In mid-October, I took a solo trip to Paris for 12 days. It was my first time in Paris — a trip I had been looking forward to for nearly a decade. I didn’t quite know what to expect, who I would meet, or what experiences I might have. I didn’t know if the Paris I was visiting was like the one in my head, shining and elegant, packed with history and artistic allure, or if it was just a city. As I’ll report below, through chance encounters, a little romance, and some great experiences, I found both: the Paris I hoped for and the one that even my hopes did not anticipate. (Note to my health readers: earmuffs). Click here for Part II.
“UN CROISSANT, sil vous plait,” I mumbled to the young woman behind the counter, attempting to disguise my accent and embarrassment. It would be the first of 16 croissants I was to consume over the next 12 days in Paris, but none ordered with as little confidence as this one.
The young woman looked confused.
I repeated, attempting to slow down and sharpen my accent: “ewn Cwahsson, sil- VU – Play.” This time attempting to place more stress on the ends of the words, as the French language calls for.
Strike two. Rien. (Later I learned “un” is actually pronounced closer to “eh”).
With a queue now forming behind me, I was demoted to that shameful, foreign pantomime of pointing to what I wanted. The young woman replied to my tattered French with better English (the worst possible result): “2 euros, please.” “Oui,” I said, trying to salvage my pride.
First public French attempt— miserable failure.
They say in the foreign language learning realms the most important part is summoning the courage to try. This feels like patronizing, but I’ll take it. I’d have many more chances to improve over the next 12 days in Paris.
Luckily, I had a consolation prize— the most amazing croissant I’d eve had in my life.
On the first bite I almost lost my mind. I can’t tell whether it was the butter (I typically only eat plants), the flaky, perfection (croissants are my dream), or the warped perception of a starry-eyed, jet-lagged, traveler.
But perception is reality, right?
I took the rest of my croissant, and my dignity, and headed for the river Seine.
Day 1: Why Am I Here?
THE SUN WAS SHINNING on that cool, mid-October morning, as I walked down Rue Vieille du Temple. Croissant in hand, switching glances among the short, pale colored buildings and the slender, sure-dressed Parisians, a smile broadened my mouth and squinted my eyes. After a couple hundred paces, I reminded myself to take in some air while gazing back over the wondrous city against the blue, clear sky.
As I made my way towards the Seine, I thought of how appreciative I was to be exactly where I stood. Sure, there was the honeymoon feeling of reaching my first day of vacation. But it was more than that. It was the realization of a decade’s longing for Paris.
Strangely, it was always here for me to visit. After all, it’s a similar distance from New York as is LA—a city I had been to dozens of times. And it’s far closer than other countries to which I’ve gone— China, for example. So why, at the age of 32, had I only just arrived?
Several reasons occur to me, all steeped in fantasized expectation.
First, ‘the Bogart reasoning’: “we’ll always have Paris.” The feeling that it’s so easy to get there— ‘let me get to less frequented places first.’ I did this only to find that I was through the first third of my life without venturing to the City of Lights.
Second, maybe I was afraid I had a bit of the ‘Gatsby disease.’ I had a picture of Paris in my mind, as Gatsby did Daisy, destined to be let down by reality. As Fitzgerald wrote: “No amount of fire or freshness can challenge what a man will store up in his ghostly heart.”
Or maybe I was Owen Wilson, hoping for the old Paris– La Belle Epoque— about which I had read. Hoping for Hemingway, Wilde, Fitzgerald, Picasso and Stein at Cafe de Flore? Or perhaps I was looking for the Sun King, the salons of Voltaire and Rousseau, or Napoleon’s revolution?
I think I feared that Paris today is just a city. People going to work, eyes fixed to Instagram, bummed because of the rain. What I was chasing was dead and gone; a mere relic of a once golden city.
But, now, standing on the Pont Norte Dame, looking south-eastward over the Seine, I was reinvigorated. This was my chance to find out what Paris was still here to find.
I finished my croissant and headed to the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore…
Day Two: Le Marais (and Near Romance #1)
I awoke on that Friday to alarmless silence. Even though I had a food tour booked for 11am, I figured there was no way I could possibly be cutting it close. After all, I’d fallen asleep early and hadn’t awoken after 7:30 AM in years.
Assured of my time, I laid there in bed for a few minutes, refreshed and happy, replaying the events of the day prior — my failed French, the croissant, the sun shining off the Seine, the bookstore, and an intimate jazz show (~25 ppl) in the evening (my first ‘Airbnb Experience’ — more later).
