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Why do I feel a kinship with the French so powerful that my ears stand up like pointy little bat ears when I hear French being uttered here in Chicago? Why do I jump on a bus to try a new restaurant over four miles from my apartment on a frigid winter day just because a transplanted Parisian opened it?
Some of us just instinctively connect with France and everything French – while some clearly don’t (Remember the battalions of my countrymen who jumped on the “freedom fries” bandwagon?)
In a recent article in Bonjour Paris, a writer reflected tongue in cheek why, even though he could be mistaken for a Frenchman or a Francophone, he could not pass “universally” – whereupon he ticked off a list of eleven reasons why he wasn’t “French”- some of which also applied to me (See “How I Know I’m Not French – Let Me Count the Ways” by John Talbott).
I also tend to be cranky rather than cheery during storms or strikes (therefore – not French); and I don’t understand or much like rugby or flatulence jokes (again – therefore, not French) and I usually use the Metro rather than a taxi (yet again, not French – unless you consider economic necessity)
But later parts of the list showed that clearly I must be French because I love all dogs and children in restaurants (noisy or not), I carefully study French women on the street so I can fold my echarpe exactly right, and I now read and enjoy Le Parisien when in Paris (not just Le Monde) since an ex-pat friend introduced me to it.
Comparing my “Frenchness” to the list was fun – sort of like checking my horoscope.
It also caused me to again wonder why some of us feel so French when we are obviously not. From the day forty years ago when I purchased my first mini-jupe at Le Printemps and stood for the first time on the corner of Blvds. St. Michel and St. Germaine, Paris felt like a familiar neighborhood. There was an affinity in my DNA that couldn’t be quantified and is clearly unrelated to residence, place of birth, or liking rugby.
I have concluded that I must have lived in Paris during another life, as either a Frenchwoman or a long-term expat. Sometimes I even picture myself writing short stories during the 1920s with pencils on small pads of paper at Le Flore or Closerie de Lilas, or that now defunct “good cafe’” on Place St. Michel described in Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, and getting sloshed with that cute Hemingway – have you seen his early photos, before he developed that debauched Father Christmas look?
Is there evidence for this past-life conclusion? I think so.
Paris is my favorite haven to escape a stressful life, and my gut feels as if it always were so.
I feel a welcome and familiar calm and quiet in the little park behind Notre Dame, where the locals escape the tourist throngs out front and sit on benches holding hands or intensely conversing.
I’m spiritually at home when I meditate at Eglise St. Severin on Rue St- Jacques, which I consider just a smaller and more authentic version of Notre Dame – the same gargoyles (on closer view) similar architecture, and a marvelous organ, but without the loudspeakers, klieg lights, skeins of electrical cords, sales counters or tourists with cameras that have grown around her in recent years – and only a block away!
I recently spent a week alone in a stone cottage in a small hamlet in the Aveyron – and adored the solitude, the dearth of English speaking folk in the nearby bastide town, and the feeling of being a part of ancient country France.
I’m drawn to the cadence of the French language, and though far from fluent, I have an ear for the sound and an ability to pick up some of the simpler idioms (such as saying “ouway” instead of “oui”). Last year the sales clerk in the Fontainebleau gift shop asked me “quel department” I was from, rather than “quel pays” (granted, I was only buying three volumes on Napoleon, not discussing politics).
Finally, when I am in Paris I often prefer hanging out to making plans, and I gravitate towards a local place that, like that “good café” from A Moveable Feast, feels “pleasant, warm, clean and friendly” and where, like Hemingway, I hope to let a story “write itself”, and warm my muse with a glass of red wine, or hot spiced wine in the winter (rather than Hemingway’s St. James rum).
My “good café” is Café Panis, 21 Quai Montebello, a typical neighborhood Latin Quarter brasserie open till 11:00. It feels like classic Paris, where I could have hung out in 1925 with Ernest, F. Scott and maybe Gertrude. Daily newspapers hang on wooden poles by the bar, shelves of old books are along the wall, a friendly and competent wait staff lets me just hang out with a drink, and the food is reasonably priced and ranges from the mundane to the sometimes spectacular – from croque monsieurs, delicious assiettes of frites, soups, salads, omelets and Berthillon ice cream, to sometimes wondrous blackboard specials (a duck confit last year, and a surprisingly tasty choucroute a couple of weeks ago).
There is a spectacular straight-on view of Notre Dame, from Panis’ plain wood tables, which draws tourists of course, but there are also many locals, including students writing in their notebooks over a coffee, and young writers from Shakespeare & Co. just across Square Rene Viviani.
On a typique Paris afternoon recently I sat at the window with my notebook and a carafe of the daily wine special (a mild red), expecting two of my ex-pat friends to arrive later, sipped wine, dipped my last morsels of choucroute sausage into sharp yellow mustard, stretched out my legs and watched the clouds over Notre Dame roll back for a moment to uncover a sparkling Paris blue winter sky.
And later that night, after my friends went home, I followed my usual stroll across the quai to stand on the little pont leading to Notre Dame, looked down at the water as it sloshed against the retaining walls and reflected the lights and stars, and I knew – I really did – that Paris is my city and always has been, both in this life and another before it.
21 quai Montebello, 75005 Paris
For an active look at Paris – while having lots of fun:
- City Segway Tours are great for seeing Paris in a different light. You’ll see more, have more fun, and not feel tired at the end of it. These are highly recommended and truly a great thing to do during your stay.
- Fat Tire Bike Tours are another great way to see the city. You’ll get the company of an expert guide, the use of a super-comfortable bike, great tips and advice about what to do while in town and an exciting, informative and educational experience.