‘Why Paris?’ I am asked, more often than not.
The short answer to this question is that I’m not actually sure why I have continued to come back to this great big city full of strangers who sing at me in their language designed for poets.
Or maybe that’s just it. After years of sitting in front of a computer, exercising only one part of my brain and very little else, I decided at the ripe young age of 35 to take up French as my second language. I’d nursed (and repaired) a dreadfully broken heart a year earlier and wasn’t having any luck finding anything or anyone who resembled the man of my dreams that I’d conjured up in my imagination as a five year old (and I wasn’t exactly chasing away offers of a drink either). I wanted to re-energise my brain at a time where everyone else was doing ‘other things,’ ‘what better way than with a language?’ I thought, and French had always sounded very beautiful to me.
I first came to Paris almost 20 years ago at 19 years of age and have made multiple return visits, just because (break up, heartbreak, heartache, need fun, traveling with Mum and so on). Over the last couple of years I’ve taken a bigger step towards making it home – with two trial winters, a massive visa application, plenty of French classes and a whole lot of ‘what on earths…’
By nature, I’m delusional, dreamy and sometimes practical, so I enrolled (with a view to being immediately fluent) at the Alliance Française in Melbourne in January 2015, and have spent the past two and a bit years torturing this beautiful language as well as the teachers and tutors who have dutifully aided me.
With my dream of being fluent within a month totally unrealistic, I am more often than not disappointed when I’m mowed down with questions that I can quite simply, not answer. My ability to be funny in French is limited to less than 5% (out of a more than fertile humour bank) and I can’t for the life of me begin to partake in an argument. I’m limited to the present tense which sees me able to ask for things but hardly ever able to discuss what might be next, and heaven forbid if I ever wanted to talk about the past (actually, is that such a bad thing!). My rather abysmal French is nothing short of a crisis for someone who finds great joy in self deprecation and is curious by nature, but with this comes a strong incentive to keep learning.
I also have to (shamefully) admit that I’m not particularly interested in life as a francophile either (let’s face it, I’ll never be French), and I’m also not sure how I feel about all of that butter they use in their cooking. Also, Parisian men are often surly and the women, pretty thin. But one thing I will say is that life in Paris fills me with strange sort of purpose, and I wouldn’t have made multiple return visits (resulting in me now being here on a very long stay visa) if I wasn’t experiencing a great sense of fulfillment that was otherwise lacking in front of that computer and life as it was. And, I did just take the rude liberty of exercising a big cliché- the men are not surly and the women all thin, they are actually incredibly intriguing, intelligent and creative and they come in all shapes, sizes and colours- Paris is enormously culturally diverse and all aspects of this city do extend well beyond the cliché.
Paris is a city that was made for walking, and this is something I relish in daily. I love nothing more than finding myself lost beneath giant limestone structures in complete awe of Haussmann and all of those who built Paris before, after and alongside him.
The architecture in Paris is as inspiring as it is uniform, and the people who join me on the streets possess an enviable style (just like their architecture), that is unique to Paris alone.
As I meander through parks and gardens – so clean, striking and green that I often feel I’m on a film set, I watch in wonderment at the carbohydrate fueled pigeons who chase children on ponies and grown men on razor scooters.
Le Jardin du Luxembourg (6th), les Jardins des Plantes (5th), Parc des Buttes Chaumont (19th) and Place des Vosges (straddled between the 3rd and 4th arrondissements), are places I go when I need air, solace and interactions- all of these places are seasonally beautiful with their light and plantings ever changing as the months go by.
Of course there are also the Jardin des Tuileries, spanning from the Place du Concorde and all the way up to the Louvre and, in the winter months I get great amounts joy from wandering around the immaculately kept grounds of Tuileries, amongst statues and ponds frozen over, all under the watchful eye of the Eiffel Tower (skip the line for the tower with tickets organised by your hotel concierge). In winter, ducks waddle across the ice, chasing little pieces of baguette thrown to them by children and old men and I find myself praying that they can waddle fast enough so that their webbed feet won’t stick to the ice.
