Paris: Not Just Lunch

She calls herself “Ms. Lunch”. She’s a chef. She’s an artist. And she combines those vocations in often Dada-esque ways, as photos on her website ( attest. For us, her intimate interaction with foodstuffs was significantly less important than her way with a skillet. Ms. Lunch, you see, invites guests, eight at a time, to enjoy the products of her feverish culinary imaginings two or three days a week, at her convenience.

You make reservations online, well in advance of your preferred dates. She reveals the location of her loft – Ms. Lunch likes a little mystery – a few days before the meal.  It turns out to be a small loft on the third floor of a house on a secure courtyard in the 12th arrondisement, east of the city center. A heavy door at the street swings open after input of a four-digit code in the panel on the right.

Guests are greeted with glasses of prosecco, usually poured by her partner Eric, who serves the rest of the meal. Ms. Lunch is already at work at the stove, her kitchen separated from the dining area by a light curtain. She pops her head in from time to time, but apart from the food, the guests provide their own entertainment.  That’s unlikely to be a problem. For one thing, foodies are at their happiest at table with other foodies. For another, the mildly adventurous impulse that compels travelers to seek out such off-the-grid experiences typically ensures outgoing personalities.

When we were there, the group consisted of an Australian couple who ran a cooking school back home, an animated young British food writer, an expatriate American woman who sells horses in Germany, an astonishingly self-assured 18-year-old girl from Connecticut on her post-high school year abroad who was attending the nearby Cordon Bleu with the loquacious 30-year-old ex-lawyer at the end of the table. Bright, witty, knowledgeable, energetic, all. Laughs and sophisticated food chatter ensued and lasted the next three hours.

There were five courses. Or six. A different wine was generously poured with each, so you can lose count. I recall an amuse bouche that was a little pastry boat with a savory filling, followed by a cold pea soup with a dollop of cream. Third, Jo assures me, was a lemon mousse with two different fish roes and fruited tapioca beads. Fourth, large hand-cut ravioli with a scatter of sautéed ground sweetbreads. Fifth – I can’t remember. For dessert, a pine-tar-based sorbet of distinctive Middle Eastern flavour and derivation.

The cooking and presentation were those of a highly gifted home cook, entirely satisfactory and often startling. She harvests many of her own ingredients, some from an obscure Mediterranean island to which she often retreats, and puts them together in unexpected ways. She picks her own pine nuts and harvests the caperberries that she sometimes serves in salsa verde. Such components as wild sea fennel, lavender, green oak leaf, saffron jelly, white truffles, foie gras pastrami, malva puds (sic), le puy lentils, and house-made boudin blanc show up on her menus, which change for each lunch.

At the end of the meal, a yellow envelope was passed into which we inserted €50 each – a bargain for food that good with company so convivial. Make reservations well in advance of your desired date, and don’t treat it like just another restaurant where you don’t show up if it proves inconvenient.  E-mail to cancel, if necessary, so Ms. Lunch can find replacements. She has a tight profit margin, musters ingredients that can’t easily survive lengthy refrigeration, and puts a mighty effort into each meal.


A NOTE: We were clued in to Ms. Lunch and to O-Château (scroll down to “Paris: Sipping and Quaffing”) by Time Out: Paris. In my not humble opinion, the Time Out series is the very best of the big-name travel guides, including Fodor, Rick Steves, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides, and Frommer (for whom I wrote for almost twenty years).  All of those provide limited numbers of maps and/or drawings and/or photos, as well as competent to sometimes incisive copy, but none with the specificity and currency of the many Time Out books. Travelers love the richly detailed illustrations of the Eyewitness Travel Guides (which appear under other corporate names), but they are so expensive to produce updating for new editions can rarely be accomplished more often than every three or four years. Time Out somehow manages to publish thorough revisions every year for its most popular guides, complete with useful photos and street plans, and, more importantly, with text and guidance written by writers who clearly have intimate understanding of their subjects and a delight in conveying that knowledge.

This city can’t be exhausted. Ever. Change whips down every street every swift moment. But here are a few random nibbles to take of The Apple (or not, in the case of one restaurant) before summer ends:

*The Gagosian Galleries brand represents heavy hitters in the international art scene, with venues in London, Rome, Athens, and Beverly Hills, as well as three in Manhattan. The one at the far western edge of the Chelsea district continues to impress, with an grand Picasso retrospective a few months ago succeeded by the current show of Roy Lichtenstein works. Impeccable mountings of the featured works take full advantage of the vast, loft-like space with room dividers that seem to be permanent but in fact can be moved into infinite floor arrangements.

