Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Paris, the first time

Over Thanksgiving, while rifling through my girlhood room, I found the green and white composition book that served as my diary during my first trip to Paris, when I was 11 years old. I’m trying to recapture some of the wonder with which I glimpsed that city through innocent eyes, since later this week (!) we'll be introducing our own daughters to the City of Light, and I want to remember what it was, back in the summer of ’85, that enchanted me. Was it the ancient mysteries of the Louvre? The iconic monuments? The haunting beauty of Paris at night? Mais, non. Here’s a diary excerpt:

We went to the Deux Magots and saw a man with a pile of glass (broken bottles). While he smashed his face into the pile a man was standing on his head. When he came up he had a few cuts on his face. We all gave him money…it was very exciting.


We also, that same night, watched a sinewy, desperate-looking man undress while balanced on his hands against a wall, until nothing remained but a scrap of red bikini, his hollow stomach heaving with the effort of peeling off his pants with his toes. Try as we might, we couldn't avert our eyes or unglue our feet (and somehow that scene failed to make the cut into my diary).


From the start, it wasn’t the postcard perfection of Paris that grabbed me. It was the seedy quirkiness and the lurid street scenes sprinkled in among all that gorgeousness. The fancy food and well-manicured parks were a big draw, but the the snippy waiters, the junkies falling into the fountain at the Place St. Michel, and the animal aroma of the Métro sealed the deal. Paris that first visit was pungent and relentless and exhilarating, and though I complained about the endless march through museums and monuments, that trip and the trips that followed are burned in richer, more saturated colors than are other childhood memories.


One night, we kids got wind of the fact that a free concert was happening at the Place de la Concorde, so we all gelled our hair and dressed our best version of rock-and-roll, and our moms gamely walked us across the river to stand in the crowd. To this day, my phone will ring sometimes and I’ll answer it, only to hear “One Night in Bangkok” blasting from a radio at the other end. It’s my friend Cary, who was on the trip too and who lent me her grey and pink Commander Salamander t-shirt to go watch Murray Head sing his one hit.

We tore like banshees through quiet squares and terrorized pigeons and made faces at the gargoyles perched on the Notre Dame. I gorged on Île Flottante and fraises des bois and apricot nectar. To my mother’s great shame, I bit into a crystal wine glass and spat out shards of it onto the white tablecloth at the restaurant Jules Verne, atop the Eiffel Tower. I’m sure my parents had high hopes for the trip and I dashed those hopes, bitterly, more than a few times. I’m sure my own daughters will do the same. But more than anything, I'm curious to try on whatever glasses they'll be viewing the city through. Stay tuned: wifi permitting, I will be posting from the road. There may not be any recipes here for a while, but there will be links, ideas, and plenty of pictures. To start with, here are some favorites to prepare for take-off: 


  • Chocolate & Zucchini Recipes, restaurants, and more from French cookbook author Clotilde Dusoulier (in English and French).
  • Goop Guide to French Pharmacies There's nothing quite like a French pharmacy; soon after I land in Paris I scope out the nearest neon green cross and head inside (usually because I've destroyed my feet walking in heels and need pansements). Here is a list of some must-haves.  
  • Girls' Guide to Paris
  • HiP Paris Blog
  • Little Brown Pen Lovely, stolen glimpses of Paris
  • Paris to the Moon Adam Gopnik's collection of essays from his time in Paris on assignment with the New Yorker. Most indelible are his descriptions of swimming with his son at the Ritz pool club and watching him ride the carousel in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
  • Idlewild Books Foreign language bookstore and classes, with locations in Brooklyn and Manhattan. Their conversation class has helped me revive my rusty French.

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