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Europe Walking

Walking to Paris

Making strides in his campaign
to convert me to his pedestrian ways

Last month we walked to Paris. To be more specific, we walked the mile and a half from our apartment in Berlin to the Hauptbahnhof, boarded a grey and red Deutsche Bahn train to Cologne where we changed to a burgundy-colored Thalys train to Paris, then disembarked at Gare du Nord and walked the two-and-half miles to our little hotel on Île Saint-Louis. Three days later we did the same in reverse.

The decision to walk from our apartment in Berlin to the Hauptbanhof was merely pragmatic; construction in the city has rendered a good section of the route impassable by car. But I had long thwarted my husband’s ambition to walk—he’s an avowed pedestrian—from Gare du Nord into the center of Paris based on the belief that it was too long which, perversely, was a view I had formed while making the same trek through the traffic-snarled streets of the City of Lights in the back of a taxi. When I finally looked up the route on a map, I was shocked to find it was less than three miles. I could hardly say no.

Adding to the decision to make our journey to Paris one in which we cleaved to the earth rather than ascended to the heavens was the spate of recent airline disasters. A German Wings pilot had just crashed a plane into the Alps and I was still unsettled by the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 a year earlier. Despite the fact that a rail ticket cost about three times more than a flight, I had no problem justifying the expense. In the words of Will Self in his memoir Walking to Hollywood, “I could no longer cope at all with the infantilizing demanded by…air travel. It was over. No more would I dutifully respond to those parental injunctions go here, go there, empty my pockets and take off my shoes. Never again would I take my underpants to see the world, which meant in turn that never would the world witness them espaliered on a hedge.”

Serious walking gear

Instead my underpants would be folded neatly into a sage-green backpack I had purchased for the express purpose of our ambulatory adventure, along with a pair of pink-and-white-striped slip-on sneakers that, while not exactly Parisian in sartorial tone, seemed a better option than the American-in-running-shoes cliché. In addition to being a way to avoid death in the skies, walking to Paris had also been an excuse to go shopping.


There is something extremely liberating about arriving at your destination and stepping onto the platform with nothing more than a backpack, a superior smirk your only concession to the lengthy taxi line you pass as you head straight out to the street and on your way. I had hoped to stop for a drink at Albion, a wine bar near the station, but it was not yet open for the evening. Still, I liked the idea that, on foot, serendipitous stops could be accommodated.

Mistinguett at the Moulin Rouge
Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Instead we headed down the old Roman route of Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Martin, dotted with hair salons catering to women of African descent and Turkish coffee shops filled with men playing cards. A lone boutique had raised the flag of gentrification with its window displays of artsy journals and minimalist housewares. It’s the kind of shop you might just as soon find in Portland as in Paris and for which I am loathe to admit I’m a target market, but we had somewhere to be and didn’t linger, even when we passed the spindly beauty of the 10th arrondissement’s city hall or through the arch of Porte Saint-Martin, a war monument erected by Louis IV. After the fact I read about two more landmarks we had passed on the street, the theater Le Splendid, where Maurice Chevalier and Mistinguett (a contemporary and competitor of Josephine Baker) once performed, and Lévitan, once a Jewish-owned furniture store that was turned into the Paris annex for Drancy, an internment camp, during WWII. Along a single street we had managed to walk the history of Paris.

la porte Saint-Martin

Before long we emerged into the piazza of the Centre Pompidou, then zig-zagged through the narrow boutique-lined streets of the Marais and onto the island where, after attempting to check into two hotels that weren’t ours, we finally made it to our room in the Hôtel Des Deux Iles. By five o’clock we were back in the Marais, firmly planted in the brasserie-style chairs in front of Au Petit Fer à Cheval and drinking the pichets of Chablis we ritualistically use to commence a weekend in Paris. We had arrived but, as the saying goes, it was the journey that mattered.

