So, you still haven’t been to Paris? What exactly are you waiting for? The euro to shrivel? Oil to cheapen? The natives to speak English? Americans to be ever again welcomed as amusing, moneyed innocents abroad?
There is only one thing to know about Paris: It will be the City of Light long after all of us have returned to our stardust state.
In a previous century, I took my preschooler and her umbrella stroller to Paris for two weeks in June. Shepherded by my fluent sister and game young nephew, we visited towers and tombs and gardens and museums and churches and boats and bookstores and ice cream parlors (one of us napping almost daily while the other pushed en route to somewhere), climbed Notre-Dame, ate little sandwiches on the street for lunch, were invited to the countryside, dined with an au pair who had survived us, sampled pastries and roast chicken and even happened on some mediocre food. None of it on the scale of Carmella Soprano’s visit, but we were every bit as impressed.
For those of you who need more written encouragement to gauge how short is life and how grand is Paris, there are writers at your service – fluent in English, too. But all their words will have failed them and you if one does not command the day: Go.
If your sense of the country and its capital is limited and lacking confidence, “Speak the Culture: France’’ by Andrew Whittaker (Thorogood, 300 pp., paperback, illustrated, $24.95) feels like a well-built launching pad. Handsomely produced with such chapters ranging from Identity: the foundations of French culture to Art, architecture, and design to Arbiters of style: cinema, photography and fashion to Consuming culture: food and drink, the text is not only readable but also legible, with factoid strips running down the sides of the pages, rich with dates and names and interesting information. The table of contents is detailed, there are maps inside the front and back covers, the art is bold and light-hearted, some of it even amusing, and imagination flows throughout. If the reader were to know the 10 albums you need to hear to understand modern French music; the state of crime and three recent serial killers; five of the best chateaux; what the French find funny; that dialects are alive and well from Brittany to Corsica, Nord to Limousin; the 10 New Wave films you should watch, and little bits more and more … well, it would all seem to add up to a pleasurable antidote to timidity.
Ready to eat? “Clotilde’s Edible Adventures in Paris” (Broadway Books, 292 pp., paperback, illustrated, $17.95) is an appetizing handful, literally. Clotilde Dusoulier is a Parisian software engineer who worked in Silicon Valley for two years and then went back home to concentrate on food, write “Chocolate and Zucchini: Daily Adventures in a Parisian Kitchen,” and launch her popular blog, chocolateandzucchini.com. (Whittaker’s book also lists blogs, a sign that there is no turning back from people’s opinions blanketing the planet like a suffocating 21st-century gas.)
Dusoulier writes from Montmartre but takes readers of her little book through all 20 arrondissements looking for picnic fare, al fresco dining, food gifts, and places for every meal or tea time you might wish. She also includes some recipes inspired by her favorite chefs and bakers (kindly translating portions for the metric-averse), and the whole presentation (which is so important, as we who eat know) seems stamped by the cheerful countenance of the 28-year-old Dusoulier, waiting at a table on the cover for you to arrive and start your stroll together. The nearly square pages are sprinkled throughout with delicate orange type indicating names, places, hours, categories, etc., and orange banners on each page tell you how to get where you are – by arrondissement, then grouping chocolatiers, charcuteries, boulangeries, poissoneries, cavistes, salons de thé, fromageries (I have to stop; I know just enough French to salivate), and stores for books and cook- and tableware.
Who says engineers are boring?
Jamie Cahill’s “The Pâtisseries of Paris” (The Little Bookroom, 256 pp., paperback, illustrated, $16.95) is a beautiful little package, the cover design incorporating ribbon tied as you might get it at just such a careful French place, and printed on one crosswise ribbon is the photographer’s name, Alison Harris.
These two have collaborated on a work of art, listing and lusciously displaying bakeries, tea shops, chocolatiers, ice cream shops et al. and their luminous, nearly palpable products, but of course by arrondissement. Brioche, millefeuille, baba au rhum, mousse, lemon tarts, tarte Tatin, petite déjeuner, jam pots, madeleines, barquettes, pear charlottes, pralinettes, Polish cheesecakes in the Marais, red bean ice cream in a Japanese pâtisserie, page after page including directions, Métro stops, histories, when to go, what not to order (American coffee! Cappuccino!). Ahhh, mon amie, breathless though I am, I have room for just a tiny bite of that jewel you ordered.
Cahill, needless to say a dessert lover and who has completed a professional pâtisserie course, is a bit heavy as books smaller than your hand go, but think of carrying it around as exchanging calories. It alone should get you to Paris. (Will you please stop thinking about the exchange rate!)
The Little Bookroom has another appetizing entrée in “The Brasseries of Paris” by François Thomazeau and photographer Sylvain Ageorges (192 pp., paperback, illustrated, $16.95). The arrangement is also by arrondissement and the pictures just as mouthwatering. But Thomazeau treats the reader as an interested adult and explains the history of the brasserie, its Parisian and German and Alsatian and plebeian and student roots, and its transformation under the effects of gentrification and globalization.
Need a translation? Money and chains. Brasseries still deliver quality food fast and in quantity (200 meals a day, typically) and traditional settings, Thomazeau says, but as more of them are bought up by chains and as more of them become more expensive, the common man is less seen dining there. And in some, the food is less satisfying than it once was. Nonetheless, all the following pages are as enticing as you would want, and knowing that the author (also an editor, novelist, and sportswriter) is hoping to serve you well is reassurance enough to trust his judgment if you are in the neighborhood and hungry.