Its West 24th Street location between 11th and 10th Avenues is shared with several others showcasing less well-known artists, most of whom explore the far forward edges of artistic invention. Remember that admission is free, even to the museum quality Gagosian (

* After a late morning gallery-hop, a satisfying lunch can be had at Co. (pronounced “Company”), 230 9th Avenue at the corner of 24th ( It’s best for its conspicuously rustic pizzas, with paper-thin crusts and charred blisters of dough. Decor is stripped-down industrial chic, with buffed metal lights and braces. The two communal tables down the middle are conducive to chatting up neighbors, in our case a 60-year-old character actor with a vaguely familiar face and a two-year-old daughter, his first. (He was the bad guy Arnold Schwarzennegger dangled over a cliff in Commando before the future Guvernator wiped out a battalion of other heavily armed villains.) Our three beers, two gazpachos, and two individual pizzas came to $85 before tax and tip.

* The most ambitious art installation of the summer is unfolding on the roof of theMetropolitan Museum of Art, at 82nd Street and Fifth Avenue. It’s called Big Bambú, under construction since April by twin brothers Doug and Mike Stern. Assembled with bamboo poles lashed together only with colored cords, it will eventually rise fifty feet high and spread that wide and one hundred feet long.  A walkway curls up from the roof, the artists aided by a team of rock climbers whose special skills grow more obviously needed by the day. The wonder and wit of the project is backdropped by the lush greens of Central Park and the jagged border of some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Snacks and drinks are served and jazz is piped in.

The suggested admission donation (you can pay less, if you wish) is $18 for adults, $15 for seniors. Check the museum website ( for hours and details.

* The only disappointment of this day was Craftbar ( It’s a lesser entry on the local dining scene, one of many across the country owned by celebrity chef Tom Colicchio, he who judges others on the Top Chef reality show on Bravo. This place needs his attention. The lighting isn’t merely dim, it’s gloomy, perhaps to disguise the uninspired decor. One appetizer was a bruschetta with a bizarre topping of soft chopped onion, minced soft-boiled egg, and white anchovies – baby food with fish. The entrée should have been simple enough for a pricey kitchen, but the pappardelle was well short of al dente and the strips of lamb could have used another hour of braising. The waiter, while knowledgeable about the preparations and wine, was grandly patronizing. He referred to me more than once as “my good man”, perhaps unaware that the phrase is customarily meant to be dismissive, as in, “See here, my good man, are you aware…” The bill was $131 before tax and tip, and wasn’t worth half that.

Save a couple of hours for the people at Ô Chateau. They are purveyors of wine-slanted events – three-course dinners, champagne cruises, day trips to wine country, grand cru and paired chocolate tastings, many of them taking place in cellars that once stored thousands of bottles held in the name of Louis XIV. (Not the blueblood who eventually met up with Madame Guillotine, but the earlier royal who lived it up every minute of his reign.)  Enter a gateway that opens into an ancient courtyard off an unpromising street choked with delivery vans. Walk all the way to the dark far corner and spiral down the worn stone staircase into adjoining chambers with arched entrances and ceilings.  If, like us, you’ve signed up for the wine and cheese lunch, follow the light into one of the rooms on the left. There’s a long, high table down the middle set with at least a dozen bottles and plates of cheese and charcuterie – chunks of savory sausage.  At the end is a large map of France on an easel. It highlights the country’s major wine-growing regions.

An instructor stations himself beside the map and begins. Our guy was of mixed French and Irish heritage. He invited us to introduce ourselves – two Americans, an effervescent Argentine woman, a serious Russian university student and her vivacious mother – as attractive a group of classmates as any reasonable man might ask. Everyone spoke English, a blessing for two unilingual Yanks. Champagne was poured by the instructor while he began with the information that in addition to storing Louis’ extensive collection, these rooms had been a prison for noblemen and women during the Revolution and that beneath our feet were stored 150,000 bottles of a private owner.

He then told my favorite wine story about the blind monk who created champagne by accident and announced on his first tasting that he was “drinking stars.” Champagne, he said, ferments for eighteen months in barrels, then another two years in a second fermentation in the bottle. This process, called riddling (remuage, in French) requires that every last bottle must be given a quarter-turn every single day, which has to be one of the most tedious tasks ever conceived. That inventive monk, by the way, went by the name of “Dom Perignon”.

