The International Writers Magazine: France

Paris Soir
Pat Hood-Miller

It’s Time You Go to Paris and you don’t have to be rich

A lot of Americans disparage France these days, but many have never been there, which doesn’t seem quite fair. My American-born husband is half French and a devoted Francophile. He first took me there on our honeymoon in 2000. We’ve made many trips since then and always meet people with such joie de vivre. We always feel welcomed since individuals do not judge us by what our government leaders do – nor do we judge France by what its leaders do.

The French are different from us, and they should be. Thanks to books like French or Foe by Polly Platt, I’ve come to understand and appreciate the French. My mother-in-law is a Mayflower descendent and her 57-year marriage to her French descendent husband has found a whole new meaning since we introduced her to the book French Toast by Harriet Welty Rochefort. We laugh together when we see the traits of father and son explained with such clarity and humor.

On our first trip together we did a lot of the usual tourist stuff, and so should any newcomer. Museums and such require an entrance fee. Many sites are free. We toured Le Louvre and will always know we’ve been eyeball-to-eyeball with Mona Lisa, as well as many of her famous associates. The museum is overwhelming in size and requires careful planning to fully enjoy your visit. The Cathedral Notre Dame makes for a great photo-op on the outside, and is poignant beyond compare on its interior. La Tour Eiffel can be seen from all over the city. As you finally get near it, be ready to be awestruck. The view from above is breathtaking. Even if you fear heights and stay below, the view "looking up" is nearly as magical! You also must stroll the Champs-Elysée. It’s the boulevard that offers the pulse of the city with its energy and cornucopia of nationalities. Shopping ranges from affordable to outrageous, but there’s plenty to see without buying a thing. The scenery is also extra special during the Christmas holiday season. At one end of the boulevard is the Arch de Triomphe. It’s another landmark photo-op and you can climb the hundreds of stairs to the view from the top. You can also get a charge out of watching the infamous Parisian drivers navigate its circle.

The Palace of Versailles is a train ride away. Its extravagance is incredible. I personally appreciate The Biltmore in North Carolina more. But, it represents an important time in France’s history and has to be seen to be believed.

On this our seventh trip we’ve reserved two nights up in the old artists colony of Montmartre, which many tourists think of as the "real" Paris. From the Timhotel, a charming place and reasonably priced at around sixty euros a night, we follow a maze of steep and crooked little streets looking much the way Renoir, van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and the other Impressionists saw them. On the highest point of Montmartre is the Basilique le Sacré-coeur. This church dominates the area and is a major landmark of Paris. It’s another great spot for photographs and a panoramic view of the city, day or night. A short walk from here is Place du Tertre, a neighborhood square filled with street artists, retail shops, restaurants and cafés. Even though this area has become "very tourist" we still like the feel of it and enjoy people watching. On our first afternoon, we sit outside one of the cafes, and I feast on my favorite French dish (even though it sounds Italian) spaghetti bolognaise.

We carefully study the artists strolling around in hopes of seeing Jean-Claude Maxim, a local artist we met who reminds me of the American actor Kelsey Grammar, and wears a distinctive red coat. For unique portraits you’ll be proud to take home, he’s your man.
Down the hill from Montmartre, at 82 Boulevard de Clichy, is the famed Moulin Rouge. The bright red neon windmill provides another great backdrop for photos. The
shows are spectacular, but you can get a better quality meal elsewhere, so we don’t recommend the dinner show.

In France, breakfast (petit déjeuner) is between 7:30 and 9:30 am. In hotels it is usually buffet-style, offering boiled oeufs (eggs), sliced jambon (ham), dry cereals like Corn Flakes, an assortment of pastries, milk, orange juice and coffee (or tea). Lunch (déjeuner) is from 12:30 to 2:00 p.m. Except for large retailers, most businesses close during this time so that the proper commitment can be made to the mid-day meal. Plan your day accordingly. Dinner (diner) will not be offered until around 7:30 in the evening and serving will stop around 10:00 p.m. Because the French usually work until 6:00 or 6:30 p.m., they typically dine after 8 o’clock.

