In some ways, I was destined to become a francophile: I was born in post-French-colonial Saigon and then grew up in Canada, where I took French classes from the fourth grade on. I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t longing to go France itself — it was somehow a part of my very constitution. In high school, I had a wonderful French teacher who turned me into a full-fledged francophile, and by the time I got to college, I was determined to find a way to finally get there. So I committed to a year-long foreign exchange program, which allowed me to pay regular tuition to my own university but study at its sister school in the south of France. Up until that point, the farthest I had ever lived from my family was 2 hours away.
It was an enlightening year, to say the least — full of lessons learned, many notebooks filled, and dear friends who became like family. What’s more, France is also where I “remet” my husband (we first met when we were kids in Canada but lost touch when our families moved), so it will always be special to the both of us.
Now, almost 12 years have gone by, and B and I have never really had an opportunity to go back. Once baby E arrived, and it also started to look like a lot of our travel will be centered in Asia the next few years (for both work and family), we realized it’d only get more expensive and more difficult to make this trip in the future. So we thought we would have no better opportunity than now.
To put things into a little perspective, the last time I was in France…
- We were still using French francs.
- I saw Amélie in the theatres when it first came out.
- My university in the U.S. did not have wifi yet, and my university in France was actually still on dialup!
I may have dated myself a bit there… But, really, it’s been too long!
So what did I notice this time ’round? Well, for one thing, I really think the meal portions are a whole lot bigger than I remember! The sizes were even a bit daunting at times. And, am I imagining it, but do the streets and subways also seem a whole lot cleaner now?
Finally, Paris was just more incredible than ever this time. Please forgive me for even thinking this, but I actually was not that into Paris the year I was in France. For some reason, it seemed too flashy to me at the time, and I preferred more of the subtle elegance of a city like Vienna. This time, however, I was surprised by how intimate Paris feels. The handsome old buildings, wrought-iron balconies, narrow cobblestone streets. Everything just seems to have been purposefully crafted with the greatest care and attention to detail — from the pastries to the street signs. And, as I mentioned, the city also felt cleaner to me. Yes, Paris was just perfect, and I’ve been missing it terribly since I got back.
I think a large part of my experience this time also has to do with where we stayed. There’s only so much of a big city I can handle (not much). I don’t like the crowds and noise and rush. For this trip, we managed to keep things low-key by renting what turned out to be a dreamy Parisian apartment in a typical European building (it even smelled like Europe upon entering, if that makes sense). The place had all of the historic charm of an old European flat, plus all the benefits of modern living (including a big stove and oven, a dishwasher, and even a dryer — those parts were not typically Parisian but definitely most welcome; and let me not forget the iMac either!). With an almost-7-month-old with us, we really couldn’t have asked for anything better.
The apartment is located in the Bastille quarter, which I knew pretty much nothing about when we arrived. Only after I returned did I stumble upon this article comparing the neighborhood to NYC’s Williamsburg. The area is actually quite residential while at the same time being home to a lot of gems that aren’t mentioned in the piece.
We were lucky to have a kind landlady (did I mention she had the loveliest Parisian breakfast waiting for us when we arrived?) who gave us lots of recommendations for what to see and do in the neighborhood. One of my regrets is simply not spending the entire week in this area alone. (That is actually how I cope if I have to live in a big city — I find a neighborhood I like, and I try not to leave it.) Being in a less touristy area also helped us to feel like we were experiencing more of local life.
We took our first day in Paris really easy. After getting settled in that morning, we took a walk to the nearby Marché Aligre, which includes both a covered market and an open-air market, which, impressively, operates six days a week. It’s where we picked up some groceries for some easy meals at the apartment.
The famed Marché Richard Lenoir is also in this neighborhood, just off the Place de la Bastille, but I will talk more about that in my dedicated market post in the coming weeks.
Pastry-wise, we didn’t fully realize just how good we had it on rue Paul Bert where we were staying until we encountered a few mediocre pastry shops around the city. My husband and I admitted to each other that we had each thought our first breakfast at the apartment was amazing simply because we were in Paris, and all the pastries in Paris are amazing. Alas, this is not true. Our first breakfast at the apartment was amazing because our landlady had purchased the pastries from Cyril Lignac’s La Patisserie, which, unbeknownst to us at the time, is famous for making one of the best croissants in all of Paris. One morning, B got up early, went to La Patisserie, and brought back a little of everything: éclair, croissant, pain au chocolat,and the never-to-be-forgotten pain aux raisins. I know — raisins! I would never have thought to order a pain aux raisins anywhere. But it was just that good — flaky, moist, and… I believe it had coconut in it too. That pain aux raisins will forever haunt B’s dreams.
As the week went on, we also ventured to the Blé Sucré, whose pain au chocolat was apparently voted best in Paris. The pastries were indeed good and comparable to those at La Patisserie. I also got a bag of delicious rose-flavored marshmallows and some of their famous madeleines and financiers. Our landlady also recommended the Blé Sucré’s lunch menu, as well as the bistro just a few doors down called Le Square Trousseau, which has been in several movies and is named for the park it faces (sadly, we never had a chance to check it out).
The other highlight of our stay is certainly no secret, and it happened to be just across from our apartment: the Bistrot Paul Bert. I will devote a separate post to our meal there, so stay tuned for that! [Link updated.]
Finally, one evening we stopped by a nearby Italian market called Soboa and picked up some fresh ravioli: squid ink, lemon, mint, and spicy sundried tomatoes.
There is so much more in the Bastille Quarter that I never got to check out: Le Baron Rouge wine bar, bistros Au Vieux Chene and A la Biche au Bois, Pizza e fichi, Cyril Lignac’s restaurant Le Chardenoux, as well as the Viaduc des Arts and its Promenade Plantee (sounds like a Parisian version of the High Line), the culinary bookstore La Cocotte, and the kids’ shops Lillibulle, Le Petit Pan, and L’Ourson en bois.
In truth, I think you could probably plop yourself down in any neighborhood in Paris and be content just spending a week exploring all the little shops, restaurants, and nooks. Here are a couple great resources for things to see, do, and eat in Paris, organized by neighborhood:
I told B we should try to visit Paris once a decade. But I already want to go back!
For posts on France, see…
Eating in Paris
Not Eating in Paris
Bistrot Paul Bert
Oh, the Cheeses We Ate
(La Vraie) Bouillabaisse in Marseille
Provençal Specialties in Nice