After champagne, we turned to the Loire, a region west of Paris that is under-appreciated by American wine buyers. The illustrative bottle was a sancere, made from the sauvignon blanc varietal. It was the instructor’s belief that cheese went better with white wine than red, against conventional thinking, and this one, at least, was superb with the cheese called Sainte Mairie de Touraine, from the same district.

With the frequent passing of bottles, we started to enjoy ourselves too much to take diligent notes – often the case at a wine tasting – but a few observations penetrated the increasingly ebullient haze:

*Vines grown above the ground about two meters, but the roots dig down ten meters or more, going through several sub-stra of soil, minerals, and nutrients.

* “Oaky” implies a vanilla flavor, resulting from fermentation in French or American oak casks.

* Beaujolais (for which he had little regard) is primarily from the gamay varietal, while sirah is the primary grape in the northern Rhone (which he admires).

By then, things were getting pretty jolly around the table, with more quaffing than sipping. By the two-hour mark, our instructor was hurrying us along, as another group was soon to arrive, but we were joking, laughing, taking photos of each other, and talking about our travels above ground, current and future.

Naps were in order.

Ô Chateau is currently located at 52 rue de l’Abre, near the Louvre, but there are rumors that it will be moving to a new location sometime in the next year. For information, check out (if that doesn’t bring up the site, leave off the “www”.) Prices for most of the several sorts of events range from €60 to €130 per person (more for guided day trips to wine country).

New Yorkers are different from other Americans. Millions of them don’t own cars and never learn how to drive, depending instead on public transportation and their feet. Don’t ask them about local hotels – they don’t use them, except for bar mitzvahs and weddings.  They sleep in their homes. (They call their apartments their “houses”.) And don’t expect to get a lot of useful information about many of the top tourist sights. Most of them have never actually visited Ellis Island or  the Statue of Liberty – there are all those tourists in the way and you have to get on ferries and stand in line and get down to lower Manhattan to catch the boat. Anyway, those sites aren’t going away. They’ll still be around when we get around to checking them out. How many Parisians have actually gone up the Eiffel Tower?

But here I was, seventy years since the first and last time I set foot on Liberty Island. If not now, when?  An outfit called Statue Cruises provided an easy option, with a press release announcing eight Thursday evening dinner tours from June through August. Tickets were only $35 for adults, $28 for seniors, and $7,50 or $15 for kids and teenagers and included round-trip ferry transportation, dinner on the island, and tours conducted by Park Service rangers.

Boarding was at the Statue Cruises dock next to Castle Clinton, a fort in Battery Park, at the southern tip of Manhattan. It was built after the Revolution to deter the possibility of renewed hostilities with the British. Must have worked. Its guns never loosed a volley. After a few decades, it became an entertainment center for circuses, concerts, and launchings of hot-air balloon. There was a free concert inside in the River-to-River summer series the night we were there.

A tedious airport-style screening process made it necessary to arrive an hour before boarding, but once on the ferry, the oppressive heat of the ongoing July heat wave was dispelled by the ever-present harbor breezes, the ones that become the winds that make the Staten Island crossing hell in winter.  The ferry passed Ellis Island on its way to Liberty and bestowed fine views of the Manhattan skyline. On arrival, passengers were invited to either join the ranger tour or have dinner first. More lines, but we were allowed to order anything we wished in the cafeteria, and the food proved to be surprisingly good, given the auspices. Entrance to the Statue was denied (not that I had any intention of dragging myself up the stairs inside in that heat), but the Lady was as impressive as expected. The falling sun turned the skyline bronze, then crimson,  on the cruise back.

Another tick off the bucket list.

Venetian Notebook

The Taverna San Trovaso is always full early, but the crowd starts to thin out by 9:00, when we are seated inside.

It’s not a large room,  with an arched brick ceiling and closely spaced tables. An old man sits alone in the middle of the room. He waves away the busboy who comes to gather up the extra place setting. Tentatively, he strikes up a conversation with the couple at the next table. In a gap in the hum of the roomful of diners, I hear him tell them his wife died three years ago. He is revisiting the places they experienced together. This makes the couple uncomfortable. Too much information, too sad his eyes. They call for the bill.

He remains, eating slowly but thoroughly through his four courses.  All the while he is eavesdropping on the table of four Brits on his other side. He is trying to come up with an opening conversational gambit. I will him to remain silent, but there he goes.  He attempts to get their attention, once, twice.  They are old friends, probably, catching up.  At last, two of them turn toward him. Whatever he then says, they smile crookedly at the brief distraction and turn back, away from him, to whatever memories they had been sharing.

