PARIS JOURNAL 2000
From The Lifestyle Magazine CULTURE, April/May 2000
Text and Photos
By Gregory Tozian
“If there are going to be people shooting each other in the streets at New Year’s I’m going to Paris. I’d rather hear people cursing me in French than English; it’s so much more mellifluous.”
This was my stock response when doomsday American friends marveled at the news that my girlfriend and I were spending the Y2K celebration in the City of Light.
On the other side of the Big Pond, anticipation of the Millennium Bug was even more insouciant.
My old Paris roommate Fraser, who picked us up at Charles DeGaulle Airport the day before New Year’s Eve, was unimpressed by my informing him that some Yanks were back home stockpiling trail mix, flashlight batteries, and ammo.
“I think I’ve got a tin of haggis ‘round the mill somewhere,” he sniffed. “We won’t starve.”
Back in the late ‘80s, when we shared a big house in Paris, Fraser had regularly subjected me to canned haggis (oatmeal and the minced heart and lungs of a sheep, boiled in the poor animal’s stomach). I suppose the Scotsman’s need to ingest the library-paste-like mixture each fortnight is akin to we Americans craving the periodic ballpark hot dog of our youth.
At any rate, Fraser is now a country squire, who lives in a converted stone mill about an hour north of the city. It’s the kind of place that you’d expect that punter who wrote A Year in Provence to get all warm and fuzzy about, inspiring yet another hour’s worth of drippy PBS programming.
Well, the mill is pretty nice.
For New Year’s, we had a party there for about 20 Paris-based friends: Italians, Spaniards, Germans, and Frenchmen. Noelle and I were happy to represent the Colonies, and that the haggis that Fraser served (along with shellfish, luscious French cheeses, desserts, champagne, Cuban cigars, etc.) was of the fresh, gourmet variety.
After a few days of draining the wine cellar, and tramping through the brambles and local castles, we trained it into civilization to light at a comfortable hotel near the Luxembourg Gardens for seven or eight days. It was then I remembered that the editor of Culture had asked me to take some notes and photographs for a personal view of Paris, circa 2000. Armed with my orange, No. 13 Rhodia notebook (fits neatly in the coat pocket), a sturdy Pelikan ballpoint, and a Yashica Super T-4 point-and-shoot loaded with XP2 black-and-white film, the assignment would be simple comme bonjour.
I must first caution you that, if you don’t know Paris well, there are three things, besides an appropriate pair of shoes, that will make your walking-tour of the city more enjoyable. First, you should have a plasticized pocket map, Steetwise Paris (available in any big bookstore in the U.S.). For more detailed wandering, nothing beats a red-covered Paris par Arrondissement street map (available at news kiosks, and select Paris bookstores). Finally, if you’re going to see movies, theater, concerts, and such like, you’d do well to have a locally obtained Pariscope in your pocket. That’s the weekly guide to everything that’s going on in the city. It’s in French, naturally. But don’t let that stop you; it’s loaded with good information. Visit them on the Net at: www.pariscope.fr, where they may have an English version (I’ve never looked).
And so, on to Paris. Here, to paraphrase that French cinematic Trickster Jean-Luc Godard, are one or two things I know about her, beginning with (what else?) filling one’s stomach.
