I just returned from a very brief but enjoyable trip to France. I had hoped at the outset to visit the Chateau de Montaigne during this trip, but the abbreviated nature of the visit made it impractical for me to put in the time investment necessary.
That’s ok, because I’m hoping to make this an annual ritual. This was the first major solo vacation I’ve taken in over 30 years and there was something immensely satisfying about it. I entered a state of pure being during the trip, not pre-planning anything, letting my moods and physical state determine what I was up to and how to best spend each day.
The physical state part of it was a challenge because I came down with a virus several days before the trip began and was still feeling the effects when I took off. I feel asleep during take off from O’Hare, which I later discovered is one of the worst things that you can do, because I didn’t properly depressurize my ears during take off and they refused to pop on the descent into Copenhagen (where I had a rather lengthy layover.) So not only was I still battling a virus as my trip began, I also had a terrible ear ache, that may have ventured into a middle ear infection, to go along with my standard jet lag and insomnia.
I chose to ignore these conditions as much as possible and ended up spending most of my first full day in Paris walking — almost 14 miles total by the end of the day. This was my most random day of the trip, I’d basically made block-by-block decisions which way I should turn. This drove me into a couple of fairly long circles around Montmartre in a light rain, until I became so exhausted that I had to find a spot for lunch. This took me to the Metro for the first time and I ended up on the Left Bank for my first enjoyable outdoor cafe experience. The fact that Parisians freely sit in outdoor cafes year round is a wonderful experience, in my opinion, even if they seem to overdress for 50F degree weather.
After lunch I felt like finding the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, one of the most famous literary haunts in the world, responsible for publication of many of the great Lost Generation books, including my all-time favorite, James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” But by this time, my mobile phone provider’s global pass had reached its data limit for the day, putting me in useless 2G data mode, and I could not call up Google Maps. This is unfortunate, because I was sitting less than two blocks away from the bookstore. Not knowing this, I decided to take the Metro back to Montmartre and my hotel to regroup.
Not having Google Maps makes navigating the Paris Metro a near impossibility for a non-native. It’s a wonderful system, but there are so many overlapping lines that it’s hopeless to figure it all out just looking at a map. So I ended up taking a line that left me off at a station where the transferring line was temporarily out of service, leading to lots of backtracking and a whole lot more walking (for the most part beautifully along the Seine, so I’m not complaining) until I found my way back … and then gave into my exhaustion with a nap.
So by now it’s late afternoon and I still want to go to Shakespeare & Co. and now see just how close I really was to it. I hop on the Metro again and get off near the Paris Opera, walking a whole lot more than I need to, but finally arrive at the store, and then proceed to buy way too many books. But that’s ok, because now I have this Shakespeare & Co. tote, which I soon realize marks me clearly as an American tourist, and what else does an American tourist who just visited that store do but, of course, then decide to follow the path of the character in Richard Linklater’s glorious film “Before Sunset” to get dinner at Cafe Pure, where the characters went after leaving “Shakespeare & Co.” (This movie was on my mind only because it was on the SAS roster of flight movies and of course it was the first thing I watched after my too early flight nap.)
Here’s where I discovered that Linklater played a trick on the audience in “Before Sunset” and the cafe is actually nowhere close to the bookstore, it’s close to a two mile walk (you’re beginning to see why I walked so many miles that day.) In fact, the cafe was quite close to the Paris Opera, where I randomly began this leg of the trip. I arrived at the cafe, my Linklater fanboy tote bag clearly in hand, and I proceed to sit the wrong way inside the cafe, which I assume to be true because two women soon get up and sit elsewhere in the cafe because (again I assume) I had violated some directional facing silent Parisian code. I also notice that no one in the cafe is eating anything (it’s about 6 pm) so I decide to order a beer. Only later do I discover that in this cafe, and most places in Paris, the kitchen does not open until 7 pm. So by the time I’m ready to leave, I’m starving, but it feels socially awkward to switch to “can I have a menu” mode.
As an aside at this point, I have to mention that I take strong issue with the long-standing American opinion that Parisians are rude. My experience with Parisians is that they are extremely patient with my broken French, they always greet me pleasantly, bring me coffee and leave me alone. What else could I possibly ask of them? I also take the position that if you’re going to err on the side of being a dumb American, then just tip Parisians at the same rate you’d tip an American — you’ll find that they are extraordinarily pleasant and appreciative after that and if they see you again, will go out of their way to show extra kindness.