The old man adjusts his glass. Looks at the ceiling. Brushes the tablecloth flat with the palms of his hands. A puff of air escapes his lips. He summons the waiter.


We walk down our canal and over the bridge and turn right to get to Campo Barnaba – “our” plaza. I suddenly realize that this is the campo where Katherine Hepburn, playing a lovelorn spinster on a European tour in the movie Summertime, was filming an antiques shop over by the far corner. Backing up as she took the shot, she fell into the canal, contracting, I’ve heard, an ear infection that bothered her the rest of her life.


The Rialto Bridge is one of the city’s major sights. Most of the millions who clamber over it each year never take the trouble to cross to the west side of the Grand Canal and seek out the city market. It should be obligatory.  It’s a classroom, a place to identify the produce and creatures destined to be on the menu that night. A few streets north of the bridge, its presence is announced by shops purveying cheese, bread, salumi, horse meat. The market proper is set within a soaring, open-sided shed with Venetian Gothic arches at the ends and a row of thirty-foot columns down the center. First up are the vegetables, at this time of year featuring zucchini blossoms and asparagus, but with stalls neatly piled with gleaming plums, plump apricots, citrus, inky-brown eggplants, lustrous melons, grapes, squash, greens, leeks, potatoes, cipollini, as well as some exotica – coconuts and mangoes.

Next are my favorites, the fishmongers. They are in a constant fury of gutting, scaling, hacking. A couple of stands display complete swordfish, but the rest showcase up to eight kinds of shrimp spread across beds of cracked ice. They are in sizes as small as marbles up to almost as large as small lobsters. There are net bags of cozze e vongole (mussels and clams), octopi with suckers folded out, branzini (sea bass), crabs, fluke and flounder, tuna steaks, and eels stripped of their skins but not their heads. Sea snails have to be brushed down to the bottoms of the glass tanks from which they relentless try to escape. And all this munificent, glistening, wriggling, creeping bounty is gathered within thirty miles of this place.

Or so they say. This is Italy. Truth is malleable.


In Dorsoduro, on the less trammeled west side of the big canal, life is lived with a measure of mainland normality. Women shop in supermarkets hidden behind facades dating from the Renaissance. Children and teenagers hurry to classes. Men conduct their businesses and affairs in cafés and second-floor offices. Shopkeepers adjust window displays.

Garbage collection proceeds six days a week with unusual efficiency. People hang small bags of trash and table scraps on hooks outside their front doors between 8 and 11AM. Their calles are served by hand trucks pushed by men and women who gather the bags. No alley or square is neglected. The trucks are trundled out to the main canal where large garbage scows chug slowly along their routes. They have cranes to pick up the heaps of packaged refuse piled along the quays by shops and restaurants. There is a major effort to keep detritus out of the canals with skimmers on long poles. But of course, nothing keeps slobs, foreign and domestic, from fulfilling their biological imperative.


Antiche Carampane is murderously difficult to find, but we do. A sign posted next to the door reads, in English, “No pizza. No lasagna. No tourist menu.”  Sounds like our kind of place, after nearly two weeks of indifferent Venetian food prepared for daytrippers who will never be here again.

The tables inside are tightly packed. La Signora comes by to recite the evening’s specials in a mix of Italian, English, and whatever other tongue might be required. We order the crudo plate for two, an Italian take on sashimi that includes carpaccio of tuna, shrimp, oysters, branzino, and salmon. There’s a pre-appetizer of lightly fried vegetable strips that accompanies the Fruilly pinot grigio.

It’s impossible not to take notice what’s going on at the other tables. Every woman over 45 in the room seems to have chosen what the mystery novelist Donna Leon calls “post-menopausal red hair,”  of a blazing hue unknown in the natural world. The two couples at the next table are Austrian, in public relations. Loud. Over in the corner, two gay men are breaking up. The rejectee is earnestly delivering his counter-arguments.

Our primi patti is spaghetti with oil and anchovies. After that, we share the romba, a large turbot that hangs over the edge of the plate. The gay guys have fallen into deepest silence, each looking off at points on walls they don’t see, wishing this ordeal was over. It was one of our best meals in Venice.


Over the Accademia Bridge on our way to Piazza San Marco, we are engulfed in platoons of shuffling tourists, each of them led by a guide holding aloft a brightly colored umbrella or a sign with the logo of the travel agency to whom they have surrendered their euros, pounds, and dollars.

