Saturday, September 24, 2011

We'll Always Have Paris

Sometimes I’ve sent out some letters when I’ve travelled to off-the-beaten-path places. But it’s hard to write something like that when you go to the place that should remain the first-choice destination on anyone’s list: Paris. Forget anyplace else, none of them is in the same league. Yes, it’s expensive and it always has been, even when the now-gone franc was soft against the dollar.

The other complaint was that the French, and especially Parisians, were rude and wouldn’t speak English if it killed them. The first charge was never really true, since practicing la politesse, such as saying “Bonjour” upon entering a shop, did and does inspire a friendly response. I first noticed during a very brief stop a few years ago that an amazingly greater number of locals now would speak English, and without sneering. My French remains good only at the reading level; no one bothers to correct my pronunciation any more: sometimes they play a new game by responding in English to my sorry spoken français.

The French way of life begins, for me, with the edibles. Start out in a boulangerie and enjoy the freshly-baked croissants, or brioche loaves, or plain, unvarnished baguettes. I just had a croissant here—a pretty good one—and it wasn’t even close. Either in the same place or in the patisserie down the street, move on to something major, like an apricot tart or millefeuille, a.k.a. Napoleon.

Some might suggest that the French can’t grill the way we can; you’ll find out that that’s erroneous when you sample a perfectly-cooked entrecote (usually ribsteak) or côte de boeuf (better roast beef that you’ll get in England, land of the rosbifs), as tender as a Peter Luger steak. I dined in a very famous bistro and enjoyed the classics there: soupe a l’oignon, complete with the melted cheese and bread; perfectly-cooked cocottes, or nuggets, of lotte (monkfish); and, to conclude, the obligatory profiteroles, the puffs of puff pastry filled with ice cream and topped with chocolate sauce. As one friend with me put it, chocolate sauce makes anything superb.

Less fancy spots also excelled. A fine bar (fish similar to sole) gave way to my knife slicing into it as one would with Dover sole. A Rue Mouffetard joint produced a more apple-oriented tarte tatin. And then I passed a fruit and vegetable emporium which featured in front as its lead items, girolles—the orange trumpet-shaped wild mushrooms, and figs. I didn’t manage to order one of those three-story towers of shellfish but some oysters at an unpretentious café on the Place de la Bastille were fresh and delightful.

There were all kinds of other favorites I never had time to order. No rillettes—the fattiest, roughtest and most wonderful form of paté; some nice cold cuts and cheese on a plank but few of the other delights of the charcuterie. Brought back the obligatory jars of Hediard mustard and jams but an Albert Menes clementine corse en tranches (marmalade of clementines cut in slices) I found at the Monoprix brightened every breakfast.

No Michelin stars graced the portal of any place I visited: no matter. So if I had sampled the simple life, la vie des français, that was just fine. Returned to the Louvre after a quarter-century mainly because most other museums are closed Monday. Saw the fabled trinity of Winged Victory, Mona Lisa, and Venus de Milo (latter only by accident on the way to the café) but then wandered through room after room of Rembrandts and Rubenses and two lovely Vermeers. Plus the attendant who directed me to Gericault’s Raft of Medusa and several of his equestrian paintings—there are even fewer of his works extant than of Vermeer.

Disappointments—of course. We had tickets to an opening night of a new ballet at the Palais Garnier—the fabled Paris Ópera—and it was cancelled by a strike of technicians. Mark it as put paid for my labor sympathies. Yet the opera house invited all of us (I had to go there to get my refund—in cash, no less.) in—those who showed up in black tie expecting a performance and those of us who knew none would occur—inside for champagne and canapes anyway. And the Musee Carnavelet—the museum of the history of Paris—is renovating the wing which has Marcel Proust’s cork-lined bedroom. Never had to wait more than a few minutes at most for any of the many Métro trains I boarded.

There’s so much more, of course. I steam when I hear someone in the U.S. joke about “freedom fries” and obnoxiously remind them that yes, the French were right about the Iraq war while our government lied to us. David McCullough’s new book chronicles how Americans travelled to Paris de rigeur in the 19th century. A final tip of the chapeau to our oldest ally, who could teach all of us quite a bit on the subject of how to live if only we let them.

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