Friday, September 26, 2014


It’s everywhere & it hits every sense, sometimes all at once.

You can’t just walk by a patisserie with the aroma of fresh-baked petits pains au chocolat. You breathe in the fragrance, you see the displays of breads & pastries in the window, & if you’re like me, you buy a petit pain so you can hold it, warm & flaky, & bite into perfection that melts on the tongue. Pass it down with strong coffee (yes, my two loves: coffee & chocolate).

A moment of indecision: keep walking or sit at a small table?

I set down my little package & coffee gratefully, & add people-watching to the pleasures.

Living, breathing, walking art. French people know how to dress, how to make the most of what they’ve got. They invented the wonderful term: beaute laide, or ugly beauty. Someone who is not classically, symmetrically beautiful, but who has a je ne sais quoi that creates the illusion of beauty, or something more. I see it in the movie stars they love & in the people who pass me. My unofficial verdict? The art of dressing well & looking French is a mix of two things: the appearance of utter confidence & utter effortlessness. Note I said “appearance.” Your hair falls in softly tousled waves, your top shirt buttons are open because you can’t be bothered, your make-up subtle because who has time … but your skirt and jacket fit like gloves, & your shoes & accessories are gorgeous. Unforced elegance.

A city of museums, cathedrals, fashion, ethnic neighborhoods—a city that values the art of being human. Around every corner you stumble into art. And by art, I mean not only the magnificence of the sculptures & paintings at the museums that fill this city, but the heightening of daily life, the awareness that life itself is an art, & that every moment deserves focus & awareness.

The small church of St. Severin. After the massive, gloomy hunchback-haunted grandeur of Notre-Dame, St. Severin seems cozy—if you can say that about a dark church. What I like are the columns shaped like palm trees & the abstract vivid stained glass windows, the straw-woven chairs that evoke the Mediterranean.

The waitresses dressed in beautifully fitted black & white at the wonderful, touristy Relais de l’Entrecote. Smiling & precise, as if moving through the steps of a dance only they hear, they set the red, green, blue & yellow tables. Outside, on the sidewalk, the line forms to wait for 7:00, when they can enter to eat steak & fries.

On a weekday night the cafes are crowded with people drinking good wine & eating under bright moon, talking & laughing. Savoir vivre—the art of living life. An art I wish we’d remember more often in the States.

Enter the Hotel Sully near the Bastille, walk through to the garden, & you will emerge in the Place de Vosges, Paris’s oldest square, lined by a mysteriously shadowed corridor. Keep walking, & you find yourself in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter. Now a network of trendy stores, galleries & cafes, but there is the wonderful surprise of the rue des Rosiers with its Hebrew signs, store windows with sacred books, & tiny restaurants offering kosher falafel & shwarma, just like in Jerusalem. Stand in line at l’As de Falafel with a dozen others, buy a falafel in pita stuffed to the brim, take it to a small shady park around the corner, & sit on a bench for more people-watching. Paris—like every European city—is multicultural, & I hear French spoke in many different accents.

I wander through the Musee d’Orsay—one of the most breathtaking museums in the world—and wander back out, dazed by the lights in Van Gogh’s Starry Night & Carpeaux’ smiling marble dancers, to the banks of the Seine, where vendors sell old books, magazines, posters & postcards, & lovers kiss on the steps leading to the river. I have the urge to dance up & down the steps like Gene Kelly in An American in Paris.

Instead I sit on the top step, chin in hand, & stare at the sun setting over the Seine.  

But I can’t stop my feet from tapping out the melody.

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