There is an exception: A disgruntled-looking man at the head of one group holds aloft a different marker. We don’t know if it is a comment on his thankless job, on the boundless ignorance of his charges, or perhaps a statement of opinion about the nation from whence they come, but it is definitely a toilet brush.

********************************************************************************************************************There There are hotels on the opposite side ofthe Grand Canal from our flat, the more impressive being the Sant Angel, a member of the posh Small Luxury Hotels of the World consortium. You can’t get a room there for less than $450. When we see an ambulance roar up to its landing, Jo guesses that somebody just got his bill.


One last restaurant, a favorite: We find Trattoria alla Palazzina at the foot of Pont Guglie, in the Canareggio sestiere.  The menu doesn’t look like every other card in town and there’s a terrace out back. We are invited to choose our table under a long bower of vines. We have a view of the canal traffic, the sun is warm on our shoulders, there’s a soft breeze. If the food is as good as the plates carried by suggest, it will be a happy afternoon.

One of our waiters is a slender, square-shouldered man with a matador’s pigtail and tendrils of hair running down over his ears. As he walks back and forth from the kitchen, his head keeps brushing against a dangling length of vine. After several passes, he suddenly appears at the doorway with a machete-sized kitchen knife. He utters guttural words in pretend Japanese, raises the knife above his head in both hands, and viciously whacks off the offending growth, and pantomimes returning the knife to a sheath at his hip, all in one motion.

It is a performance more Toshiro Mifune than Jim Belushi, and highly appreciated by his patrons, who laugh and applaud. When he brings our next course, I put the palms of my hands together, bow slightly, and say, “arigato.” He responds with another torrent of fake Japanese, bows to his knees, and struts off with the pride of a samurai who has just dispatched a half-dozen traitors to his shogun.

It was a happy afternoon.

Shock and Awe

Too bad there was never a successful international convention on electrical currents and the means by which we tap into them. After early contention over Direct Current vs. Alternating Current (Thomas Edison, who had a stake in the discussion,  pushed for DC), the United States settled on AC, delivered by 110 to 115 volts. Much of the rest of the world chose 200-210 volt systems.

Problem: North Americans traveling abroad need devices that convert their 110 volt appliances to 200 volts.

That isn’t simple. Different countries decided on different physical configurations for their electrical plugs and outlets. There are two-prong plugs, three prongs, round pins, two flat prongs with one round, three flat prongs angled toward each other, different distances between prongs and pins…

Second problem: Two, three, or more devices are required to allow a U.S. plug to fit into European and most other wall outlets. This photo, taken in our Paris apartment in May, illustrates the ungainly installation required to turn on our laptop. The brown segment is the transformer, converting the current from 110 to 200. Its two round pins would fit the French wall outlet if the latter were flat, but it’s isn’t. An adapter plug allows the transformer to reach into the recessed outlet.

That’s a start. The transformer accepts two flat prongs, but the computer plug is two flat prongs and one round pin, so the intervening beige connectors provide the transition. That works…unless you want to operate a hairdryer or curling iron, when you might need an adapter specifically designed for heat-generating appliances. The brown one in the picture works for any small appliance, but is more expensive.

Ignore these considerations, and you are in danger of blowing out not only your room circuitry but the whole building. There are many websites detailing these considerations by country and selling the necessary converters and adapters. Among them are,, and

Paris: Famous Dead People

A couple of years ago, we spent a fruitless time searching the Cimetière de Monmarte for the grave of Jim Morrison. Wrong cemetery.

That bit of bad research eventually led us to the Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. It’s in Belleville, a multicultural district in eastern Paris. In Catholic France, few monuments to the dead followed the Protestant preference for understated commemoration of those passed to their reward, at least before the mid-20th Century. These people went in for mausoleums large enough to house small families. There are 40-foot towers, elaborate wrought-iron gates, dark Gothic filigrees, life-sized sculptures of the departed or of weeping women and children, massive uses of limestone and Carrera marble. Some of the displays must have bankrupted the heirs who commissioned them.

Interred on these sprawling grounds are Yves Montard, Marcel Marceau, Edith Piaf,Pissaro, Molière, Modigliani, Marcel Proust, Simone Signoret, Paul Signac,Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Balzac, Sarah Bernhardt, Georges Bizet, Maria Callas, Frederic Chopin, Colette, Honoré Daumier, Eugéne Delacroix, Max Ernst, Théodore Gericault, Ingres, Abelard and Heloise, and the aforementioned rocker, Morrison.