Breaking the day dream, I leisurely reached for my phone for a time check. I expected to have an hour or so to write, maybe take a walk or get a coffee before the tour. The clock disagreed, however. It read 10:25 AM.
I guess it made sense. Remaining sleepless on the plane, aside form the occasional airplane-nod-off— where your head slinks down, lulled into sleep, only to have bumps and discomfort awake you every 45 seconds, I had only really slept a few hours of the past forty.
Luckily, the food tour was in the neighborhood I was staying, Le Marais, so I had just enough time to get there with a light jog and a fashionably late entrance.
The tour was called the Secret Food Tour. It had been recommended to me by a business contact of mine, Alan, who had gone on the tour a few months prior. I trusted Alan, seeing him as thoughtful and interesting, so I had booked on the spot. I highly recommend it.
When I arrived at the tour our guide, Christophe, had just started describing its history. A good place to start for a guy like me.
After the history lesson, we were off to first stop, La Tour du Temple. Here we were to have coffee and a croissant to kick it off. Christophe ordered for all of us and the coffees came out, shortly followed by plates full of one of the top three croissants I was to have on my stay (I believe they purchase their croissants from Tout Autour Du Pain).[Coffee Note #1: For my American readers, in Paris, as in other parts of the world, coffee (café) means a shot of espresso. To get something close to the drip coffee ‘house roast’ at Starbucks or local coffee house, you’ll need to order a ‘café americano’]. [Coffee Note #2: Most of the coffee in the old-time bars / cafes is not great if you’re used to something boutique like Blue Bottle, Stumptown, or Bluestone Lane in NYC. Apparently the boutique (good) coffee craze only just hit Paris in the last 5 years. I eventually track it down, as you might have expected].
Over coffee and croissants, I started to gab up the group. To my left, there sat a lovely couple from London, let’s call them David and Gilbert. Like most of the group, they were just in Paris for a few days, but unlike most, they had been to Paris many times. Form them I was to learn of a light show at the Atelier des Lumieres.
Across from me sat a late-20s, pretty and sweet Canadian (Toronton, to be exact) I’ll call Sara. She was on the latter half of a two-country trip with her family —Morocco and Paris. She came on the tour without them while they went to some museum in which she had little interest. Croissants, baguettes, cheeses, meats, and wine versus starring at 1000-year-old, enigmatic sculptures— wasn’t a difficult choice. Both being on our own, young, ostensibly single, a rapport was established early on.
The company was rounded out by two old couples that all had that Woody Allen-ish Jewish vibe. One of the couples lived in Columbia, Maryland, 20 minutes from where I was born. They were very nice, funny, and enjoyable. Perhaps a little to close to home though…
Throughout the tour, Christophe gave us snippets of facts and history, which I ate up as readily as the food. We looked at the traditional French gardens, the architecture, and we learned about regional wine and cheese production. For example, to be assured the cheese you are purchasing adheres to the strict standards of French cheese production, look for an ‘AOC’ mark on the package. (PDO is the EU’s equivalent).
Close to the end, we stopped at a “secret” food stop. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about that… Sorry, pinky sweared. All I can tell you is Lenny Kravitz loves it.
We ended the tour over a few French macaroons and some chocolate, and then parted ways. And as well all headed in different directions, that feeling crept in— the separation of that loose bind that forms when you spend a few hours with people you’ll never see again.
The final goodbye was to Sara. My attraction to her had only grown since meeting her four hours earlier, as will happen when you add endearing personality to adorable appearance. I thought for a second about asking her to dinner or seeing if she wanted to get a drink, but something held me back.
There’s a certain loneliness apparent when I travel solo. Rarely dominant but always present, it lives as a one-watt ember, ready to combust in the midst of a down moment. In a foreign speaking country, its ignition is more likely, pressing me towards the safer company of a fellow English-speaking traveler. Knowing this, I’m now overly sensitive to the feeling, wanting instead to force myself towards the discomfort of the unknown. I felt this mechanism at play as we finally settled on that awkward trifle of ‘exchanging instagram accounts.’ Another potential intimacy left to die in the social ether.
I felt that for a minute and took a few deep breaths. Then, seeing it was after 3pm, and with the sun perfectly radiant, I headed to my home-base café to write in the afternoon light.
AS IT TURNED OUT, the following days would bring many more connections, including a very intimate one, as well as several unexpected adventures and golden moments.
There’s still much to tell about my Airbnb Experiences throughout the trip, my rendezvous with my amazing British friend, Sally, and a chance meeting in a coffee shop with a young, lovely, french artist….
But I’ll get into that next time…
Jusqu’a plus tard!