Food and Wine
We jump-started Day One with lunch at Aux Artiste (63, rue Falguiere, 15th Arrondissement, 01.43.22.05.39, Metro: Pasteur). This is a neighborhood joint for those who live near the Monpartnasse train station. Long on nutty warmth, the place remains thankfully undiscovered by tourists, though its walls bear their fair share of incongruous American artifacts. There’s a surfboard (of all things) suspended here, and license plates from half a dozen states of the union. Frescos cover the walls and the front window in Fauvist colors, put there by one of the local artistes who may have given the place its name. Among the five or six small booths, and more than one dozen rickety tables, you enjoy no-nonsense, affordable food with Frenchmen, and the occasional Brit expatriate. You dine more or less “family style,” so you often get to know your neighbor by the end of the meal. Each table comes complete with a notepad and pencil. You are expected to write your own order (in French, of course, using the menu as a guide). When you’ve scrawled your desires, the waiter (usually one of the owners, such as Patrice) hurries to the kitchen with your request. Aux Artistes is a an excellent, cheap “fixed price” restaurant. For 80 francs (about $13.50) you get an appetizer, main course with vegetable, and dessert. The menu is huge, including paté, tomatoes and mozzarella, roasted chicken, grilled fish, beef, to-die-for fries, and all the standard desserts, from apple tarts to delicious fromage blanc with granulated sugar. The wine is fine and cheap, too. Order a glass of the house red for dinner, and a decent bottle of Bordeaux arrives. You drink what you like. At the end of the meal, the waiter regards the bottle and (accurately) guesses at how many glasses you’ve downed, and charges you accordingly. I’ve sent many American friends to Aux Artistes over the years, and they always give it high marks. One Florida rock guitarist friend and his wife (who had had too much vin rouge) called me in Oregon one day from a Paris phone booth. “We just had dinner at Aux Artistes,” he shouted, perhaps hoping to compensate for the thousands of miles between us. “It’s great!”
We enjoyed lunch another afternoon at a favorite locals-only spot half way across town, Le Sancerre (22 avenue Rapp, 7th, tel: 01.45.51.75.91, Metro: Pont d’Alma). Virtually in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Sancerre serves food and wine from its namesake region (near all those lovely Loire Valley castles). This restaurant (technically a “wine bar”) attracts well-heeled inhabitants of the 7th. Dark wood surrounds you, with stoic animal-head hunting trophies tacked over the fireplace and back wall. The owners/servers are friendly and fast. The regional food includes omelets such as the delicious “Fourtout,” loaded with cheese, herbs, ham, and potatoes. The terrines and salads are wonderful and inexpensive, too. Also try the excellent, sharp goat cheese, a perfect compliment to a bottle of white Sancerre wine. Across the street, at avenue Rapp No. 29 is one of the city’s great art nouveau buildings, its handsome, weathered faces and sinuous bodies climbing the façade over ornate doorways.
Our other square-meal choice is Bistrot Le Mazarin (42, rue Mazarine, 6th, tel: 01.43.29.99.01, Metro: Mabillon or St. Germain-des-Prés). In the heart of the Left Bank, one of the best areas to while away an afternoon on foot, Mazarin absolutely buzzes at lunchtime. You are packed in tight with local blue-collar workers, well-dressed neighborhood gallery owners, and cool students from the nearby Beaux-Arts (the city’s leading art university). The macaroni with Roquefort here is marvelous, as is the carbanara, and the crottin de chevre on salad. Wine by the bottle can be expensive though, so make sure you understand the conversion rate.
The other benefit of Mazarin is that it’s virtually next door to La Palette (43, rue du Seine, tel: 01.43.26.68.15.) This is my personal favorite bar in Paris. There are three levels: the outside tables, the narrow front bar, and the cozy, cigarette-smoke-filled back room. In the back, you may be lucky enough to be waited on by the gruff and world-weary Jean-Francois, whose likeness you will see on one of the many paintings hanging around the walls near the ceiling. The crowd here is young, and arty, but non-judgmental. Palette feels like home — spiritually light years from the chilly atmosphere of the tourist-choked Aux Deux Magots and its ilk.
When it came time to dress up moderately for dinner, we avoided old standbys such as the star-gazer’s La Coupole and the hearty Brasserie de L’Isle Saint Louis, and opted for another longtime favorite: Brasserie Balzar (49, rue des Ecoles, 5th, 02.43.54.13.67, Metro: Cluny-La Sorbonne). Cheery and well-lit, this is one of the gustatory gems near the Sorbonne University. Lots of families and young couples eat here on Sunday nights. After you are ceremoniously lead to your table by the maitre d’, friendly waiters in long white aprons attend to you promptly. The food is rock-solid brasserie fare: poulet roti, pommes frites, salmon. For dessert, the Baba au Rhum is fabulous — dense cake peppered with candied fruit, soaked in an excellent dark rum. The waiter leaves the vintage rum bottle on your table and encourages you to pour as much of it over your cake as you wish. It makes for a nice buzz after a bottle of Burgundy. Balzar is open seven night a week until 1 a.m., and they take all the plastic. A meal for two with starters, wine, and desserts here will set you back only about $75 or $80.