Even equipped with a map -free, at the front gate – it isn’t easy to locate specific grave sites.  Morrison’s isn’t too difficult, with a well-worn path leading to it and people always gathered there. Given the surroundings, it’s a modest arrangement, stuck behind a larger memorial and barely qualifying as a structure. There are wilted flowers and press notices in plastic sleeves scattered about.

Much more fun is the Oscar Wilde monument, high on the far north edge of the cemetery.  It’s quite substantial, and nothing like any other. A slab of limestone about ten feet high and eight feet wide, it is carved into a bizarre figure of vaguely Egyptian or Assyrian derivation. Unlike any other memorial we saw, this was covered with graffiti – “Love You, Oskie”, “Still Great”, “Peace”, and so on. It made everyone who saw it smile. Oscar would have approved the tweaking of graveyard convention, no doubt, although he’d have preferred scribbles of greater wit or literacy on his resting place.

The main entrance to the cemetary is on boulevard Ménilmontant at the end of rue de la Roquette, in the 20th arrondisement.

For frequent travelers who regularly journey overseas, the credit card company with the dopey barbarian TV commercials has a seductive offer. Repeated unquestioningly by many reputable publications, including The New York Times and Consumer Reports, is this claim, appearing in the FAQ section of the Capital One website:

“Capital One does not charge a fee for using your credit card for foreign currency transactions. Foreign purchases will be converted at the foreign exchange rate in effect at the time of posting the charge.”
What a deal! Other banks and credit card companies charge anywhere from $1.50 to $10 or more every time you withdraw money from a foreign A.T.M., the justification being that (1) you aren’t using a branch of your home bank, and (2) the home bank or credit card company has to convert dollars to euros (or whatever).
But Capital One says it doesn’t do that, at great expense to its profit line.
The truth? In anticipation of a three-week trip to Paris, I applied for and received a Capital One credit card. It was my intent to use it only out of the country, in this case from April 24th to May 16th. Normally, I prefer my debit card on trips abroad, not wanting to run up debt. But the Cap One card would save me hefty fees, especially if I paid off balances electronically with a few days of using it. You follow my logic, I hope.
This I did, incurring charges only from May 3rd to May 17th and paying them off in full well before the end of that month. Then came an “Accounts Summary”.  It showed four cash withdrawals and my four electronic payments, the last one on May 15th.
But here’s the thing: The summary also listed four “Cash Front End Fees” totaling $41.63, directly preceding the cash withdrawals. A rose is a rose is a rose. That is to say, they have created another term for what they actually mean – “Foreign Currency Transaction Fees”. The final indignity was a $5.86 interest charge, despite the fact that the balance had been fully paid in less than three weeks from first use.
There was no satisfaction to be drawn from the Capital One call center, of course. The woman at the other end seemed to have Tagalog as her native tongue.
A double pox on Capital One.

Paris On My Mind

We’ll Always Have Paris

Those of us of a certain age – Depression Babies – feel regret for those who followed – Boomers, GenXers, Millennials – who never fell in thrall to the tales and images of the Lost Generation. Poet Gertrude Stein, who presided over a shifting salon of young artists and writers, coined that term. They were expatriates from many countries who gathered in Paris to enjoy a bohemian lifestyle supported by stipends from home and sales of their words to the many journals and publishing houses that thrived in Paris between World War I and the Great Depression.

They argued, wrote, painted, fought, drank, swapped partners, caroused, and drank some more, many never to drag themselves out of alcohol-fueled despair and disillusionment. But the most capable among them profoundly altered the course of arts and letters, replacing Victorian conventions with a modernism that swept across every one of the linear and visual arts – literature, music, painting, poetry, reportage, sculpture. They were Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Joyce, Braque, Ezra Pound, Sartre, AnaÏs Nin, Harte Crane, John dos Passos, William Carlos Williams, Henry Miller, Joan Miró, Duchamp, and hundreds more. The stories they told of their adventures and entanglements were the stuff of dreams for we who came later, the pre-WW II children who became known as the Silent Generation. We were not daring, not creative, not venturesome, but wished we were. Like Papa and Pablo.

