I left Paris a month ago, and I think I’ve been gone just long enough to miss it now. Looking back on my time there, I have mixed feelings. I think, when you invest so much of yourself in something, you expect to be able to look back on it with total satisfaction. I’m not sure that’s reality, because I’m not sure I really loved Paris. Despite the ups and downs, however, when people ask me about my experience there, the answer I give is truthful: It was amazing! Paris is a city with a lot to offer, from it’s museums to it’s charming neighborhoods to the delectable pastries. However, it’s also a city like any other…a city where people live and work, with all the good and bad that comes with it. It’s crowded, noisy, expensive, smelly, and polluted. It’s exhausting to live day in and day out in another culture, without the comfort of your own language and the confidence that comes with simple understanding. But I can’t complain too much…despite the minor hardships and irritations, my experience there was a very rich, rewarding time and I cannot understate how valuable that experience will be to me, both in my professional career and in my life.
I’m feeling a little nostalgic, and a glance back through some old pictures reminded me I never fully showed you where I lived. My apartment was located just two blocks from the river Seine, in the charming Saint Paul neighborhood. Defined by its shops selling crafts and antiques snuggled around mossy cobblestone courtyards, and of course by its large Baroque-style church, the Village Saint Paul is a perfect place to spend a lazy afternoon, wandering lazily and browsing at interesting trinkets.
It’s all part of a broader area of Paris known as the Marais, which is among the oldest sections of the city to survive the centuries more-or-less in tact. Prior to the Revolution, it was the district for the wealthy and powerful Parisians, and many of their homes have survived as a testament to the golden age of French aristocracy. Today, it’s a very trendy place to live, with some great shops, restaurants, galleries, and a lot of personality. The Marais is also famously home to an important Jewish population in Paris, which I am sure I will write about one day. But for the average visitor, It’s simply a great area to explore–full of winding, narrow paths, old buildings, museums, and important landmarks.
Also a few blocks from my street is the Bastille neighborhood. The Bastille was formerly a fortress and prison, now infamous for being destroyed by revolutionary forces at the start of what was to become the French Revolution. Today a monument marks the site, and the neighborhoods around it are full of good restaurants, quirky shops, and museums.
On Thursdays and Sundays, there’s also an excellent Farmer’s Market there, where you can get just about anything, from fresh fish to a new sweater. Many other neighborhoods in Paris also have street markets certain days (or every day!) of the week. I highly recommend anyone visiting Paris to find one close by, pick up some fresh bread, cheese, and fruit, and then treat yourself to a picnic in the nearby park. It’s a fairly authentic Parisian experience; on a beautiful day you’ll find many French couples doing the same.
I, however, mostly venture out looking for pastries. I may not have visited many fancy restaurants in Paris, but I never pass by cake. I have one cardinal rule for dealing with Parisian boulangeries and Patisseries:: If I see one has a line, I get in it. You’ll rarely find yourself steered wrong this way. And, as it happens, finding lines out the door isn’t all that uncommon–especially at peak hours in late afternoon–and for a while there I had a little project going where I ranked every patisserie I passed based on the quality of their croissants. This is just to say, I’ve eaten a lot of pastries. If you’re in Paris and don’t know where to start, I can probably provide a list.
I was lucky; I lived on a quiet street with minimal traffic all times of day, directly across from a laundromat and a cafe, and a short walk to a convenient metro. The famous Place de Vosges was just north of me, and provided a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle. Notre Dame is about a 15 minute walk via the Ile Saint Louis (It’s connected to Cite by a wide footbridge, and is totally worth a visit. A lovely place in its own right, with an almost small-town charm to it’s quiet central street…not to mention some of the best ice cream in Paris). Rue de Rivoli is one of the most famous commercial streets in town, and following it will lead you straight to the Louvre.
Looking toward the south down my street, you can see a nest of trees, where the road ends and a small grassy square appears–complete with a playground for the children who spend their days at the nearby elementary schools. It was never uncommon to see teachers leading lines of students down the road for some outdoor playtime–even on the coldest of winter days. Just on the other side of the park is the river Seine.
Parisian apartments are small, especially in comparison to the types of homes we’re used to in America. However, my apartment never felt *too* small, and even in friends’ apartments, there always seemed to be plenty of room. Granted, my landlady didn’t really have a lot of things to take up a lot of space. For example, the refrigerator was much smaller than any you’d find in America, and the entire kitchen pantry was confined to a few shelves. Y’know what, though? It really isn’t that hard to adjust. We were also lucky that our 4th floor (5th floor for all those Americans who don’t start their numbering at zero) was accessible by elevator–sometimes a rarity in old buildings. Walking in the front door, this is the view. Reflected in the mirrors you can see the built-in bookshelves lining the walls. Directly through the mirrored door is my landlady’s bedroom and bathroom. The kitchen was brightened by sunny yellow tiles and a large window overlooking the building’s central courtyard. The cabinet doors were always hanging open—we eventually figured out that the wood was literally rotting away from the hinges. on the left under the counter is the little clothes washer. When the cycle was done, we’d hang the wet laundry up to dry in the “drying closet”….an invention that might save a little space and keep things out of the middle of the room, but was always in danger of leaving things a little bit musty. more shelves line the living room. there was a little leather couch, a couple chairs, and just out of the picture was a dining room table. On one wall was a television, but it was never turned on once during the duration of my stay, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t have worked even if we had tried. My little room was at the front of the building, with a big window to let in sunlight during the day. It really was a cheerful little room during the summer, but once winter came, it unfortunately turned in to a rather cold and dark hole. half the room I arranged to be a little sitting area, with a lumpy futon and a little coffee table.I slept in a bed lofted over a desk. In the little black cabinet behind it is a wardrobe for my clothes and also a couple shelves that I used to store office supplies and other miscellaneous items I liked having on hand.
To have such a beautiful room in such a beautiful neighborhood made me a very lucky girl—despite my complaints about my quirky (but very well-meaning) landlady. To have lived out in the suburbs somewhere would have given me a very different Parisian experience…I know, because my first trip to Paris (back in 2006), we stayed in the cheapest-available option, way out in the suburbs. Always having to plan around train schedules and how long it takes to get somewhere means you have that much less time to actually enjoy the city, and even less inclination to get out there and make the most of it. When I was first hunting for apartments, the advice that stuck out to me most was “pay the extra money to have a view of the Eiffel Tower from your window. It’s worth it.” While I didn’t quite manage that myself, I echo the same sentiment:: walking out your front door and being at the center of one of the greatest cities on Earth, with the feeling that every day there is something new to explore right at your fingertips, really is one of the most most incredible gifts you can ever give yourself.