Bags on the bed and I’m out the door. First, sensory overload. I’m usually a comfortable, calm traveler, but the beautiful Haussmannian buildings, the resonant underlying hum of thousands of people quickly going about their day, and the over-all excitement that comes from being in a vibrant, world-class city is more than enough to make my heart beat a little faster.
My brain adapts, and I begin to notice the details. Intricate wrought-iron fleur de lis fences and balconies. The deep green awnings of bistros, that special shade of blue on the shutters that can only be described as “French blue.” My brain absorbs even more details. Window displays in the humblest of shops are elevated to works of art. I start to distinguish the individual sounds that make up the resonant hum- Citroens and Peugeots hurtling down the boulevards, church bells chiming in the distance, a thousand conversations in a hundred different languages. The incredible aromas coming from the patisseries and brasseries.
I love Paris, and I want to run down the Rue Wherever-I-Am in delirious joy, the way I ran down the aisles of a toy store when I was a child. I want to shout out our good fortune to everyone in earshot, for we are all fortunate. We are in Paris.
Instead of sprinting I force myself to stroll. While my heart sings happy songs my brain is coolly cataloging the names and locations of the establishments that I intend to visit during my always too short stay. About ninety percent of them sell food. Food is one of the many reasons I love Paris. Patisseries, fromageries, chocolatiers, bistros and brasseries- I’ll visit as many as I can. I’ll also make it a point to visit at least one of the museums, but for all of my admiration for its monuments and history, Paris for me has always been about the now instead of the past.
Almost everything you read about the demeanor of the typical Parisian is more about the writer than the subject. For years I heard that Parisians were rude, but they have only shown me kindness, or at the very least, patience. I have friends with a different story to tell. I always ask if they remembered to “bonjour” and “au revoir,” to “merci” and “s’il vous plait.” Invariably they say no. They’re always surprised that they were supposed to, and a little suspicious that it matters that much. It does.
“Bonjour!” I try to keep my voice at a reasonable level, but I’m sure it comes out big and loud instead of refined and civil. Today, right now, it doesn’t matter. One look at my face and the man behind the counter at the patisserie knows that I’m in love. With whom or with what he has no idea, but love is love, and all is forgiven. He soon understands the object of my affection because I smile when I see the tarte au citrons lined up in the pastry case. A rapid exchange transpires, and after a quick s’il vous plait, merci, and au revoir I’m back on the sidewalk, scouting out a place to sit so that I can give the lemony miracle I just purchased my undivided attention. Goodness, every bite.
It was a long flight and the fatigue is finally beginning to have its way with me. An hour of sleep will charge my batteries and give me enough juice to make it far into the night. I’ll sleep well. Every wrong that was ever done to me, all of the misfortunes that life put in my way, cease to matter or even exist. I’m a lucky guy. I’m in Paris.
French Pastries Here I Come
Our hotel was less than twenty steps to the entrance of Le Metro, but that subterranean journey would have to wait for another time. Although it was a cold winter day, the sun was shining brightly enough to bathe Paris in a soft, inviting glow. Bundled up in pea coat, scarf, thermal socks and calf-skin gloves, I hurried past La Marine, the little brasserie next door to the Eduoard VI, and made my way to the nearest patisserie. It was just a few blocks down the boulevard, but I must have passed a dozen restaurants on the way to my first (but not my last) pastry of the day. There was Dragon D’Argent, the Chinese restaurant we ate at our first night in Paris, chosen because we wanted a family meal and our youngest daughter is vegan. Vegan in Paris, the poor girl; I couldn’t imagine a crueler fate. I kept going, passing Speed Rabbit Pizza, which must have made perfect sense to the person naming the place, and Grand Optical, which is exactly what it sounds like and where I had my glasses repaired the day before by a friendly, outgoing clerk. Yes, they do exist in Paris.
I walked by an antique shop advertising Bijoux and Brocante, two florists, the pharmacy, a few more cafes (okay, maybe it was more than a few blocks, I knew I’d seen a patisserie around here somewhere…). I crossed Rue Cherche-Midi and smiled and wondered at Au Chien qui Fume (The Dog Who Smokes) and there it was, just on the other side of the burgundy awnings of The Dog Who Smokes Café.
It was a little hole in the wall type place, the storefront barely twelve feet wide. The red and white striped awning had a sign above it that simply read “Boulangerie.” Under that, “Patisserie.Sandwhichs.Glaces.” I walked in and remembered to give a bonjour to the young woman behind the counter while resisting the urge to point out the missing “e” in “sandwhichs.” She smiled and returned the bonjour (why anyone thinks Parisians are rude is beyond me) and asked in French how she could help me.
It was a tiny place, and though it lacked the potentially overwhelming number of choices offered by the other patisseries I would visit on this trip, what they had looked good. I pointed at what appeared to be misshapen donut holes and said “quarte, s’il vous plaît.” I smiled as she bagged them up, adding “Puis-je avoir deux croissants” and a few “mercis” to the conversation.
As soon as I left the patisserie I knew my purchases would never make it back to the hotel room. I spotted a park bench just a few feet away and decided it would be the perfect place to watch the world go by as I enjoyed breakfast. The donut holes weren’t donut holes, but they were amazing. Soft, almost pillowy, slightly sweet and buttery, I should have asked for a dozen, and should have saved them for last. The croissants were fantastic but different than any I’d ever had. Croissants are made by folding layers of butter between the dough, and they must have used salted butter for this batch. In fact, what appeared to be sugar crystals scattered on top of the croissants were in fact grains of fleur de sel. It was unexpected, but good. Last but not least was a beautiful tarte au citron; this one actually made it back to the hotel so that I could snap a photo of it. It tasted even better than it looked.
La Tour Eiffel
After my morning infusion of pastry and caffeine I walked for a while, enjoying the little details that reveal themselves when you find yourself with the time to just be in the moment. Centuries-old doorknockers, artfully arranged window displays, Paris looks like a movie set and in fact has been used as the location for many of my favorite films. The patisserie was about six blocks from the hotel, and if I looked further down the Boulevard du Montparnasse I could just see the top of the Eiffel Tower.
Every time I catch a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower I forget any illusions I’ve ever had about being cool. It’s probably the most well-recognized and iconic man-made structure on the planet, and I love it without embarrassment. It’s at once feminine and elegant, powerful and regal. For me it isn’t just a symbol of France, but a symbol of travel in general, and it always makes me smile.
Walking back to the hotel I’d turn around occasionally, until the boulevard shifted course and I could no longer see the tower. Soon the Galeries Lafayette came into view; across the street was my hotel, and beyond the hotel, another day in Paris.
About the author: For twenty years Will Atkinson traveled the United States and Western Europe as a singer/songwriter, and although he rarely performs these days he still loves to write and travel. He is also the founder of Greater Articles.