“Let them eat cake…”

“How can anyone govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese?”                  Charles de Gaulle


The travails of intra-European mood-busting air travel are behind us. Our Easyjet flight from Budapest eases to the gate at Charles de Gaulle Airport, as I coin a slogan for the airline’s tedious journey: “We bring you down!”

Our taxi rolls up to 17 Rue de Sevres, a very French dwelling Lisa has conscientiously researched for us in the heart of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

We enter an almost undetectable portico next to Hermes (…like I said, very Froonch). We are met by Mats, the debonair Finnish rental agent who escorts us through six security thresholds leading to our airy, cozy (central steam heat that’s always percolating), and well appointed (with the possible exception of having the WC located in the living room) rental flat – home base for the final “Parisian immersion” week of our EU trek.

Summer in Budapest has reverted to hiver en Paris – brisk weather propelling our vigorous strides along La Seine and classic boulevards delineating la Ville Lumière (Paris was one of the first cities to be lit electrically).

We quickly mobilize for domestic necessities – a grocery hunting excursion to Le Bon Marche, a temple to epicurean delights just down the street. Fromage from les alpes, les petits pains, some heavenly prune yogurt, fruit, tea.  Breakfast is secured in high fashion. Everything a visitor could require (a metro stop, lovely hidden park across the avenue, and other trendy stores) is footsteps away.

Food, of course, is a centerpiece of Parisian life.  We navigate this gastronomic galaxy with a reliable internal compass: simple food, well prepared. We eschew the fussy, the trendy, the dark and moody, for tried and true classics – the bistros and cafes where Modigliani, Hemingway, and Picasso, might have watered.

Dinner is at La Rotonde, a couple of clicks out in the Montparnasse. A long outbound march is rewarded by a heartening brasserie baptism: red velvet banquettes, white tablecloths, bustling black-suited waiters, trays of oysters on ice, crusty rolls served with varietal butter, olives and radishes, earnest local patrons seated cheek-to-jowl seriously attending their evening meal. Steak de boeuf avec des frites and Magret de canard sauce à l’orange, followed by a caramelized tarte tatin reassures us that our instincts are correct. The stroll back to the apartment through quiet tree-lined streets is the required digestif.

Early the next morning we are joined by my daughter, Rose, arriving for a week’s work. We are able to steal a couple of days together ambling along the river, over the bridges to Ile Saint-Louis where she would be staying, and throughout the Marais in the 4th arrondissement, one of our favorite neighborhoods that has clearly been “discovered” in the last 10 years.

Crowds abound, yet they cannot obscure the appeal of old and new attractively fused: specialty shops selling hip clothing, costume jewelry, perfume, a bibliothéque-like artisan teashop, lively sidewalk cafes catering Sunday lunch, art galleries, families strolling with les enfants, orthodox Jews inhabiting narrow lanes around the Rue des Rosiers, and of course, the Place des Vosges – a magnificently manicured renaissance commons, surrounded by noble structures, animated with the play of children, and infused with the exotic melodies of talented street musicians.

Aside from taking in the atmosphere, we have a more carnal determinant for our outing:  competing for a table with ravenous crowds at L’As du Falafel for the privilege of devouring colorful plates of Levantine falafel, shawarma, veggies, and pita, washed down with gulps of icy Coca-Light!

Rose generously invites us to a dinner the following night with some WordPress co-workers. We assemble with a truly cosmopolitan posse (Lithuania, Hungary, France, Canada, Vietnam, India, Peru, Spain, and Texas were represented) at La Rotisserie, a bistro fronting Rive Gauche. I enjoy watching one of the Eastern European guys down his first-ever plate of escargot. He had some interesting facial expressions as he encountered unexpected grit and a rubbery texture in the buttery garlic infusion. To his credit he completes the task. This talented, fun group is primed to party – apparently dinner was simply the early station in a long evening…

Eating isn’t our only activity here, yet you’ve noticed a persistent theme! Daily expeditions are designed to trace many of the postcard districts and timeless perspectives of this exhilarating Capital. We cover the rue Saint-Honoré, on the Right Bank, where many of fashion’s great houses convene. Running from the enormous royal grounds of the Louvre down to the portal of the Champs-Elysees, we discover this street is a bad place to hunger for a snack. The super-models, designers, and international shoppers traversing Hermes, Goyard, Chanel, and other ateliers apparently don’t eat! Nicotine, caffeine, and attitude can carry one a long way on this avenue.

We do find respite at Fauchon (“purveyor of luxury foods – tea to royalty, pastry to politicians, and caviar to movie stars”) across from the neo-classical church on the Place de la Madeleine, where fantasy treats are displayed for visual entertainment as well as consumption. “This is Paris, and we are famished… price be damned!” I proclaim.

Other days pass visiting art galleries, shopping at Lisa’s favorite boutique (enjoying a beautiful woman in a city of beauty), appreciating lazy mornings in our comfy quarters, and…how could I forget, a too-brief eternity sitting at our favorite café…

Café Bonaparte isn’t the most prominent, most storied, or photographed café in Paris – it is simply the best. Set back a half-block from busy Boulevard Saint-Germain with two heated rows of chairs facing the exquisite Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (with one flawless tree in full fuchsia bloom), Café Bonaparte awaits the curious, the weary, the insouciant.

Installed at a tiny table, huddled with cups of steamy café crème as our sustenance, we regard this tableau of passing characters and perfect proportions with endless fascination. Streams of interesting people move across our purview, some stopping into the café, some moving through the routines of their day. We notice that many of the most flamboyant archetypes are entering a stately grey building just to the right of our café. We inquire as to the lure of this transparent attraction – inside the grave, austere interior we learn we have entered La Société, a restaurant with no sign or apparent outward identification. (“If you have to ask, you don’t belong here…” kind of thing). It seems alluring for a future meal, however we pass for more established sensibilities.

Waiters at Café Bonaparte and other restaurants we visited move with alacrity, are good-humored, and seem to anticipate what’s required even through our tiresome high-school French. Waiting is a profession here, not simply a job between acting auditions. It is a calling, and the best perform with a stylish dignity that is part of the overall appeal of lingering over a meal.

May Day, a Sunday feeling about town, signals our impeding departure in a few days from this year’s European adventure. Rather than imagined parades of workers singing L’Internationale, we saw Parisians, well… gathered at restaurants and cafes, smoking under striped awnings, and enjoying leisurely lunches.

No Grand Finale for us, no fireworks, no climb to top of the mountain’s impossible dream; just the simple, inexplicable pleasure of being together in Paris.

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One Response to “Let them eat cake…”

  1. Meta Mehling says:

    What a grand final destination to your 2013 sabbatical. I am taken with your descriptions of Paris and your stunning photos. Rosie is absolutely gorgeous and what a treat! My personal favorite Lisa/Howard photo of the entire journey is of you both posing like the high=fashion models!
    What’s next?
    I want more of your writing and photos.

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