Even the truth didn’t dissuade us. Most of our expatriate heroes were deeply flawed. Hemingway was a drunk, a brawler, a braggart, a womanizer, a disloyal friend, a self-pitying egotist, and a lousy husband who married four times. Today, he would probably be diagnosed as manic-depressive. But what a life he led. Skiing vacations in Austria. Hunting in Africa. Reporting from Istanbul and Madrid and Rome (where he interviewed Mussolini.) Fishing in Spain and running with the bulls in Pamplona (one such trip providing most of the characters and material for his acclaimed first – best – novel, The Sun Also Rises.)

He lived up the hill from boulevard Saint-Germain, the celebrated main stem of the Latin Quarter, “around the corner” from the pretty pocket plaza known as Place de la Contrescarpe (left). One of the city’s most vibrant market streets, rue Mouffetard, slopes down from there, where he and his first wife Hadley must have strolled and shopped. Later in his time in Paris, Hem took to writing most mornings at La Closerie des Lilas, a café in the nearby Montparnasse district. If you choose to take the Hemingway tour offered by several firms, La Closerie is still on the itinerary.

The Lost Generation spent most of its Parisian decade on the Left Bank. Stand in the middle of the Seine. Face downstream. Raise your left arm. You’re pointing at the Latin Quarter, Bohemian Central back then, a heavily touristed and often luxe quartier now, but still evocative of the avant garde Twenties.  At its center is the landmark Café deux Magots, on Saint Germain (right). A sign declares it the hangout of Juan-Paul Sarte,  Simone de Beauvoir, and their existentialist acolytes.  Nearby were Brasserie Lipp, Café de Flore, and Polidor, all still there.

In 1955, I was the greenest of green draftees (and not in the ecological sense). I was possessed by the most voluptuously romantic notions of the City of Light, and there could be no other destination for my first leave from my grim base on the bristling border between East and West Germany. On the train from Frankfurt, I was engaged in conversation by a fellow passenger. James was an older man – practically pushing thirty, I imagined – leisurely returning to the States with many stops on the way from his two-year teaching assignment in Egypt. Erudite and multilingual, he was, and why he expended even a moment of his time on me I couldn’t imagine.

Yet he did. We spent five days in Paris together, sharing a hotel room near the Gare de l’Est and circulating through the city to re-connect with his obviously wide circle of friends. They were even older than he, perhaps 35 or so, also multilingual, very chic to my uneducated eyes, terribly sophisticated, and mostly female. When they considered me at all, it was to make reference to my youth and unimaginable naïveté. Still, they let James bring me along to their meetings in bars and cafés and to one memorable party in a Left Bank apartment. Copious quantities of wine were poured there, and the air was blue with eddying streams of smoke reeking of the black tobacco of Gitanes and Gauloise. There were hand-rolled cigarettes, too, of sweeter aroma, and open exchanges of a small container of white powder, handed off when users left for the bathroom. It was all deliriously depraved to this child of the fanatically wholesome suburbs. I choose to remember the experience, however brief, as my encounter with the Parisian demimonde.

James left for home – Iowa, as I remember – so I found a smaller, cheaper room in the Latin Quarter, where Hemingway lived a mere thirty years before.  It was in a fifth-floor walk-up pension. There was a sagging single bed, a pitcher and a bowl on the bureau, the toilet and shower in separate stalls down the hall. The one window looked out on an airshaft. The nightly tariff was less than $1.25. A shower cost an extra quarter, about two francs at the time.  Breakfast was at the corner café – a pastry and tea for about 55 cents. (I was guided to these budget strategies in a book by a Sergeant Arthur Frommer, who wrote a guidebook for American servicemen stationed in Europe. Something about “Europe on five dollars a day.”)

Alone in the city, equipped with only a phrasebook, a huge street map that resisted folding, and snatches of information gleaned from reminiscences of the days of the Lost Generation, I barged around the city, walking miles before surrendering to the mysteries of the Metro.  My first taste of horsemeat was…not bad. The views from the Eiffel Tower, Sacré Coeur, and the left tower of Notre Dame were fine; the Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysées, Tuileries, and the Louvre impressive. The floorboards on the stage at the Opera squeaked distractingly under the feet of the performers of La Traviata.

One night, seeking a cheap meal and perhaps a little excitement, I walked along boulevard de Clichy as it crossed place Pigalle. Other GIs called it, unsurprisingly, “Pig Alley”. It was not quite as sleazy then as now, its highlight being the Moulin Rouge theater famous for the can-can. The boulevard’s central pedestrian concourse was lined at that time with tented carnival games. Several of them invited patrons to shoot the pieces of chalk attached by wires to the necks of champagne bottles. Hit the chalk, win the bottle. Finally, something I knew: I had just been bestowed sharpshooter status back at base. I shot. Won. Retired to a bench. Drained the bottle. Returned to win another bottle. Drank. Returned. Missed. I had no idea whether it was champagne, but the effect was as expected.