So on the way back to the hotel, I see a French language bookstore and decide to add to my quickly accumulating mountain of books with two French language additions. No, my French is not strong enough to read either of them, but it’s a nice aspirational goal to someday be able to read Montaigne’s essays and one chapter of Proust’s epic in the native prose. By the way, though, I quickly discovered that while I thought it would be nice to be able to read Montaigne in his original words, not even the French read him untranslated — all versions of his essays in print today are modern language translations of the old French. So maybe the entire exercise is pointless?
I get back to the hotel and decide to just find a local option for dinner, ideally some place casual and not too socially awkward for a single diner (while I’m completely comfortable in every other aspect of solo travel, the idea of spending several courses in a fine dining establishment alone is beyond my comfort zone.) I find a cafe that‘s fine ... I order a mushroom tarte that tastes good, but looks so grey it’s kind of surprising that it does. It also had a big wedge of brie thrown on top, which was weird, but with the bread on the side ended up making a decent dessert of sorts once I fished it out. This will begin a trend for me — wonderful breakfasts and lunches each day, but a vaguely unsatisfactory dinner. I need to figure this out before my next trip.
I return again to the hotel around 9:30 pm and I’ve now added an absurd amount of steps and fatigue to my earache, virus, jet lag and insomnia. It’s Monday night and I assume there’s not much to Parisian night life on that day and I was in no condition to find out otherwise. I will, of course, wake up two times during the night, where I’ll read for a bit to get back to sleep. Even though I finally wake at 8:30 am, it’s unlikely I had more than four hours of actual sleep.
But as day two begins, even though I’m still not feeling great, I’m determined to have a far more focused day. I buy a pass for both the D’Orsay and the Rodin Museum. This, it turns out, is a highly ambitious plan. The D’Orsay is massive and that’s a whole lot of navigating around French school children and Japanese tourists. I do have to say, though, that half of the joy of attending a French art museum is watching the people who are there with you. I took a number of photos at the D’Orsay and this was probably the first time during the trip that I felt a lack of social interaction, because I ended up posting quite a bit to social media at that time.
Even though the Rodin museum is only a fraction the size of the D’Orsay, I enjoyed visiting it much more. The sculptures are incredible — and the museum has a surprising collection of wonderful paintings, including three by Van Gogh that are among the most beautiful he ever painted. Given how small the crowds are at the Rodin museum, you have all the time in the world to enjoy these paintings as well.
After my necessary mid-afternoon nap, I decided to see a movie to close out my day of activities and ended up seeing ”Poor Things,” which had just been nominated for a boatload of Oscars that day. And here I noticed another interesting Paris phenomenon … women are extremely comfortable in Paris just going to the movies alone. In fact, I walked through the Pigalle neighborhood to get to the movie theater, which is a fairly risqué part of Paris home to some strip clubs and sex shops (although not nearly as many as there were 20 years ago) and there too women just casually walked through the neighborhood alone unbothered by the surroundings or threatened by men walking there as well. The movie, by the way, turned out to be extremely sexually explicit as well, with most of the most bawdy activity taking place in Paris.
But Paris today doesn’t strike me as a particularly sexy place. EU unification has drastically altered the nature of the continent and Paris has become the place where the smartest men and women in the continent land. Actually, everywhere I went, women seemed to outnumber men by a pretty wide margin, which to me is wonderful. I never felt a moment of menace while in Paris and the overwhelming feeling I had was a desire to blend in as much as possible. This wasn’t entirely possible, however, because I didn’t pack a scarf and Parisians don’t go anywhere without dramatically draping them around their bodies. They’ll even forgo the coat first before giving up the scarf.
Oh, one last thing about day two … I was again in search of dinner on my way back from the movie and ended up in a cafe about two blocks away from the Moulin Rouge. It seemed fairly crowded, so I thought it would be a good spot for a casual dinner. I soon discovered, however, that it was featured in the movie “Amelie” (which I have not seen) and is something of a tourist trap. No one else in the cafe was eating, but I was again famished, so I looked at the menu and noticed nothing there without beef except for the duck confit. It seemed like a risky choice in this place, but what the hell … well, that was no duck confit. It was a couple very overcooked duck legs (with embarrassingly soggy duck skin on top) laying on a bed of circle cut potatoes that we basically inedible. I ate the duck, left the potatoes, and couldn’t even bring myself to tell the waiter that the meal was ok, I just shrugged when they asked how it was. But I overtipped anyway, because why not make someone happy from the experience? But I couldn’t help but wonder afterwards, should I watch Amelie? Was the terrible duck confit a plot point, making the joke on me?