For an even more upscale nosh, we Metro-ed up into the 10th, very near the Gare du Nord, to meet a couple of Canadians-in-Paris friends for lunch one day at Chez Michel (10, rue de Belzunce, 10th, tel: 01.44.53.06.20, Metro: Gare du Nord). This “New Wave” bistro has an uncommonly comfortable feel, the fixed-price (180-franc) menu complimented by the sofa-booth and old-wood architectural appointments. The food ranges from monkfish with tomatoes, to exceptional fois gras, and inventive but filling lasagna. The patron, Thierry, is the soul of civility. The cheese course is delivered in one of those little screened, two-tier boxes. Coffee is served with complimentary chocolates and a tin box of seasonal nuts. Everything is designed to make you feel welcomed.
Similarly, we had a wonderful late-night dinner at Le Coupe-Chou (9 & 11, rue Lanneau, 5th, tel: 01.46.33.68.69, Metro: Maubert-Mutualité). Hidden away in a 14th-century stone building on a tiny street near the Sorbonne, Coupe-Chou is romantic, and exquisite. Everything on the menu — from fish, to steak with peppercorns — is elegantly and creatively prepared. There’s also a wonderful adjacent coffee-and-brandy room with stuffed sofas, and the feel of a provincial library.
Finally, for the ultimate faux-aristocratic high, we had tea at Fauchon. Paris is filled with tea rooms, including the oh-so-hip Mariage Freres, and the relaxing Loir dans la Theiere. However, when you really feel like you’re being allowed to sit at the table with the big folks (or is it just “old rich folks”), there’s Salon de Thé Fauchon (26, Place de la Madeleine, 8th, tel: 01.47.42.90.10, Metro: Madeleine). Across the street from the gorgeous Madeleine church, Fauchon — the great, over-the-top Paris grocer’s shop — is the last word in alimentative decadence. In the tea room, with its delicate tables and chairs, and Paris-pink walls, we sat on the only two chaise lounges. On our low gilded table we enjoyed apricot and sakura rose tea, and two exotic desserts (Auguste au meil, and tarte poire choclat), well worth the $40. The overheard gossip from the surrounding tables filled with French matrons in their jewels and cashmere berets was free.
While we in America have the expression “window shopping,” I’ve always preferred the French equivalent, which translates to “licking the windows.” We licked (and bought) at the following:
Pixie & Compagnie (6, rue de l’Echaudé, 6th, tel: 01.46.33.88.88, Metro: Mabillon or St. Germain-des-Prés). If you have to bring back souvenirs, there’s not a better truc from all of Paris than you’ll find in this quaint shop. The prize gift is a little, metal, hand-painted cliché Frenchman with a beret, moustache, baguette, and sack of wine bottles. About two inches tall, this comically brave figure comes in a little presentation box with a painted Parisian backdrop. Pixie & Cie also have hundreds of other little figurines, and other clever gifts. Visit them on the Internet at www.pixishop.com.
One of the most interesting shopping choices in Paris is to visit one of the many glass-domed, “galleries” that were built in the 19th century. Our favorite is Passage Jouffroy (10-12 boulevard Montmartre, 9th, Metro Richelieu-Drouot). Inside you’ll find booksellers, a toy museum, a spooky-dark shop (Cannes Anciennes de Collection) which sells nothing but expensive antique walking sticks, the delightful and affordable Hotel Chopin (01.47.70.58.10), and one of my favorite movie poster and book stores. Cinedoc (45-53 passage Jouffroy, tel: 01.48.24.71.36) has vintage mint-condition posters, lobby cards, and one-sheets on all the great directors from Kubrick to Kurosawa. They’ve lots of movie postcards, books, and magazines, too. Other movie-nostalgia stores in Paris include the overstuffed poster shop Cine Reflet Images (9, boulevard de Port-Royal, 13th, 01.45.35.66.79, Metro: Gobelins), and the excellent bookstore Cine Reflet La Librarie du Cinema (14, rue Serpente, 7th, 01.40.46.02.72, Metro: Luxembourg).