I regularly find peace in religious places like Sacré Cœur in Montmartre, Sainte Chapelle on the île de la cité, with my favourite being the incredible Grand Mosquée (5th). After a walk around this beautiful, peaceful mosque, I always stop in at their courtyard cafe for sweet ‘thé de menth’ (mint tea) and an interaction with the locals (in particular the very friendly pigeons). Living in the 6th arrondissement, I am spoilt with the grand Notre Dame being one of my closest neighbours, and as I type this the bells sound at yet another irregular hour.
In winter, I enjoy feasting on escargot and in the warmer months, big juicy oysters, fresh from Normandy. I’m often asked ‘have you eaten at X, or did you read so and so’s Paris bible and go to Y,’ which is usually met with ‘no,’ rather, I eat everywhere and will try anything (bar offal and horse), and love discovering new places to eat at in Paris. I strongly recommend taking this approach and I find it a great way to practice my French and to try new things.
Having said that, and for the record if you don’t have time to explore, my suggested favourite haunts include Chez Janou (3rd), Cafe Marly (overlooking the Louvre courtyard), Cafe de Paris (6th), L’As du felafel (4th), Loup (1st), Le Precope (6th) Ma Salle à Manger (5th), Cafe Victor (on the edge of Place des Vosges), Chez Robert et Louise (4th) and any other place that takes my fancy as I walk. Last winter, I ate the best stir fry chicken with crunchy vegetables seasoned with sesame, at a sweet little cafe just off Rue Jacob in the 6th, but can only ever find it if I follow my nose and walk there, so if chicken stir fry is your thing- you may just have to watch this space (or join me!).
Having grown up in a city filled with Italians, I absolutely love coffee and have learnt that black is the only option in Paris. Café crème is literally that- a shot of coffee doused in creamy milk and it is as tepid as it is tiresome. I prefer an espress (espresso) or un café allongé (long black) had at the bar of the local Tabac (or enjoyed on the terrace of any café, brasserie or boulangerie). When I feel like a good, strong, cafe latte, I head to Judy (6th), 10 Belles (10th) or the café at Shakespeare and Co. (5th).
Which leads me to books. Paris is a complete literary Mecca and I could spend hours in the seemingly millions of book stores, many of which also stock beautiful botanic prints and originals as well as maps, sketch books and varieties of paper. When I need English language books, I can never go past Shakespeare and Co. as well as Abbey Books, (just around the corner from S and Co.), and both are conveniently located within close proximity of Metro St Michel.
As a person with strong Viking heritage, shopping doesn’t come easily to me in Paris and I have been known to arrive with a suitcase full of bottoms (jeans, skirts, underwear and shoes) and save Paris for tops, jackets, scarves and jewellery. I now go to And Other Things and COS for most things to do with clothing, and for footware – I find it hard to get past the sales at Robert Clergerie at Galleties Lafayette – his shoes are expensive but excellent. Don’t be as afraid as I have been at the sheer thought of having to speak to people in shops, go in and deal with it! You’ll be sure to find all sorts of amazing things and often for a fraction of the price that you might find them in other parts of the world.
Galleries Lafayette is something of a Parisian institution and I often find myself there gazing aimlessly at the beautiful ceiling on Sunday afternoons, usually after I’ve been somewhere as glamorous as the hardware store (droguerie). The ‘drogueries’ are another favourite of mine and I have a little beauty just around the corner from me in Rue de Seine, where I can find anything from baskets to espadrilles, light bulbs to nails and ladders to buckets. Oh, and of course a shower head, should I ever need one. While on the subject of shopping and shoes, I should mention that one winter I found a little gem (for Parisiennes with huge feet) in the 3rd arrondissement at a shop named Shoesissime– this has become a go to for me and is also famous amongst visiting opera singers (I know this because I googled ‘where do opera singers with big feet buy shoes in Paris?’).
