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Saturday
Feb072015

Paris – 7th arrondissement 

As someone who grew up entirely in the United States, I've come to take for granted the idea of New York as "the city that never sleeps". Twenty-four hours a day you'll find action on the streets of the Big Apple, and many other American cities to boot. Don't most cosmopolitan areas work that way? Not in France, apparently. Paris definitely sleeps; and in February, she takes her sweet time getting out of bed. When you're in the midst of jet-lag and you're still waking up at 4 AM each morning, you're ready to rock those streets as soon as the sun even peeks its head above the horizon. But the rest of Paris? They're still dreaming of last night's dinner.

If you're looking for quiet introspection and a peaceful, taciturn look at the various architectural delights, you can get it in Paris; despite the fact that there are millions and millions of people crammed into this sprawling metropolis. The city streets are yours alone if you wander out before breakfast.

-David Driscoll

Saturday
Feb072015

Paris – 6th arrondissement 

It's an understatement to say that Parisians are well-dressed. The city is, without a doubt, full of the most stylish, impeccably-put-together citizens I've ever come across. Everyone looks good at all times of the day, and that chic couture is perhaps best on display in the St. Germain area of the 6th arrondissement. For the last six years, I've thought of that name in association with the ubiquitous elderflower liqueur, rather than a trendy Parisian neighborhood. After my morning snack at Café de Flore, however, I will forever link St. Germain to the spectacle I witnessed over breakfast. One of the oldest coffeehouses in the city, it is still widely-known for its famous and prestigious clientele. While I didn't recognize anyone in the room, it was clear we were dealing with a serious group of characters. I saw seventy year old women dressed to the nines, strutting their stuff through the entrance way, sipping their warm drinks, and slowly reading the morning paper as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Their casual, leisurely pace was no accident. They were there to be seen as much as we were there to see them, and they were taking their sweet time (as were we). Think of Betsy Johnson or Iris Apfel and then imagine a room full of them, eating pastries, and playing coy with the adoring wait staff. Café de Flore definitely lived up to the hype. 

Not only are the city's elderly bringing their A-game, so are the youngest Parisians along le boulevard Saint-Germain. Each and every little girl was wearing nothing less than a skirt, with tights, cute little boots, and a stylish jacket. Adorable. 

In San Mateo we have our share of line-out-the-door eateries. Most of them are heralded ramen shops where eating a meal requires a determined and dedicated wait. St. Germain has one of these places as well: Le Relais de l'Entrecôte, the steak frites institution that makes one thing and one thing only. You sit down, they ask you how you want it cooked (á point for me, bien cuit for my wife) and they serve you porterhouse-cut beef, carved into strips, and covered in savory secret sauce with french fries and a salad to begin. We got there right as they opened, so the wait was minimal. After twenty minutes or so, however, the place was jamming.

Again, as with Café de Flore, the experience more than lived up to the hype. My wife, who isn't really even a meat eater, was completely thrilled with the flavor. And once again, another American fable of moody waitresses and a snarky Parisian attitude was nowhere to be seen. I've heard stories from tourists about the ladies who deliver these famous steaks, but none of them were true on this day. We experienced nothing but absolute politeness and courtesy from beginning to end of this fantastic meal. Seeing that it's a madhouse, however, if you're expecting Comment allez-vous? and a bit of chit-chat, you're in the wrong spot. You need to eat and then get the F out so that the people waiting behind you get their chance.

Another friendly Parisian pulled up at the table next door, thrilled to talk with two Americans and share his stories of San Francisco. He spent more time talking to us than he did his date (which wasn't going over well with her, I don't think). 

-David Driscoll

Friday
Feb062015

Paris – 1st arrondissement 

There's a small park near my house in San Mateo where people walk their dogs. It's pleasant and fine, but it's nothing like the area around the Louvre. I can't imagine being able to walk your dog here each morning.

The inside of the world famous museum is unfortunately nowhere near as peaceful these days. I like my iPhone a lot. It's a wonderful, helpful tool in many ways (even last night I was able to use the flashlight to read while my wife slept quietly next to me), but I enjoy taking a vacation from it now and again. No one in Paris seems to be overtaken by technology the way folks in the Bay Area have been. I've only once seen someone next to me in a restaurant texting while having their meal. Everyone stares straight ahead as they walk, no one is looking down while they drive, and the cafes are full of teenagers holding cigarettes instead. The Louvre, however, is the absolute worst place in the world to visit if you're looking to get away from smart phones. In fact, in 2015 it's basically a live-version infomercial about the potential perils of the tablet and it's terrible, dreadful effect on the civility of the human race. 

