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Finding Your Parisian Paradise
It’s impossible to visit Paris without falling in love. Ancient architecture, sprawling courtyards, and the charming locals, cause many visitors to become enthralled with its atmosphere. Some African-Americans, like James Baldwin and Josephine Baker became Francophiles (embracing all things French), or in the case of the latter, trading American nationality to become a French citizen. Both wrote incessantly about the casual approach to life in France and the particularly romantic air of Paris. Unlike London, the language barrier Paris presents to Americans has kept many from fully embracing the culture. However, a working knowledge of French is not a pre-requisite for a great time. A quick language tutorial on the flight from the U.S. or (in my case) the Eurorail from London will generally do the trick. I recommend French for Xenophobes by Drew Launay because it provides both a humorous and phonetic approach to French that helps loosen the American tongue. Once a working understanding of certain cultural idioms and customs are established, your own personal love affair with Paris awaits.
Paris is not for the faint of heart. Parisians tend to live well and with lots of passion. As a tourist, that concept carries over into where and how you decide to enjoy the City of Light. With thousands of boutique hotels and internationally recognized chains available, finding just the right accommodations in Paris is not always simple. Your budget will definitely be the deciding factor, although reasonably priced hotels can be found in all 20 Arrondissements or administrative districts of Paris. During my first trip in 2005, I took the budget conscious route and opted for the Best Western Hotel Anjou Lafayette in the 9th Arr. and within the famed Opera District. The décor and prices mimic their American counterparts and top out at roughly $150 per night. The goal is to stay in an area that is safe from pickpockets and close to major sights, for a reasonable price. The Best Western Anjou Lafayette covers all of these bases.
Five years later, and with opulence in mind, I searched for a luxury apartment that would allow me to experience Paris as a local. There are several apartment rental services from which to choose, but Paris Perfect, by far, had the most stylish residences in close proximity to major sightseeing venues. Whether you want a studio or three-plus bedrooms, Paris Perfect has the perfect spot. Rentals are leased in one-week intervals and require inquiries for specific properties months in advance. For couples traveling to Paris, The Seyssel is my top choice. The lush purple and red décor provide a vibrant backdrop against the Seine. The Seyssel averages 2500 euro per week (approximately $3200). It’s worth every cent.
My reservation for The Seyssel came too late this year, so I opted instead for the Hotel Warwick, a few steps from the Champs Elysees, with a magnificent view of the Arc de Triomphe. With all the comfort of an apartment (minus the private kitchen and terrace), the Hotel Warwick places tourists in the heart of upscale shopping, sightseeing, and fine dining. The staff is multi-lingual and extremely helpful.
While in Paris…
Strolling the streets of Paris means being as much a part of the city’s moving tapestry as the Eiffel Tower. In fact, owners of the legendary street cafes and bistros of Paris actually position tables and chairs so that diners can “people watch” as they eat or sip wine. This is of tremendous benefit to both digestion, and eating alone. Few people read newspapers or resort to Blackberry applications, instead taking time to enjoy a meal while soaking up the atmosphere.
One major difference between American and Parisian dining is that few places in the City of Light offer food to go. One of the hostesses at Mood Restaurant-Bar-Club at 114 Avenue des Champs-Elysées explained their lack of take out containers for my veal piccata and gorgonzola risotto by saying: “you must eat with the same passion our chef uses to prepare and create the food.” Needless to say, that convinced me to sit down and enjoy my meal. Mood quickly became one of my favorite dining spots in Paris. In addition to the veal (Piccata de veau simplement poêlée risotto au gorgonzola), try the roasted filet of sea bass with light passion fruit cream sauce served with fresh vegetable wok (Filet de bar rôti, légère crème passion et wok de legumes). Meals are often prepared in courses and course specials can include starter and main course, main course and dessert, or starter, main course and dessert for 23 to 30 euro ($30 to $39).
I must admit that like many Americans abroad, two weeks of rich sauces and decadent desserts left me craving for some good, old-fashioned grease. Enter Charlie Birdy’s. Located at 84 Boulevard du Montparnasse, Charlie Birdy’s is a jazz and American food favorite fashioned by a love of jazz great Charlie “Bird” Parker. The music is phenomenal, the food delicious, and the service super quick. The immediate drawbacks: the place is always crowded and the servers are not great with English. Solution: arrive super early, practice your French, and be sure to familiarize yourself with the menu. Some sure items to try: the guacamole on the Mexican burger is so fresh it was almost a shame to put it on top of ground beef. If you’re a rib man or woman, aim for the caramelized spare ribs with honey barbeque sauce. Not a meat eater? A local favorite at Charlie Birdy’s is a weird, but tasty concoction, the Potato Burger, where a potato cake and a fried egg are piled on top of ground beef. I don’t even like eggs, but the one bite sample from a kind local, almost made me rethink my aversion. Burger plates with side and salad average 15 euro ($19). There is also a Chinese restaurant called the Dragon Elysees with a beautiful fish tank floor a few steps from the Hotel Warwick. The food will put you in the mind of a corner Yum’s or any other inner city Chinese carryout, but the ambiance is worth the gastritis.
Paris Epicenters Sightseeing & Couture
As a tourist, you can literally walk the streets of Paris for days and never hit the same area twice. For this reason I advise against taking self-governed sightseeing tours, where tourists purchase maps and set out on foot. There are several tour bus companies that offer two-day packages for as little as 20 euro ($24). Passes give sightseers the luxury of boarding and exiting buses at key points of interests that include the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum, the Versailles Palace and Gardens, and the famed theatre district. The package also includes a tour of Paris by river on the Bateaux-Mouches river cruise line that travels down the Seine from Trocadero through Notre Dame. Churchgoers can enjoy services at the Emmanuel International Church of Paris at 56 rue des Bons Raisins, which offers Christ-centered services and Holy Communion in English.
No Paris trip would be complete without some major shopping. French men are wearing the same skinny suits as the gentlemen in London, making their wardrobes pretty cut and dry. Fashion lives in Paris for women and rarely do they stroll the promenades without wearing the latest fashion and fashion accessories, including four-inch heels. If you’re a woman with curves, don’t think for a second that you cannot still work the city’s couture boutiques. Like the accommodations, finding the right fit is as much about price tags as it is size. Genevieve DeFranceaux, a fashion consultant at the Gallerie Lafayette, said that while upscale shops still tend to carry sizes only up to an American 10, France’s women are notoriously curvy.
“We have bust and hips in this part of the world, so you will find most of our stores will have clothing that fit African-American women who also have big curves. Our designers recognize that they are creating clothes for beautiful women and not mannequins,” DeFranceaux said.
Several of the national retailers and boutiques she suggested were “spot on.” DeFranceaux told me to watch for the more delicate and sensual designs of women’s clothing in Paris. Not only are the materials (silks, satins, and crepes) softer and more feminine, the designs themselves are made to hug those curves.
One of my favorite shops was Camaieu, a boutique chain that offers moderately priced, off-the-rack Parisian couture without breaking the budget. The jewel of Paris curvy couture though, is without question, Jean Marc Philippe. A high-end designer shop that boasts three locations, the shop attendants use little more than the brush of their hands down your body to determine your size. The shop, at 92 rue d’Alesia, is a showcase of both the regular Jean Marc Philippe line and the Black Label collection, which can put the sizzle back in any wardrobe. Visit both shops online at www.camaieu.com