Europe Uncategorized

Life on the Rails: In praise of the road well traveled

In my last post before we left for a stint living in Berlin, I made a list of all the things I still wanted to do in the Cotswolds. Now that we would be less than a two-hour flight away, I thought I would finally get around to marking some things off this Cotswold bucket list.Our first visit back to the Cotswolds was last weekend, and I managed do exactly none of them. Part of the problem is that we like the things we usually do so much that we lack the motivation to do anything else. With walks through scenery like this just outside our front door, who could argue?

We even like the things we don’t like, or more precisely, we love to hate the same things over and over again. Case in point: we went to dinner with our old chums, Rupert and Ralph, at our local inn, the Wheatsheaf, on the Friday night of our visit. The menu featured a battered brill with petite pois and potatoes that sounded suspiciously like fish and chips for £25. Still, two of our party chose to order it, making a point of telling the waiter they would have the “£25 fish and chips.” It was delicious if ridiculously priced, and for the remainder of the weekend we revelled in repeatedly sharing our outrage. Undoubtedly we’ll eat there again next time we’re in town.

My husband’s and my travel predilections are so strong that our Facebook posts look like they’re on an annual repeat cycle, and our friend Rupert likes to poke fun at our predictability. “Back on the rails,” he’ll note every time he recognizes one of our check-ins at favorite restaurant. “Choo choo” is another shorthand favorite.

He is perhaps to blame for why I am feeling a bit defensive about taking the road well traveled. It is not a fashionable choice as anyone who knows the last three lines from Robert Frost’s famous poem will tell you.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

And everyone knows these lines of the poem because they are ubiquitous. Just yesterday I saw them artfully scrawled on a chalkboard in a Scandinavian clothing store in Berlin. This ubiquity, of course, defeats the whole purpose. If everyone takes the road less traveled, then it’s no longer the road less traveled. The road less traveled becomes nothing more than a formula, the irony of which found expression last year in the normcore movement, an equally self-aware propensity to be anti-fashion (think mom jeans, polo shirts). But I digress from my point, which is the first three lines of the poem. They’re less well known (the road less traveled, if you will), and I take my inspiration there:

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood

Of our beloved homes in California and the Cotswolds, my husband has often said how he wants to live in both at once. We long to “travel both and be one traveler,” but, in the absence of the science to enable that, we have settled on trying to craft a nomadic life so that we may spend time in both. The same applies to visiting other places we love and repeating the experiences from previous visits. In doing so, we create a routine that is nothing less than a sense of home. We are carving out a way to “be one traveler” however infrequently we visit.

One such beloved spot is Paris. We have a visit planned in May, but I can tell you now how the weekend will go. We will stay in a charming but microscopic hotel room on the Île Saint-Louis from where each morning we will jog a loop around the islands before breakfasting at the bar at le Louis IX, which seems to be a favorite of Parisian garbage collectors. Then we will rent bikes and ride to the Eiffel Tower before lunching on the terraces of Tribeca on the pedestrianized market street, Rue Cler. There we will admire the manners of small French children out for lunch with their families and envy the achingly chic French teenagers smoking Gauloises between bites of steak tartare.

Picture of Au Petit Fer A Cheval from 2011. Look on Facebook for another one just like it next month.

In the early evening we will head over to Le Marais, where we will drink a glass of wine at La Belle Hortense, a combination bookshop and wine bar. I will wander around the shop caressing the books and wishing I could read French. I may buy one anyway. Once we spy a free table outside at the bar across the street, Au Petit Fer à Cheval, we will rush over and grab it and drink more wine than we meant to before heading to the establishment next door, Les Philosophes, for dinner. The only Parisians in the place will be the waiters, who will accept my husband’s request for his steak to be “bien cuit” with a surprising lack of fuss; I will have the honeyed duck confit. After dinner we’ll stumble back across Pont Louis Philippe and collapse into bed before getting up the next day and doing most of it all over again.

And this road well traveled is how every few years we get to “be one traveler” who lives in Paris, too.

