We’re staying in a little studio up 89 steps in Le Marais, the 4th arondissement, literally a few rooftops from the Georges Pompidou Centre. The building is probably built in the early 20th century. It has nice light almost the whole day, wood floors, sturdy wood beams on the ceiling and slightly odd plumbing. The views and the quiet and the location are very charming. It used to be a vibrant Jewish neighbourhood, and there are still kosher shops on a few streets, but it’s gentrified over recent years. Once the Jewish holiday of Sukkot is over we plan to sample the reputedly very tasty falafel on the Rue des Rosiers. However, it is still very eclectic, from trendy to gritty, from haute couture to wholesale textile and bags.
The culture shock continued somewhat in France. However, after two weeks, we are getting used to not speaking the language. In fact, my minimal French has helped a little: e.g.: ordering cheese at an indoor market, explaining I don’t eat meat in a restaurant, but really, it’s a struggle. I keep saying “Mwyi” Russian for “nous” and “da” instead of “oui” At least my Russian practice over the last few years seems to be paying off! So, there’s this little gap we both feel in an interaction, however, it doesn’t always last. If there’s goodwill involved on both sides, the gap closes.
We have been running around on the Metro like mad. I still try to avoid it at rush hour, as I did in London, but for some reason, I like the Metro even better than the Tube. The French seem very orderly and relaxed even when a carriage is packed with people. Our nearest stop is Rambuteau, and Arts and Metiers after that for those of you who know Paris. The first evening that we went out onto the streets of the Marais, I couldn’t believe how alive the streets were. There were people everywhere on these very narrow streets with sidewalks about half a foot wide, bursting out of bars and shops, moving here there and everywhere. Since then, I think we’ve got a bit used to the pace.
Our first night we went to a wine bar, which was very low key. We realised at some point that the French go out later in the evening, but it was to our advantage because we could talk to the friendly wait staff, and try out some very interesting wines. The food was good and simple, so it was a very comfortable and reassuring first experience in Paris, especially after being on the train for almost the whole day.
We tried to be a bit more organized with sight-seeing in Paris in order to try to take advantage of our time. So in the first two and a half weeks we have done a lot of things that we wanted to do. We’ve done as always a lot of walking, tried out the French cafés quite a few times, got acquainted with café crème, the French equivalent of a latte…but possibly a little cheaper. We discovered that when you ask for “café” you get espresso. Add milk to that and it’s a noisette. We’ve eaten at an old fashioned stodgy brasserie, at a delightful bistro where we had a magnificent cheese course, and revisited a seafood bistro from our previous visit which was just as lovely, called Bistro du Dome. (The actual Dome restaurant nearby charges about 50 euros per entrée, and looked a lot stuffier). Two streets away is Rue Rambuteau, which is our nearest metro stop, but this little street has just about everything you would need on it…falafel shops, patisseries and boulangeries, groceries, a Greek deli, a fromagerie, and lots more. Sam has been discovering the wine stores all over the neighbourhood. So, one of our favourite dinners has become, not surprisingly, bread, cheese and wine. One wine which we have tasted and enjoyed a lot here is Pouilly Fume, which comes from a part of the Loire valley. So, we like Le Marais, it’s a great neighbourhood to live in.
We’ve explored some lovely green spaces, just a few streets away up Rue de Temple is a square with a pond with tall splendid reeds and other foliage, a children’s playground, with a couple of outdoor table tennis tables, and places to sit and relax in a very small space. We had a nice time sitting outside there on a Sunday afternoon when a lot of kids were playing on the equipment, supervised by their hip-looking parents drinking espresso and eating pain au chocolate.
Also, Anne Frank Park is a quiet and hidden space very close by which has two semi circles of trees and benches, and where people often go to sit at lunchtime. We had a lovely leisurely picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens one afternoon. This was one of my favourite days. It was sunny but not too hot, and we had collected food for the picnic on our local street Rue Rambuteau. After the picnic we read and I had tea from a nearby kiosk, and we just whiled away the afternoon. As we were leaving it started to rain, so the timing couldn’t have been any better!
I had heard over the years about the Bois de Boulogne, so I looked into it, and went on a Sunday when most Parisians are out. We figured out a place to hire bikes as the woods are huge, and had a nice time riding around, first to the Hippodrome de Longchamps (race course) which is where Ernest Hemingway apparently spent some time! So for Sam we rode by there. It was being renovated at the time, so we couldn’t get close, but we were there! Then we made for the Lac Inferieur, which is the bigger of the lakes, and has rowing boats and is quite popular as we found out. Navigating the Bois was a little tricky, but it was overall a very pleasant time, and hopefully a precursor to some bike riding in Amsterdam in the next few weeks.
We also took a boat ride on the Seine, and having a slow-going day helped us, as we arrived at the river just before the sun went down, so we got the full effect of the sun setting over the city, the lights coming on, and the Eifel tower all lit up. We lost count of the bridges that we went under.
In terms of cultural sights, we were able to get a museum pass for two days and so did a bit of a marathon. The Paris pass allows you to get into museums with less queueing, and you have to use it on consecutive days. So, we planned to see the Musee D’Orsay and the Rodin museum first plus Napoleon’s tomb for Sam, (while I had tea in the garden of the Rodin museum!) and then the next day the Jewish museum and the Pompidou Centre. The Musee D’Orsay with the impressionists was definitely a highlight. I think my favourite two paintings that day were “La Chambre” of Van Gogh, and “The Floorscrapers” by Caillebotte. A highlight of the Rodin museum was seeing The Kiss, in marble, really close up. In these museums we became aware of people taking photos of the paintings with their cell phones. It got to be a little annoying, and Sam even got asked to move by someone who needed to get a better shot! We both really felt that it took away from the experience of seeing the pictures, because of what appears to be the overriding impulse to take the picture rather than to take in the painting. After this experience, we looked online to see what museum’s policies about this are over the world and found that it is becoming more of a common phenomenon, even at the Art Institute of Chicago, which as might be apparent, I haven’t visited in a long while. Sam really enjoyed the spaciousness of the Pompidou centre, and especially liked seeing Matisse, Chagall, Kandinsky and Picasso. The Jewish museum was fascinating, documenting the history of Judaism in France including during the Holocaust. They are actually building a Holocaust museum here in the coming years. There is also a Shoah memorial, as well as a Memorial to those deported from Vichy France to Nazi concentration camps, which is on Ile de la Cite, just behind Notre Dame.
Here’s Sam’s account of what he did the third day we were in Paris:
“On Rosh Hashanah I visited the Grand Synagogue of Paris (1874), home of the chief rabbi of Paris. It is situated at 44, Rue de la Victoire, in the 9th arrondissement. At the entrance my backpack was searched and then the man apologised for having to do so. It was very beautiful inside with the women in a separate area on each side, befitting an Orthodox synagogue. The service was conducted in French and Hebrew. No cantor was seen but chanting was heard as well as the shofar. Congregants greeted each other warmly as they arrived, and many children were present. The experience was very inspiring. I feel fortunate to have been able to attend, especially on Rosh Hashanah.”
We’re sort of in the home stretch of our time in Paris, but this weekend we are going to take the Eurostar to Brussels to visit my friend Neil and to get a look at the city, as well as to sample some Belgian beer. After that, our friend John is coming to spend some days with us in Paris, and we are going out to celebrate his and Sam’s birthdays at a place which sounds like old Paris, called Chez Georges.