It was a clear, sunny June day in Paris. A soft breeze from the east ruffled tree branches on the boulevard. As I drove through the city, I could feel the tinge of excitement and nostalgia fluttering inside me. I was returning to the city I had fallen in love with 40 years ago, but not as the young novice traveler of my youth. I now have five continents and 30+ countries under my belt and I worried that the thrill of Paris would be lost this time around.
I arranged to attend a weeklong workshop aptly named Paris Café Writing, run by Patty Tennison, who divides her time between Paris and Chicago. We spent our mornings with coffee and croissants, learning and writing in various cafes in the heart of Le Marais. Le Marais as you may know is a wonderful Paris neighborhood located in the 3rd and 4th arrondisements. It’s tree shaded streets are lined with shops, cafes, and old apartment buildings, adorned with frilly Juliet balconies. Most of our afternoons were free, so I used that time to revisit the sites of my long ago sojourn in Paris.
A quick note here about getting around in Paris (I turned in my rental car once I arrived in the city). Before I left home, I downloaded the free Paris transit app, RATP. Once in Paris, this app synced with my Google Maps App to create an extraordinary tool for easily navigating the city. I would enter a destination in the app and Google would tell me several ways to go: walking, driving, bus, train, metro. The app is so specific that it is nearly impossible to make a mistake or get lost. Within 4 hours of my arrival in the city, I was hopping buses and metros with confidence. On the rare occasion that public transit is not convenient (toting luggage, accessibility issues), your Lyft and Uber apps from home work just fine in Paris.
Back to the workshop. Patty Tennison has taught at the graduate level and she has taught beginners. Her versatility enables her to easily adapt to her participants. She limits the workshops to eight writers, but due to last minute cancellations, our group was reduced to an intimate class of four. It was a unique, friendly, and open group representing the UK, Illinois, Colorado, and Pennsylvania. In addition to the morning workshops, Patty and her husband, Joe Prendergast, guided us on an informative walking tour of Le Marais, hosted a wine and cheese tasting at their apartment, arranged meals at wonderful restaurants, and a jazz night for our entertainment. We were encouraged to practice our French whenever possible, but English is perfectly fine too.
As part of the program, Patty conducted private one on one sessions with each writer. We had previously submitted a piece we were working on and Patty used the one on one to provide feedback and answer questions with each of us. My session with Patty on its own was worth the trip to Paris. I was really struggling with a subject and the brainstorming with Patty gave me a new perspective that will hopefully turn into the beginning of a book.
Because I frequently travel solo, adding in a volunteer purpose, or a learning activity, positions me to form new friendships with like minded people. We become part of the communities in which we are helping or learning. France was no exception and I hope to travel with or visit each and every writer with whom I had this wonderful experience.
A few weeks before I left home for this trip, I wrote a short piece about my first trip:
It was late June, 1977 and I was a 23 year old traveling to Europe for the first time. Not just anywhere in Europe, but the city of light….Paris. In the pre internet days of the 1970s, trips were planned with real travel agents. My best friend, Helen, and I saved for a year in order to get to the place we had dreamed about since we were high schoolers. Our agent helped us reserve our flights and a six night hotel stay on the left bank. We left home with little more than our suitcases and a sense of adventure. What we knew about Paris we had read in books. We had no metro maps, cell phones, email, or internet searches….just our naïve intuition that we would be fine.
Helen and I were counting on my high school French to navigate the city. Unlike today, there were not many English speakers in Paris then. While many Parisians turned up their noses at my American accented French, we managed to find most of what we were looking for. We marveled at the Eiffel Tower, Arch de Triumph, and the Champs Ellysees. We somehow found our way to the Palace of Versailles and walked, wide eyed, through the gardens and gilded halls. We chuckled at the miniature size of Napoleon’s bed in one of the palace bedrooms.
Then there was the Louvre. No one seeing the Mona Lisa for the first time will ever forget it. It is my most vivid memory of that trip. It is, of course, smaller than you expect, but no less riveting…..that smile, and Da Vinci’s magnificent talent on display.
There were smaller moments too. Like the little French boy at the Arch de Triumph who showed me his toy sailboat as we sat together on sun warmed stone. And the art student in Montmartre from whom we purchased two sketches. He smiled proudly as we departed to the rain washed cobbled street outside his school. The food! Someone once told me that French food at the time was really just average meat or fish topped with stunningly delectable sauces. Maybe so, but to our inexperienced palates, it was all heavenly.
The people….well, they were French. The women, rich or poor, were chicly dressed and seemingly annoyed by our presence. Because we were young and unaccompanied, the men were friendlier, more willing to overlook our status as Americans. One evening we attended a performance at the Moulin Rouge. For reasons unknown to us the maitre d’ and his handsome assistant marched us straight up to the best table in the house. We gazed at the burlesque dancers and performers under the glow of stage lights.
July 4th dawned bright and sunny. Helen and I determined that the most American thing we could do to celebrate independence day was to go to McDonalds for a burger. As I recall, it was the one and only McDonalds in Paris at the time. The burger, unfortunately, was grey in color and lacked any hint of flavor. The special sauce, in this case, did nothing to enhance this mystery meat.
Our next meal at a tiny café in the Latin Quarter more than made up for it. We sat at a street side table and people watched until the sun began to set. We toasted the French love of wine and butter, their sense of style, and their romantic language. The next day, we bid au revoir to Paris, its museums and monuments, can can dancers and artists. It would become a dreamy memory in the intervening years, always beckoning, still magical.
Back to the present and my desire to relive my Paris experience of forty years ago….well it didn’t happen. And that is not necessarily a bad thing. Your eyes and heart see and feel things differently after 40 years of life experience. There is nothing like seeing the Eiffel Tower, Versailles, the Mona Lisa the first time. That thrill is a one time opportunity. This visit was more about living in Le Marais (in an apartment instead of a hotel), slowing down to sit in a café all morning, strolling the parks and streets, finding inspiration in my surroundings. That is not to say I didn’t go to Versailles, the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. I did, and so did thousands of others. The sites are more crowded, more touristy than they were in 1977. But that was okay too, because this time was about living, eating, writing, and absorbing all there is to like about Paris today. It is still magical, but in a more grown up and laid back way.
I promised in an earlier blog to list some of my favorite places to eat in France.
Le Drakkar – traditional bistro, 27 Rue St Jean, Bayeux
Le Moulin de la Galette – Cafe and creperie, 38 rue de Nesmind, Bayeux
Café de la Mairie – street side café, 51 rue de Bretagne, Paris
Le Petit Chatelet – restaurant with a view to Notre Dame and next door to the famous Shakespeare & Company Book Store, 39 rue de la Bucherie, Paris
Au Grand Turenne – café, 27 Boulevard du Temple
Le Blanc Cassis – café, 6 Dupetit Thouars, Paris
La Coupoule – fine dining and if you are celebrating a birthday they will make it very special, 102 Boulevard Montparnasse, Paris
Mollard – fine dining and expensive, but the Art Deco and old world charm is worth the splurge, 115 rue Saint Lazaro, Paris
Lastly, I thought it would be fun to show a side by side of photos from both 1977 and 2017. Hope you enjoy!