10 October 2011

Paris redux

Posted in Talking about . . .

I did what I had to do under the circumstances – I went back to Paris!

Kate had business there so I shared her room – and we stayed at the Hotel Bonaparte. It was like going home – me-in-Paris restored - and I could fetch my Provencal basket personally!

Kate and I arrived at the same time at the Gare du Nord and caught a cab to the hotel. My re-entry into Paris was a seamless continuation of my departure from Paris, both marked by expressive cab drivers! Our Algerian cab driver ended up in a fight with a motor-cyclist who bumped into the back of us at a traffic light. Our driver got out of the car and they yelled at each other behind the car. Then our driver got back into the car and the motor-cyclist came up to the window – the yelling continued. At which point I started to worry that a knife or a gun might appear! Finally, our driver sped off with a parting spit at the other fellow. Wow. In spite of the drama, he was very cheerful and wished us well after making jokes about British soccer and New Zealand rugby.

I was thrilled to be back at the Hotel Bonaparte and we were given a room on the top floor – kind of an attic room. It’s a fairly large room and has a big bathroom, but best of all – I could see the gorgeous North tower of Eglise Saint-Sulpice from the window. In fact, I got to see detail I hadn’t noticed from ground level, which made me love the building even more.

Once we’d unpacked, Kate took off to her first meeting and I set off for the Galleries Lafayette. I had 2 hours to kill before joining the walking tour of Le Marais. I duly bought a handful of public transport tickets at the metro and then caught the 95 bus to L’Opera, where the main store of Galleries Lafayette is situated. However, at the bottom of Avenue de L’Opera, there was a monumental traffic jam. After about 10 minutes, I saw people talking to the driver and then getting off the bus. So I got off the bus and started the slog up the avenue. It was 32° and sweltering, and I wondered how often this kind of traffic snarl-up happens in Paris…

I was thrilled to finally get into the store and the air conditioning. I browsed and had some lunch and people-watched. Because I was sitting and not concentrating at the merchandise, I noticed the galleries and the roof dome - I can’t believe that I didn’t notice them the first time I was there! The floors of the store are organized in gorgeous galleries that overlook the ground floor, with the stained glass and steel dome above. It’s quite glorious when the sun is shining through the stained glass and onto the gilding.

Galleries Lafayette

Galleries Lafayette

I caught the metro to St-Sebastien Froissart to meet the tour and had my very first ever unpleasant experience with a French person. I had bought The Times at a papeterie and handed over 10 euros to pay for it. As the shopkeeper was opening the till and getting my change, I realized that I needed 15 euros to be able to tip the tour guide. So I asked the shopkeeper in my most polite limited French whether he could change a 20 euro note for two 10s, saying “Serait-il possible a changer cette vingt pour deux dix billets?” He looked at me with his eyebrows raised, virtually threw my change from the newspaper across the counter, slammed the till shut, and answered his phone as it began to ring, still staring at me. I’m still certain that what I said wasn’t rude or totally incomprehensible. . . I stood there, waiting for a response to my question, but he turned his back on me and talked on the phone. I felt myself getting angry and said politely “Excusez moi, monsieur” He whirled round and gave me 15 seconds worth of invective in French with dismissing hand gestures and a final laugh to his telephone companion. That did it – I said with a smile, “You rude son-of-a-bitch - you’re the kind of person who gives the French people a bad reputation.” He then swore at me and turned his back again, so I left. Yuk. The Brain said, “One bad apple . . .”

However, the day was saved by a marvellous walking tour of Le Marais with Tomas. Beginning at 5pm and lasting until 7pm, in the Paris evening light, temperature around 25° - heaven! I had done a little homework on the Marais, so just soaked up the information. What an amazing history this area has: from medieval religious buildings to glamorous palaces and mansions of the 16th to 18th centuries; from the congregation of Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century and early 20th century to the terrible deportation and murder of these people during WW2. Read the book Sarah's Key (or see the movie) for this story. Fortunately, there has been a renewal of the Jewish community here since the 1990s, and there are streets where specialist Jewish shops abound, such as rue des Rosiers.

