 10:30am to 12:15pm every Sunday, at Café des Phares, 7 Place de la Bastille, 4th.  Remember that Sartre and Picasso visited the Café de Flore, which gives it the right to charge you a fortune for truly average food and drink.  And keep your eyes out for the Asshole.  He’ll berate other speakers, hog the microphone for veritable paragraphs, roll his eyes at you, and if you sit next to him you’ll get the Earful from the Master Himself.  One of the most entertaining creatures in all of Paris, if you can stomach it. 

7)      For a conversation about art, dress yourself up, go to a gallery in the Place des Vosges, and express serious interest in a painting or sculpture.  Then listen.  It’s sort of like pretending to want a car from a car salesman, I suppose, if you really like cars.

And.  Watch your step.  There’s dogshit just about everywhere.

Hope that helps!