I’d heard there were ladies of the night lined along several Pigalle side streets. Filled with bubbly courage, I sauntered along one such street. To demonstrate my nonchalance, I twirled my chained dogtags around my finger as I walked. A hand shot out from a doorway, grabbing the dogtags. The woman at the other end stepped out of the shadow of a doorway. She was dressed as an apache dancer – tight black skirt, low-cut striped sweater, even a red kerchief knotted around her neck. Her pitch was more businesslike than provocative, mostly in French with a few scattered words in English. The possibilities, as far as I could ascertain, involved the use of various orifices and appendages, or, if I wished, the lady and I could joined by one of her colleagues. An appropriate lodging was available nearby.

I wasn’t gathering too much of this, as I was intent on regaining possession of the dogtags, which she refused to release. There would be hell to pay with the First Sargeant if I lost them. I realized that the woman was demanding a response to her offers. I laughed. Not with insouciance. Terror. That angered her.

Pourquoi you say ha-ha?” she demanded. Since I was helpless to explain, she retreated into her doorway with an elaborate display of Gallic indignation.

But to this hormonal 20-year-old  P.F.C.,  the memories that survive most vividly from that first time in Paris are of the Folie Bergere, and the shimmering, naked breasts and buttocks of real, live, female, performers.

It was 1955.  Back in America, it was forbidden to utter the word “pregnant” on the radio, never mind mention the procedures and body parts involved in bringing about that condition.

Paris Every Moment

The French Aren’t American

They’re thinner, for one thing. They dress better. They work to live, and they make living an art.

They know food and wine and cooking, but they aren’t food snobs. It isn’t just foreigners gobbling Big Macs in the hundreds of McDonald’s across the country. But with time and funds, they settle with quiet pleasure into their bistros and brasseries for two-hour four-course meals.

They are cautiously friendly toward strangers, but they don’t grin like over-medicated chimpanzees at every person they encounter on the street or in their shops.

Puzzle over a map or a Metro ticket machine and one or more of them almost always stop to help. It isn’t true they won’t speak English even if they know it. They think it reasonable to first determine if you speak French. You’re in France, after all.

With the exception of an occasional cabdriver or department store clerk, they are coolly professional at work and at markets. They keep the sound levels of their conversations modulated, even when passing around a third carafe of wine. Their children are astonishingly well-behaved, at least by American standards.

For far too many years, I went along with the trite allegations about the French: They’re nasty. Distant. Snobbish. Sullen. “France would be wonderful if it weren’t for all those Frenchmen.”  It was easier not to reject the stereotype. That was lazy. The French are different. That doesn’t make them repellent. What point would there be in travel if everyone was just like us?

We all extrapolate outward from our own experiences. While recognizing that truth, I must observe that the relatively few unpleasant episodes I’ve undergone in a lifetime of visits to France occurred not in Paris, but in the smaller provincial cities and villages, and there have been few enough of those. Parisians, contrary to their image, have been accommodating and agreeable – understanding that they aren’t Americans.

How are they not?  They can appear arrogant, as did the French diplomat who not only condemned the war with Iraq but managed to sound like a smug college professor dressing down a wayward student in front of the class. He singlehandedly inspired the nonsensical “Freedom Fries” reaction. But the thing was, his country was right to stay out of that unjust, unprovoked debacle.

They aspire to grandeur, which too often slips over the edge into grandiosity. But Paris is the most beautiful city in the western world, precisely because France’s leaders want, and have always wanted, to ensure that their capital will always inspire. See this in their every monument, bridge, boulevard, park, museum, and government structure.

They are quite content with their national health care system, and why not? When they must go to the emergency room or the pharmacy or for a longer hospital stay, there is hardly any paperwork to hold up treatment and no co-pays when they leave. This may make them seem smug, but the attitude can as easily be interpreted as delight in how lucky they are. And this is true because – contrary to the convictions of know-nothing Americans – France has what most objective observers consider to be the best health care in the world.

So go, but don’t rush. Linger. As is true of all great cities, the charms and diversions of Paris cannot be exhausted, so don’t try. Toss the itinerary. Log a lot of café-sitting and park-ambling. Savor each day as Parisians do. You’ll get along just fine.

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