When was the last time you ate, anyway? Here, one last serving.
A feast for they eyes, mostly, is “Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd” by Noël Riley Fitch and illustrated by Rick Tulka (Soft Skull Press, 128 pp., illustrated, $17.95). A famous Montparnasse literary café, the Sélect has been operating for nearly 90 years and has welcomed many artists to Paris, among them Hemingway, Beauvoir, Picasso, Dalí, James Baldwin, and George Plimpton, to work in its back room or meet friends for drinks.
Organized by its history, which began in 1925, the story of the Sélect proceeds in typography carved around amusing and intelligent illustrations of the owners, staff, and customers famous and otherwise, dead and alive, to whom a café – this one and the concept – are essential to their daily lives. For instance, the flight of thousands of Russians to France in the 1920s meant that such lights as Nina Berberova and Vladimir Nabokov sat and imagined their tales here, and later Henry Miller and Anaïs Nin and Sartre and Sontag and so it still goes, with Bill Murray and Julie Delpy and many unnamed others sketched in black-and-white and in or near caricature. Fitch also describes the café’s daily and seasonal rhythms, its café-brasserie food, and includes a few recipes.
And if the prohibition farther above against ordering American coffee or cappuccino in France was insufficient to deter you, there is a little lesson in this slender book to educate you more completely. In fact, the two (“un express’’ and this volume) would go nicely together as you linger at your table.
Enough with the body, on to the soul.
“A Town Like Paris: Falling in Love in the City of Light” (Broadway Books, 288 pp., paperback, $12.95) chronicles Bryce Corbett’s attempt to master the idiosyncrasies and irresistibility of the city after arriving from Australia by way of London at 28 and with a broken heart.
(I include this for those of you who simply refuse to get off your derrieres and go to Paris.)
Corbett, a journalist, finds other ex-pats and jumps into a life of bachelor hedonism, even to the extent of forming a rock band. His French and his determination to assimilate improve while his romantic prospects do not; Aussies are not the hot currency in Paris, it would appear. And so goes this tale to its ending predicted in the title.
The author, by now an established transplant who lives with his wife on the Right Bank, includes “Bryce’s Guide to Paris” of a couple of dozen establishments briefly described, and accompanied by a map on which the other side of the Seine is marked only with a skull and crossbones.
Yet another transplant is the author of “Métro Stop Paris: An Underground History of the City of Light” (Walker & Co., 262 pp., hard cover, illustrated, $24.99). Gregor Dallas is a writer on European history and a university teacher, and his itinerary from birth in London to education in Britain and the United States to life in France may be reflected in his proposition that one can comprehend the life cycle of Paris by visiting a dozen stops on the métro and exploring their histories.
From Roman Paris to recent past, from the catacombs at Hell’s Gate to the cemetery Père Lachaise, Dallas guides you through a history much older than the métro (started later than London’s or New York’s, in 1900) and the city’s buildings (most of them no older than 200). At each stop are streets, alleys, shops, monuments, markers, auras of some sort to connect it to a phase of Parisian and French history, be it intellectual, culinary, political or other. A novel approach this, picking a dozen from among the métro’s more than 300 stops, but the chapters are rich with familiar names, from Otto Rank to Oscar Wilde, Debussy to Dreyfus, and at the end is a list of recommended reading for those entranced by some peculiarly brilliant facet of the city. Some of those facets are painful to look at, shaped not only by revolution and occupation and world war, though those forces might seem more than enough to an innocent from abroad.
Dallas, like every writer here, loves Paris under and above ground and wants you to love it, too. The way he slices and serves it up is, like many things French, uniquely appetizing.
I am running out of enticements for you penny pinchers who believe that if you wait long enough, your coins will grow into paper that can transport you painlessly to Paris. Simply, it is worth every twinge you will feel. But who better to explore pain than writers.
“Writers in Paris: Literary Lives in the City of Light” (Counterpoint, 256 pp., hard cover, illustrated, $32.50) by David Burke, a writer and documentary filmmaker and yet another transplant, takes you from quartier to quartier in search of the haunts of dozens of famous novelists, poets, and playwrights, and some of their creations. From the Middle Ages to the 20th century, people from near and far away found their voices in Paris, amid its radical difference from their previous stop, or its rich nourishment of their intellectual capital and the struggles – financial, sexual, psychological – involved in transforming that capital.
You know them: Balzac, Burroughs, Dumas, Joyce, Orwell, Proust, Fitzgerald, Stein, Wharton, Langston Hughes, Turgenev, Joseph Roth, and on and on. Burke has collected paintings, photographs, maps that orient you to the section at hand, all of it staggering when you think of these giants living in the same times and communing – or not – with their equals and rivals. The Literary Left Bank, The River and the Islands, The Literary Right Bank, and A Few Places Around Paris are the chief divisions, the first three subdivided, for instance, into the Latin Quarter or the Seine or the Marais and the Bastille.
By now you are probably wishing something could confine you to bed for long enough to read these last two books and some of their heroes, a little Zola, some Rabelais, some Mauriac, Simenon, Rhys, Gide, Genet, Rilke, Algren. But, alas, there is not time enough. You have to get to Paris before you close.