Seeing the Mona Lisa in person is already an underwhelming experience, but watching the throngs of tourists jockey and posture to take a picture in front of it while flashing a peace sign is unreal. It's comical at first, but after a few minutes you have to leave the room. There's a guard sitting in a chair next to the painting, facing the crowd, forced to watch the sordid soirée go down. Those workers must be so jaded in their view of humanity at this point. Almost as funny as getting to see the iconic image is watching the people who also are going solely to see the Mona Lisa slow down and act like they care about the rest of the artwork; as if to separate themselves from the other soulless pack. The whole experience is a serious show if you're a people watcher like me. While my wife and I were silently looking at the collection of jewelery in the Galerie d'Apollon, a woman armed with her smart phone burst into the room, cut directly in front of me, snapped two quick picks of the bling, and then left as quickly as she came in. I whispered to my wife, "If you don't even want to look at it, then why take a picture?" It's crazy. C'est la vie?

-David Driscoll

Friday
Feb062015

Paris – 7th arrondissement 

While this isn't my first time in Paris, I can't say I'm very familiar with the city or the character of its many numbered neighborhoods. That's why I'm here for two whole weeks. I want to walk around, take my time, avoid any sort of structured planning, and just run into things. We're in the 7th arrondissement and, while I wasn't immediately taken by the surroundings, in just two short days I've come to really enjoy the many amenities within a few blocks of our hotel. There's a real community feel in these parts.

There are secrets behind secrets. Doors that are closed one hour, but open the next. Timing is everything.

And yet time is an elastic quantity in France. Les heures d'ouverture are really just hazy ideas of what may or may not actually be the case. For example, we were up early this morning, unable to sleep, so we braved the dark, cold streets to get coffee at our local café; open at 7 AM according to the sign posted on its window. At 7:34 there were still no lights on, and no one in the place. When I walked back into our hotel lobby in defeat, the concierge rebuffed my dismissal, sternly saying all the cafés nearby should be open by now; yet most were just coming to life by the time eight o'clock rolled around. 

After a brief walk through the freezing, empty streets of the 7th, we found the spot. Everyone was jammed up at the counter getting their espresso before work. We were strangers in the midst of a daily ritual.

The classic Parisian brasserie is a wonderful thing if you're intimidated by French restaurant dining. It's casual. There are many drinks to be had. No one is pressuring you into eating more than you're comfortable with. The food can be ordered à la carte. 

That's where you'll find me currently in the 7th arrondissement. Eating, drinking, stumbling over my French in a relaxed, laid-back Parisian manner. While other Americans are counting the stars in their Michelin guide, crossing venerable institutions off their lists of must-try-before-you die, I'm happy to just visit with the waiter at the corner café. 

I ordered the sausage tonight. He paused and said, "Are you sure? The French like it, but I don't think you will. It smells very badly." You've gotta respect the honesty. I can see some Bay Area sophisticate (the same one who thought he could handle the habañero chile in Mexico) shooting down that warning, responding with something like, "I spent a year in Gascony and my best friend is from Bordeaux, so I think I get it." That's not me though. I'm not trying to win any culture awards.

I went with the beef stew. 

-David Driscoll

Thursday
Feb052015

Paris – 4th arrondissement 

Any trip to Paris should immediately begin with L'As du Fallafel in the Jewish Quarter of the 4th arrondissement. The rest of your first day should be a preparation against adult-onset jet lag. 

One thing about Paris that people always love to tell you, but I personally have never, ever, ever, ever experienced, is the classic line: Parisians are rude to Americans. I don't think Parisians are inherently rude to anyone. They're just not interested in acting like you're cool or special because you're an American in Paris on vacation. Therefore, when you walk in all wide-eyed, tell them your little American joke, and try to say something clever in French, they roll their eyes and walk the other way. But, hell, I do that to other Americans in America!

Parisians are very interested in America, from what I've seen. Everywhere you go there are American-style 1950s rock and roll diners. We went to a café just to get a cup of coffee and found ourselves in the middle of Buddy Holly hour. Just about every boutique is pumping out Coltraine or Sinatra. There are cheeseburgers everywhere; even at the classic bistros, not just the tourist traps. We finished our first day by drinking cocktails in a New York-inspired bar. If there's any one thing staring you dead in the face about Paris, it's that they love American things.

Maybe a better way to put that old adage is this: Parisians won't validate your ego when you're fishing for attention. Americans love to make their presence known in just about any situation, but that doesn't fly over here no matter where you're from. Focus on yourself, mind your own business, be polite, start by saying Bon Jour, at least try to start the conversation in French, and you should be just fine. I had nothing but friendly conversations with cab drivers, waiters, bartenders, and shop owners all day long.

-David Driscoll