Grant McWilliams

Paris - Part 1

Ah Paris. I took my first trip to Paris in 2004 and only spent a day in the city. Paris and French culture in general felt very foreign to me – foreign enough that I didn't feel comfortable. I vowed to return and stay until I felt at ease so we did the next summer. We stayed in Paris for a month in the summer of 2005 and have been doing the same almost every year since. We've loved Paris enough that my oldest daughter quite both of her jobs in the US and moved there on an au pair Visa when she was 21. That was a couple of years ago and she's still there on a student Visa.

 

Paris is divided up into twenty arrondissements or districts. In the past we've stayed in the 5th, 7th, 14th, 15th, 17th and 18th arrondissements in the past and this time around decided to stay in the 10th, I'll get to why in a moment. The different arrondissements have their own character but my favorite is the 7th on the left bank. The arrondissements are numbered like a spiral (or snail) starting from the center of the city where the celtic people used to live and where Notre Dame is today. The 5th, 7th, 14th and 15th arrondissements are on the left bank. The 10th, 17th and 18th are on the right bank. The left bank is the home of the Eiffel tower, Napoleon's tomb and the Latin quarter with the Sorbonne University and Pantheon. The right bank hosts the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, Sacre Coeur, Opera Garnier and Notre Dame. I like going to the right band but I like living on the left bank.

 

 

The right bank feels... tight and busy and to be honest a bit gritty. To me the left bank feels Parisian with it's art nouveau buildings and grand boulevards and noticeably cleaner. Why didn't we stay in the left bank then if I like it better? I have about a fifteen-hundred reasons and they all have George Washington on them. Our apartment in the 10th arrondissement this year was $1500 cheaper for 3 weeks than last year's apartment in the 14th arrondissement. That's roughly our daily budget for 3 weeks just by getting an apartment in a different district.

 

Our apartment in the 10th was large by Paris standards at about 100 sq meters or roughly the same as last year. The 10th arrondissement is known as the hippy district in a quasi-Greenwich village way. I won't use that association too much as the area that fits that description is all of 2 blocks long. Those two blocks along Rue des Vinaigriers has a vegetarian restaurant, gluten free bakery and a yogurt “gelato” shop. To be honest I'm not really into all of that, I like a good animal roasted on a spit, I think gluten is great and when I want gelato I want it to taste good. Still the area has some appeal due to it's unique nature and it's close proximity to the Paris canals and boat locks.

 

IF the area was as clean as the 7th I'd like it much better than I did but it isn't. As I was walking down our street one morning I saw a shop owner outside scrubbing her doorjamb with a small brush but she wouldn't touch the sidewalk. This baffles me. I understand that the sidewalk belongs to the city but why would you not just sweep it off every morning too so your store would look nice? If everyone on the street did it the whole street would be spotless. Perhaps they think if they cleaned the street then the city wouldn't do anything and perhaps that's true but the end result in not cleaning their area is a shitty looking store on a shitty looking street which probably hurts business. Maybe I'm thinking too much like an American where business should be the highest priority.

 

The canals of Paris are one of it's best kept secrets. Napoleon had them built to bring fresh water to a city that had polluted the Seine river so bad that it wasn't potable. The canals also provided a water transport path for goods created in the hinterland and sold in the city a series of locks were put into allow boats to be lifted and lowered the necessary 50 ft to the Seine river. Those canals and locks are still in place an operable even today. Our apartment was roughly 2 blocks from the Canals St Martin – the distance of which was part of the draw for us. In past years we'd taken a boat up the canal and watched as the neighborhoods lining them went by. Now we were staying in one of those neighborhoods.

The problem with the canals is that they're also a great place for young people to hang out in the evening with a bottle of wine and baguette who use them as a large receptacle for trash. There's something about the human mind that thinks water is a bottomless vortex that magically disposes of anything tossed into it.. Everywhere you go trash washes up on the shores of rivers and lakes. I've witnessed people openly dumping garbage in water before, as if the water swallows it up relieving them of the burden. Every so often in the morning a garbage boat traverses the locks with a large swimming pool net to clean the canals of refuse perpetuating the myth. Every night people toss more trash in the canals. What could be miles of beautiful park ends up being a graffiti pocked trash dump and unlike the loose trash spewed by tourists on the Champs de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower – these are French people committing the crime – I don't get it.

