Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Moveable feast for the eyes, belly & soul

Living in Paris, if only for a week, must be just about everybody's dream – at least for writers and artists like ourselves. Our family got to savor that fairytale. This was my third visit, so I focused on what I had yet to do. Unlike London and Dublin, however and to my girls' dismay, I had not drafted a detailed plan for The City of Lights, except for some notes. New venues such as London and Dublin required extensive and careful planning and, well, frankly, we had an entire SEVEN days in which to explore.

I had researched Paris apartments for over a year. Some would call it an obsession. I wanted the best location and best amenities at the best price. I had bookmarked a classic timbered-and-ancient cottage in the Bastille and another Rococo-French style abode in the outer arrondissements near Montmatre. But I never book the lodging til I have the plane tickets and, by the time airfare hit the sweet spot, these gems were long gone. So I exhausted myself once again, thoroughly enjoying the hunt. I e-mailed several owners back and forth until, deciding in my heart of hearts that I did, indeed, want to be in the Latin Quarter. It's where Hemingway and Fitzgerald wrote eloquently, lived large and were artistically inspired as so many after and before them.

I finally selected a fourth-floor apartment on Rue Linne owned by a Washington, D.C. couple. The price was right, it was in a quiet corner of the Latin Quarter and offered separate beds for my daughters. While the pictures on airbandb.com were somewhat lacking, a certain character filtered through. The space had beautiful parquet floors, an adequate kitchen, living room and master bedroom with balconies over a quiet courtyard and enough hot water for showers. The metro was a half-block away; the apartment was flanked by small markets, a larger one within one block; and the girls could walk to cafes by themselves. Better yet, it was $1,074 for the week with fees and cleaning.

I was grateful to share the results of my scavenging with our friends and neighbors who are now enjoying the apartment. We brought home the zany set of keys for them.

Arriving in the evening on the easy Eurostar from London, we picked up a few items from a friendly grocer. Somehow, I got to speaking very basic German with one of the clerks, who kept directly me to yogurt. Finally, he asked if I was from Holland and the girls and I giggled, understanding why he had made the assumption. We were after milk and when we didn't recognize it on the shelf in a box, he grinned and picked up a bottle from the refrigerator. "Americans like fresh," he offered. Ouch, were we that obvious?

Rousing ourselves late the next morning, I led the entourage to the tangled streets of the pedestrian Latin Quarter via a quay along the Seine to feast our eyes on Notre Dame. To tame our bellies, we settled on a sit-down creperie (Genia) for luscious panini and light pancakes. I ordered the special with tuna and cheese and a dessert crepe with Nutella, an instant favorite. We sauntered through bookstores and Luxembourg Gardens the rest of the afternoon. Freshening up, we attempted to eat at two restaurants frequented by the Lost Generation. One was way out of our price range and the other way too crowded, so we kept walking. My 13-year-old, who is always hungry, wanted to stop anywhere. I knew the budget and thought we could do better. Finally, when we all were on the verge of the hangries (when you get so hungry you get angry), we happened on a Rue de Bac corner eatery: Cafe De L'Empire. I ordered a seafood salad, overflowing with mussels, salmon and clams. We were all quite happy with the service, food and price. It fortified us to make our walk to the Eiffel Tower. Directly, it's about a 3.5 mile jaunt, but we never walked anywhere much directly. That's the beauty of the Latin Quarter's ambling streets, left untainted by Georges-Eugène Haussmann, the architect whom Napoleon directed to transform Paris' Medieval streets into something more grand.

For the girl's sake and my husband's, who had not experienced the Eiffel Tower, I quietly traipsed past the majestic Esplanade des Invalides and army museum toward the tourist attraction. I had visited in broad daylight with my mom and sisters, when it had been plagued by vendors and kids on carnival rides. The night-time transformation shocked me. The light show taunted a joyful crowd, gathering in pockets and popping champagne, easily available from street vendors. The structure beamed dazzling gold against black velvet; the energy was electric. I would not have missed it, near midnight, for anything. We indulged Lily's sweet tooth with a puffy pink cotton candy in its shadow. Her expression mimicked what all of us felt.

Letting whisps of Lily's treat melt on our tongues, and as the throngs died down, we headed toward what we thought was the Metro, stumbling onto the RER train platform. No big deal as our tickets worked for both, except, prompty at midnight, a crew member shouted they were closed and directed us to the nearest Metro. We followed the swell of the crowd, grateful not to walk back. This little inconvenience would foreshadow a larger train incident.