Again I get to sleep at an absurdly early hour and end up waking up a couple times during the night to read and watch NBA basketball. Except with no major plans the next day, I decide to just let myself sleep in the next day — and don’t awake until 10 am. And then, miracle of miracles, I finally feel like my jetlag and earache and viral symptoms have passed. It’s my last day in Paris and while I have no major plans for it, I‘m still going to enjoy it to its fullest. So after another wonderful cafe breakfast of croissant and cappuccino, I take the Metro (which I’m convinced now I’ve mastered) to the Champs Elysees, where I walk around and buy nothing because I’ve already taken up every available centimeter in my baggage with books (I forgot to mention the massive Van Gogh exhibit book I’d bought the day before.)
From there I decide to go to the Cinematheque Française, where there is an exhibit on the films of Agnes Varda. In my opinion, Varda is maybe the 15th best French film director of all time, but I admire her work (especially the sublime “Cleo from 5 to 7”) and looked forward to a quick peruse of the artifacts. I was amazed to discover that on a Wednesday afternoon, the museum was packed — probably 250 people were in the Varda exhibit at that time. Do 250 people in all of Chicago know who Agnes Varda is? And these museum goers weren’t just casually strolling through, they were deeply engaged in the exhibits, not taking pictures of themselves to show off being there. It was in this moment that I completely fell in love with Parisians and vowed to do everything I could upon return to Chicago to find as much of this spirit in my own city as possible.
I had one more authentically Parisian experience left in me this trip and, finally feeling up to being up past sundown, I decided to go to a jazz club in the 1e arrondissement called Sunset/Sunside, which is really two clubs in one. I chose to go to the basement part of the club, which at the time was featuring two (American) jazz guitarists. The show was really good, but the audience was even better. I was astonished at how engaged this club’s listeners were in the music — not just robotically clapping at the end of solos, but applauding clever key changes and well placed counterpoint as well. These were a collection of music theory geeks who lived for experiences like this. And the neighborhood along Rue des Lombardes was packed with cafes, several of them music venues, including two other jazz clubs.
So while earlier in the day I had pledged to find as much of this spirit in Chicago as possible, by the end of the night I was determined to repeat this trip to Paris once a year for the rest of my life. And it isn’t so much for the things to see or the even the particular experiences, but for the life that Parisians live on the blocks they walk with streets named after writers, philosophers and artists. These are people who get to live joyfully among art, ideas and what I consider to be true romance … the optimism that culture can be preserved and built upon day by day.
We Americans are blessed to be incredibly creative people — you can see that celebrated everywhere in the world, including Paris. But we are also thoughtless destroyers. We think nothing of moving on from our past. How many times do I have to stumble upon so called movie lovers on social media telling me that all of the best movies of all time have been released in the last 20 years? (Except for the movies of Stanley Kubrick — they all seem to love his films only from the cinema canon.) I can give Americans a pass for being unaware of the art and culture of other countries, but we’ve reached the point that we don’t even appreciate our own, we can only see the new, even when the novel isn’t so innovative anymore.
Paris is a counterpoint to all this, a conscientious objector to American cultural dominance. For years, that objection seemed a bit obnoxious to many Americans and perhaps a little hopeless. But the tide has turned as America begins to grow older and a little less culturally dominant. Countries with decreasing youth populations rarely continue to hold cultural sway in the world. The burgeoning youth population in Africa, for example, is likely to have an increasingly influential voice in the arts over the next 20 years. What will America do when we become the un-hip?
France in general and Paris in particular could actually end up pointing the way for the best of America. Our biggest and best cities still have enough cultural capital to build upon and are positioned to learn how Paris has turned cultural preservation into an incredible annuity. Theirs is a culture that invests in its past and this investment pays dividends in endless tourism and adoration. It’s not too late for New York, Chicago, New Orleans, San Francisco and others to find this same path.