In the searing heat of a rare but inevitable Parisian heatwave, I find solace at Piscine Josephine Baker (13th) – a swimming pool situated on a permanent barge on the Seine, and not too far from les Jardins des Plantes and Gare d’Austerlitz (one of my favourite old train stations). The last time I visited ‘La piscine,’ temperatures had soared above 35 degrees Celsius with the queue heading back towards my apartment. After queuing for over an hour, I was delighted to launch into the freezing cold waters in my navy blue swimsuit newly purchased from Monoprix, before being evacuated ten minutes later and for no apparent reason (head to my blog post ‘La piscine’ for more).
For candles, ceramics, insense and just pure joy, I always go to Astier de Villatte on Rue St Honoré (1st). Ivan Pericoli and Benoît Astier de Villatte are incredible artisans who have poured much love, talent and artistic genius into building this formidable brand. Their store is a wonderland and whilst expensive, it is a place I love to visit and I always leave with a little tiny something- sometimes just a feeling of deeper inspiration and happiness than when I first entered. Their book ‘Ma Vie a Paris’ is their guide to Paris, printed in old typeset and, even though the original edition was printed only in French (now available in English), it has enabled me a much better understanding of where to find everything from acupuncture to legal advice in a city that they have always called home. For scent and beautiful room sprays I enjoy heading to Diptyque at its orignal headquarters on Boulevard St Germain (6th)- just around the corner from me.
Obviously there are monuments, museums and markets a plenty in this city and to list them all would take me years, but I find great happiness in continuing to discover and explore what Paris has to offer. Each arrondissement has regular markets, with mine being the Marché biologique Raspail (6th) which is operational on Sundays and has everything from beautiful smocked dresses to exceptionally smelly cheese. I visit the Musée de Picasso (3rd) when I want to reunite with an old friend, and find the Foundation Louis Vuitton exceptional on so many levels. I also dined sitting back to back with Will Ferrel here one afternoon, so it has a particularly sentimental value! A visit to The Pantheon (5th) is always fruitful and each time I go, I leave with a more in depth understanding of the history of this city and country overall.
If you want to increase your knowledge of French cheese and wine, you can’t go past a two hour session with Thierry, the sommelier behind ‘Wine Tasting in Paris‘. Located in a beautiful little tasting room at 14 Rue des Boulangers (5th) Thierry will take you through four different glasses of wine paired with as many cheeses. It is fun and informative and well worth the 75 euros.
There is also the wonderful old Jewish quarter, Le Marais (3rd and 4th) and Canal Saint- Martin (10th), the joys of Chinatown (13th) and many other places that I could list in an exercise that has not only been thoroughly cathartic, but one that has also brought me one step closer to being able to answer the question ‘why Paris?’.
For the solitude it allows me on a daily basis as I learn not only about this city; its history, culture and language (all a bonus), but also about myself and where I am at this particular phase of my life. It is easy to feel unfulfilled in many aspects of life, but by living here alone and never lonely, I am constantly challenged and most importantly, inspired. I join a long line of people who have come to Paris well before my time and for these very same reasons.
During my first winter in Paris I attended regular sessions at a private studio for life drawing lessons and I have every intention of rejoining. I highly recommend the three month language and civilisation course at the Sorbonne- Cours de Civilisation Francaise (14th) and there are opportunities for volunteering on the horizon – once this becomes clearer, I will add further information to this page- a page dedicated to ‘My Paris’ and developed at one of my favourite local cafés Le Hibou (6th), where I started writing against a wall graffitied with the quite simple (and probably apt) words, ‘peut être fous’ – which loosely translate to, ‘maybe crazy.’
Sometimes I think I am a bit mad, moving continents to challenge myself, but these doubts are far outweighed by the little wins, and the joy I get from sharing ‘My Paris’ with you. And, I am forever grateful to Paris for the clarity and surety that it grants me, each and every day I spend here.
For further information, please don’t hesitate being in touch,
Pin Affleck, Paris.