Late-night eating places can be surprisingly difficult to find, but if in need watch for the bright red logo of Hippopotamus. A national chain, open until 1 a.m., it’s what the French consider fast food, but you would never confuse this place with McDonald’s. The atmosphere is upscale and modern, the menu vast, the food delicious, and the price right.

If you want to stick out like an American tourist, wear shirts and caps with American brand logos or statements. Also be loud and aggressive. If you prefer to blend in a bit, wear neutral colors, especially black in winter. Ladies, wear silk scarves around your neck, tasteful jewelry, and fashionable walking shoes. If you plan to shop, being "dressed up" shows respect to the shopkeeper. In winter, everyone wears long wool scarves wrapped around their necks, and most wear hats for warmth. Speak softly, especially in restaurants and close quarters. And, always, I repeat always, be polite. When asking for directions or information, first say "Excusez-moi de voous déranger, monsier (or madame)…" ("Excuse me for disturbing you, Sir, or Madame …").When you enter an establishment, always say "bonjour" (hello, good day), and when you leave "au revoir" (goodbye) or "bonsoir" (good evening/night). To make it even better, add "monsieur" or "madame" and their name, if you know it. So many Americans have accused the French of being rude and cold when actually they are compassionate and helpful. They simply don’t respond well to what they consider bad manners. Warren also reminds me that walking down the street smiling at strangers is fine for downtown Charleston, but not for Paris. The French public face is closed.

On our second day, we tour the Musée d’Orsay. Its nationally owned collections originate from three main institutions: the Musée du Louvre, the Musée du Jeu de Paume, and the Musée National d'Art Moderne. The Musée d'Orsay concentrates on a given period (1848 to 1914) and includes collections of furniture, architecture and photography in addition to its paintings, sculptures, and graphic and decorative arts. We’re able to see the fabulous collection within one afternoon.

Afterward, we walk over to 76 Rue Rambuteau and find sanctuary from the drizzling rain in the Restaurant Salon de The Glacier. There we indulge in totally decadent desserts of Fondant Au Chocolate and Tarte Citron, with espresso for Warren and Cafe Au Lait for me (yes, I’m the American).
We decide to take the Metro back to our hotel. The underground railway system is a wonderful way to get around Paris and always interesting. Sometimes a reincarnation of the late torch singer Edith Piaf performs La Vie en Rose for us. This time, unfortunately, it’s a man with a synthesizer singing American hits from the 60’s. I recommend that you learn about the Metro before you go. The key is getting on the right train for the direction you’re going (experience speaks!) You can take the train from the airports and you can also purchase passes for frequent use. Of course, there may be times when taking a taxi is a convenient, if not adventurous, idea.

Later for dinner we cross the courtyard from our hotel to Relais De La Butte. The atmosphere is very romantic with soft lighting and interior walls of ancient stone and rustic wood. The menu offers a range of sophisticated choices and the quality of our meal met my husband’s picky gourmet palette. Enough said.
On our last day we do a quick shopping spree in one of the city’s largest shopping areas, Forum Des Halles. In the Halles district are pedestrian walkways with shops and stalls and kiosks, plus a large underground contemporary shopping mall. This is where you belong if haute couture is not in your budget. If your schedule permits, you should also check out the Parisian flea markets; and, if you want antiques, it’s a necessary trip!

All of these incredible places are now as close as your keyboard, as the Internet offers both the photography and the necessary information to make planning a visit easier than ever before. You can type in the subject or official name of anything I’ve mentioned and your favorite search engine will deliver. Your local book store also carries many wonderful books that are extremely helpful in planning your own successful trip. Just remember and expect to do a lot of walking!

As I bid au revoir to France, I’m anxious to feel my feet on Charleston sidewalks. But, I know that one evening soon I’ll need to walk down to my favorite French bistro, order a glass of Bordeaux and call out "bonsoir" to all who walk in the door. A trip to Paris will affect you in a similar fashion.

Pat Hood-Miller

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