Living like a local in the City of Light
By Andrew McCarthy
We weren’t drawn to see the Impressionists at the Musée d’Orsay or tempted by Mona Lisa in the Louvre. We felt no need to stroll down the Champs-Élysées or climb the Eiffel Tower. Notre Dame didn’t beckon. No. My wife, Dolores, and I had a different agenda.
You see, some of the best days I’d ever had in my hometown of New York, days when I’d experienced the city at its fullest—the buzz, the characters, the food, the serendipitous encounters— were days when I never traveled more than a few blocks from my home. I seemed to capture everything I love about living in Manhattan in the microcosm of my neighborhood. So it followed that the same might hold true somewhere else— like Paris.
Our requirements were minimal: Be located near some green space and, since we didn’t plan to cook for the week, some good restaurants. This being Paris, the second demand didn’t worry us. As for the first concern, Dolores and I had fond memories of an afternoon walk through the Luxembourg Gardens in the sixth arrondissement.
Since we wouldn’t be using the kitchen, we decided to forgo the potluck of renting an apartment (the kind of surprise we hoped to encounter were the delights of used-book stores, not the peculiarities of someone else’s plumbing). Besides, we thought, let someone else make the bed for a while. With little effort we found a small, not-tooexpensive hotel tucked along a narrow street, just a few blocks from the southwest entrance to the gardens. The neighborhood held no must-sees, none of the “greatest hits” of Paris were within sight. The relief was palpable.
The first, the most crucial, matter of business that needs to be sorted out for a contented life in any Parisian neighborhood is the selection of the local café, the one that will be your base of operations; where you find your croissant and take your morning café crème, where the petulant and surly waiter with the long sideburns and pompadour remembers your order after your second visit. Café Vavin, a 60-second walk from our front door, fulfilled all these criteria, as well as the most important of all requirements.
Since it was located on a corner and sat across from a busy patisserie (which sold excellent pain au chocolat), there was constant foot traffic, making Vavin ideal for the No. 1 Parisian sport— people watching. Lingering over coffee and the newspaper, I saw a teenage boy so excited to see his buddies that he forgot his beautiful girlfriend standing by his side, arms folded, pouting the way only a beautiful young French girl can pout. Across the street, a couple pressed up against a wall and kissed with passion as an old man leaning on a cane shuffled past without glancing their way, while above, a woman with long, loose black hair watered blue and white flowers that spilled down over the window boxes of her third-floor apartment.
After such a strenuous morning, a walk in the park was in order. Down a block, past the children’s clothing boutiques and the gelato shop (which I frequented only after dark), the Luxembourg Gardens pulsed with the rhythm of the day. Each morning, joggers puffed beneath well-ordered rows of elm trees while stooped and wrinkled women talked urgently to the small dogs that pulled them along. Afternoons brought young children sailing remote-control boats in the Medici Fountain, which hours earlier had been surrounded by moody-looking men slouching on chairs, smoking, reading Le Monde. Everywhere, trim, well-dressed women strutted as if late for important rendezvous.
In a corner of the gardens, I stumbled upon the Musée du Luxembourg one afternoon. The few rooms were nearly devoid of people but were filled with the bold and playful colors of Chagall, the exhibit all the more satisfying for the spontaneous nature of my visit.
Around the Arrondissement
Similarly rewarding surprises abounded in the neighborhood. Two doors from our hotel, a small man with a round face worked in a cluttered shop, creating men’s shoes. I went in to be fitted. Without measuring, Monsieur Altan examined the peculiarities of my feet. He pressed, poked, and squeezed. He frowned, then probed my arches some more and disappeared down a circular set of stairs. I could hear him rummaging. He eventually returned and produced a long tapering shoe.
“This is the only shoe that will fit you.”
It fit well, very well; but looking down, I thought the shoe seemed too long, almost clown-like. When I told him as much, he raised an eyebrow and held my gaze. Then he shrugged. The shrug seemed to say, What I have given you can be found nowhere else in the world. I am an artist and this is perfection, but it is unimportant. The French shrug.
Most nights, Dolores and I walked into whatever restaurant grabbed our attention. La Coupole, the large and boisterous art deco Parisian institution around the corner, welcomed us without reservation, and Le Timbre, a few steps from our hotel, found room for us when it seemed not another person could be shoehorned into the tiny storefront.
After dinner one evening, on impulse, we climbed three flights of steps to see a play at Le Lucernaire, Centre National d’Art et d’Essai. My nearly nonexistent French liberated me from following the proceedings on stage too closely and the time slipped past. Afterward, we went to the Vavin for a late drink; the actor we had just seen perform arrived and sat two tables away, brooding.
The days rolled past, and I began to feel that same sense of understanding I have in New York, when the accumulation of small daily details gathers to produce a deep, bountiful experience.
Then Dolores called her ex, a Frenchman living in Paris. We arranged to meet him and his wife for a picnic on the banks of the River Seine. It was time to leave the neighborhood.
We bought cheese and bread and fruit at the market around the corner. We walked through the Luxembourg Gardens and out—farther than I had been in a week. We made our way down to the river. I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower. We all settled beside the water just across from the Île Saint-Louis, looking up at the flanks of Notre Dame. The sky faded to purple as glass-walled riverboats chugged past like floating fishbowls. We talked of our kids—how liberating it felt to be away, then how much we missed them. My wife and her ex relived some of their glory days. How very modern of us all to be so broad-minded, I decided, how French.
Long after the sky had turned black, we hugged and kissed and parted. Dolores and I strolled along boulevard Saint-Germain in silence, hand in hand. Then up boulevard Saint-Michel. At the Luxembourg Gardens, the gates were locked. We had a late coffee at a café across the street, watching the moon rise over the black trees. We paid our bill, then made our way past Hôtel le Sénat, past the Musée du Luxembourg, up rue de Vaugirard, and took the long way home.