In fashions, for which the French are justly famous, we enjoyed two unusual places. One is a hip young designer shop, Paul and Joe (40, rue du Four, 6th, tel: 01.45.44.97.70.) Rich with trendy and surprisingly attractive, well-made women’s clothing, Paul and Joe is also unexpectedly affordable — especially off-season. The staff is remarkably helpful. For unusual men’s clothes (most men’s attire in France is painfully conservative), there’s Théatr’ Hall (3, Carrefour de l’Odéon, 6th, tel: 01.43.26.64.90). They feature outrageous Louis XIV fashions — lace-up and ruffled shirts, Revolution-era long-tailed velvet coats, and theatrical hats and vests. For custom (and expensive) vests, shirts, and ties, try Robert Mager (150, boulevard Saint-Germain, 6th, tel: 01.46.34.04.60).
Finally, to buy European techno which we couldn’t find in the states, as well as classic French chansons, we went to the Virgin Megastore (52-60, avenue des Champs-Elysées, 8th, tel: 01.49.53.50.00, Metro: Franklin D. Roosevelt). Not only did we find everything we were looking for, including movie soundtracks that are unavailable in the U.S., but there was a front-of-store display on Sympathique, by our old Portland friends in Pink Martini. The French have it dialed in when it comes to music.
And speaking of dialing in music, since we always carry a Walkman on trips, we also got to listen to our favorite Paris radio station: FIP (“feep”), 105.1 FM. FIP plays a mind-boggling mix of jazz, Japanese koto music, symphonic extracts, ‘60s British blues, reggae, French classics, and lounge music — all so skillfully blended it sounds like you’re listening to the grooviest soundtrack ever recorded. The “DJs” are honey-voiced French babes, dubbed “Fipettes,” who make a traffic report sound like an invitation to get horizontal.
Finally on the shopping front, we braved the gauntlet of hungry-eyed pickpockets beyond the terminus of the Port de Clingancourt Metro stop, to go to the flea market Marché Vernaison. Here you find endless alleyways of interesting stalls, packed with antiques, glassware, posters, carpets, lamps, nautical memorabilia, Russian icons, Ricard ashtrays, rare fabrics and more. The only limits are what you can carry home, or trust to be shipped back.
We unfortunately only had time this trip for a couple of musical events, but they were worth the effort. The first was at the famed Theatre des Champs-Elysées (15, avenue Montaigne, 8th, 01.49.52.50.50, Metro: Alma-Marceau). For less than $20 each, we sat in the “expensive” seats, in one of those charming boxes with great sightlines. This is the theater where Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring caused a riot back in 1913. Nobody threw a chair from the balcony the night we listened to the National Orchestra of France, a magnificent outfit, as they made the best of Mahler’s Tenth (which was completed by someone else after the composer died).
Our other major musical outing was to see an unknown French rock band led by an electric-violinist/singer playing on La Balle au Bond (35 quai de la Tournelle, 5th, 01.40.51.87.06, Metro: Maubert-Mutualité). This is one of the famous barge-likebateau in the Siene, a péniche which is moved occasionally to a different spot on the river, depending on season. During our January visit, the boat was tied up under the Eastern end of Notre Dame, spectacularly lit against a velvety black sky. It’s terrific to sit in the boat, drinking cognac, listening to live music, with Notre Dame as a backdrop. There are several other péniches which feature similar music, and raves. Check the Pariscope for details.
Less grand, but equally enjoyable is to take in a regular morning show of Les Marionenettes du Theatre du Luxembourg (in the Luxembourg Gardens, 6th, tel: 01.43.26.46.47, Metro: Luxembourg). Formerly under the direction of the late Robert Desarthis, his son now conducts this beloved children’s puppet theater.
The shows are beautifully staged, funny, and quite bold (in a grand guignol/Punch and Judy sense). They are particularly delightful to see since most of the audience is comprised of squealing French kids and their patient mothers.
A wise older friend advised me before my first extended visit to Paris, way back when I was 19, “Don’t try to see it all, Gregory, my boy. Save something for the next time.” I’ve been going to and fro to Paris for many years since, and still feel I have saved much for the next time. But I hope that if you don’t know Paris well, I’ve shed a little more light on the city of.