 

Whenever we stay in a new neighborhood I spend most of my time trying out the various local shops. Last year we were on Cambronne so we had a cheese shop, a horse butcher, a lebanese take-out, a fish market etc... Last year I was ideally situated that if I wanted to walk to my favorite boulangerie from previous years in the 7th for baguettes and croissants I could. Even then I found another boulangerie closer to our apartment that I liked as well as my old favorite. This year we were far away from the areas I know best so I had some exploring to do.

Our apartment owner told us to shop at the local boulangerie down the street as it was the best so I started there. I paid 1.60 Euros for each croissant which is very high for Paris. It was a cute shop but perhaps a bit – dolled up like a Normal Rockwell version of a French bakery and advertised as being organic (first warning sign). Yelp listed another boulangerie (Du Pain et des Idees) about 3 blocks away that had amazing reviews so I also tried this one even though it also said it was organic (and in some cases gluten free – a major warning sign). The inside was all gilded and pretty but the croissants were even more expensive than the last place and honestly about mid quality. However, there were lots of tourist milling about and taking photos. Every time I walked by the table outside was packed full of tourists with cameras hanging around their necks. I tried no less than 10 different boulangeries near our apartment and settled on one - Aux Péchés Normands near Place Republique. It had 1/10 the number of English reviews, didn't claim to be organic and didn't offer anything gluten free! There are some things best left alone and one of those things is a French bakery. However, if you did want organic they had a small boulangerie next door that sold the same items for twice the price.

 

Aux Péchés Normands is a very busy boulangerie and possible a bit intimidating to be honest. There's always a line but it's a very fast moving line. If you're 6th in line you have approximately 30 seconds to decide what you want before you're at the front. We were only in Paris for 3 weeks but if I lived here I'd try every single thing this shop makes. They had the best croissants in the area for 1 euro. Most of the other things I tried were amazing as well including little cakes, pain au chocolate, baguettes etc.. They're not open on the weekends like most really great boulangeries so I had to find an alternative for those days.

 

The one thing I did like about the 10th arrondissement is the ethnic food. I realize all food is ethnic to someone but the 10th arrondissement has a lot of non-French food. I love French food but I also love a lot of other food and we had no shortage of Indian, Chinese and Turkish food in the 10th. A small shop that we came to rely on for a quick lunch was La Pause Indienne which served up kebab like sandwiches with naan and chicken tikka. It's getting harder to find kebabs with pita since most shops have gone to tortilla's (a trend I do not agree with) but these sandwiches used naan which is even better. Across the street was a sit down Indian restaurant that we also enjoyed. We also ate at La Taverne de Zhao and had decent Chinese dumplings. This is one of the odd restaurants that charge more for takeout than for eating in.

 

For French food we went across the Canal to Le bistrot des oies (Bistro of Geese) which was very friendly and quirky with various farm equipment tacked to the walls.

 

In wandering around looking for new boulangeries I also came across a cafe called Le Moka on Goncourt. I was originally drawn to it for the name as I really like what we'd call a Mocha – coffee with chocolate. I went in and ordered un cafe avec chocolate (a coffee with chocolate). It wasn't on the menu but I figured what the heck. The bartender asked me three times if I really wanted chocolate in it but finally made it for me. A conversation at the bar started about my curious drink. Each time I came in after that the bartender would tell whomever was at the bar that I'd just ordered coffee with chocolate and they'd have a good laugh. I liked this little bar because whenever someone would walk in he'd welcome them by name and shake their hand. At some point I was inducted into the club and he'd welcome me and shake my hand. Le Moka always had great music playing and lots of regular customers. I still follow them on Facebook just for good measure.