There is also a strong gay community in Le Marais (the mayor of Paris since 2001 is openly gay), as well as a Chinese community dating back to WW1. There are lots of little public gardens and squares in Le Marais, with grassy places (rare in Paris) where people sit and meet and chat or eat. Everywhere there is a gorgeous je ne sais quoi, with clothing boutiques providing a wide range of price and style options. But the real estate has become extremely expensive, and lots of people have had to move out of the area because the rentals are so high. I really loved the Hotel de Sully. It’s a mansion from the mid 1600s, dedicated by the minister of finance to King Henri IV to his wife. He was much older than she was and, in recognition of the age difference, he allowed her to have lovers. There are gorgeous statues glorifying her (including two sphinxes) and a main entrance that was to be used only by himself. The lovers had to use the back entrances.

Entrance to Le Marais Marais style

From Left to Right: Entrance to Le Marais, Marais style

Marais Gardens Marais Gardens

Marais Gardens

Classic Parisian apartments

Classic Parisian apartments

The Hotel de Sully opens out into the Place des Vosges – built by Henri IV in the early 1600s. It was the first formal square in Europe, and it is said that he planned it to simulate the English squares he had grown fond of because of his close alliance with Elizabeth 1st. Kate and I met up in the Place des Vosges at Ma Bourgogne when her meetings ended, a restaurant recommended by David Lebovitz, someone that Tom Maguire knew in New York in the good ol’ days. It was marvellous. I had the fixed price menu with braised butter leeks, baked salmon and creme brulee (I just can’t go past the damn thing!). Kate had the salmon and Berthillon ice cream. It was all marvellous, but I did pay the price later for too much rich food with too much great wine . . . a liverish discomfort. What the hell – it was worth it!

Place des Vosges

Place des Vosges

Ma Bourgogne by Night

Ma Bourgogne by Night

Ma Bourgogne by Day Ma Bourgogne by Day

Ma Bourgogne by Day

The next day, we went back to Le Marais so I could give Kate the tour. In the metro we found a wonderful saxophonist and could have stayed there for ages. We had a grand time wandering the streets, and fabulous Reuben sandwiches at a kosher deli on rue des Rosiers. While we were finishing our meal, we noticed a steady stream of Hasidim walking past – men, women and children in traditional dress. We decided to follow them to see where they were going. So we followed them for about 45 minutes. It was marvellous to watch grandparents and grandchildren, mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, babies in prams all out together. Finally, close to the Bvd Haussmann, we had to turn back because Kate had an appointment. We retraced our steps to Le Marais, still wondering where they were going. It was only when we realized that lots of the shops in Le Marais were closed (and it was past the standard afternoon opening time) that Kate thought to look in her diary, and we discovered that it was Rosh Hashanah. The people must have been walking to the Grande Synagogue de Paris on the rue de la Victoire, not far from the Galleries Lafayette. It can seat 1800 people, and my guess is that the families we walked with were going there for Rosh Hashanah services.

Metro busker Kosher deli lunch

From Left to Right: Metro busker, Kosher deli lunch

Rosh Hashanah Rosh Hashanah

Rosh Hashanah

Kate had meetings on Thursday late afternoon, so I went back to the hotel to cool down and rest. On the way, I saw a string ensemble in the metro tunnels! I also think I saw the mysterious woman from my last visit, but I couldn’t see her face clearly enough to be sure. We met up at Deux Magots for dinner (just for old time’s sake) and then walked the streets around the rue Bonaparte looking at the glamorous shops and deciding what to go back to the next morning.

Metro string ensemble My mystery woman?

From Left to Right: Metro string ensemble, My mystery woman?

Deux Magots dinner Cafe de la Mairie

From Left to Right: Deux Magots dinner, Cafe de la Mairie

Friday morning we had breakfast at Café de la Mairie in the Place Saint-Sulpice (I could have sworn I saw Catherine Deneuve walk past) and I gave Kate a quick tour of the Eglise. We tried to visit the shops we’d identified the previous night, but everything was closed until later! So we got gritty and walked until we found Diane von Furstenburg – Kate’s all-time fav dress shop – and had a little pleasurable looking and touching before we had to head off to the station. A glamorous finish to my happy return to Paris.

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