Cotswolds Europe

Down and Out in Paris and London

For several years now I have held the view that London is only for the very young or the very rich, and that therefore Samuel Johnson of the “…when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life” quip was full of crap. One place I never expected to tire of, however, was Paris.  Thanks to the largess of a friend of my sister’s with digs on the Île Saint Louis and the ease of traveling by Eurostar, Paris has been a favorite weekend destination for husband and me since we moved to England. And we could think of no better place to celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary last week.

But things did not begin well. We had flown to England for a few nights in the Cotswolds before heading to Paris, and on that first Saturday we drank too much wine at a sardine BBQ at the wine bar. I awoke on Sunday to find ten strips of raffle tickets in my purse that I only dimly remembered purchasing and had no idea in aid of what (this being the season of village fêtes, the possibilities were endless). Unfortunately this was not the worst after-effect of such indulgence; that was left for Monday when the two-day-deferred-morosity that is the mark of such excess set in on our train ride to Paris.

Upon our arrival the first thing we noticed was the traffic. The midday taxi ride from Gare du Nord to the center of Paris was painstaking, with every hundred-meter progression feeling like a major victory. Once on the the Île Saint Louis we observed the crush of humanity outside Notre Dame and remembered it was June and American kids were out of school. We pressed on, literally, stretching our legs on a jog to the Tuilieries and back. In the early evening we headed to our favorite café in the Marais for a glass of wine. The people watching from a pavement table was still the best in the world, but the man hawking jasmine garlands was more aggressive than usual. This was nothing compared to the affront I felt when we sat down for dinner at the bistro next door and discovered our waiter was Irish. Was it too much to ask to be treated rudely by an old French waiter for your anniversary?

The week continued and so did the list of irritations. The workers at the Musee d’Orsay went on strike closing the museum for the day.  There was a hair in my turkey club at our favorite lunch spot on the Rue Cler. It rained. I got bit by mosquitoes. The stench of urine on the cobbled banks of the Seine marred our morning jogs.  Of course there were pleasures—aside from the turkey club we ate and drank very well—but even those were suspicious given my ill-timed decision to pick up my reading of Down and Out in Paris and London on our last day.  In it Orwell expounds on his life as a plongeur in the bowels of a Paris hotel kitchen; I can only the hope the filth has subsided since he worked in the city in 1928.  By the time we boarded Eurostar back to London, the mutual feeling was of relief.

Yesterday the Cotswolds had its first true summer day, and we were there. We rode our bikes out through Hampnett and Turkedean, then Notgrove and Guiting Power, stopping for lunch at the Black Horse in Naunton, weaving through the day trippers in Lower Slaughter and Bourton-on-the-Water before heading back through Farmington and home. Poppies rouged the apple-green cheeks of the hills, and fields of linseed blooms in a sheer lavender hue provided the dose of Impressionism we had failed to get from the Orsay. It was by far the best day of the vacation.

Reading back over this I am aware I sound like a spoiled brat complaining about getting to spend a week in Paris.  On the contrary, I count my lucky stars every day that I have the kind of life right now that affords me such whims.  I know that one day before long we will be back in the U.S. where if we are lucky we will be employed, and such employment will be rewarded with a paltry ten days vacation in a currency that doesn’t go far in Europe.  When we decided to go to Paris for our anniversary it was precisely because we were thinking we won’t always have Paris.  What I forgot is that, God willing, we’ll always have the Cotswolds.


Adieu Paris

The email came today, the news I had been dreading. Our friend D. is letting his apartment in Paris go. The one on the Île Saint-Louis. The one on the top floor of the 17th century building with the vast interior courtyard and dramatic marble staircase and plaster rosettes on the ceiling and views of the Seine. The one he doesn’t even live in, so husband and I could visit whenever we wanted.

That one.

I wrote back to ask why, trying not to act too upset. Apparently he is buying land in Australia to build a house. Australia for God sake. I wanted to reach out through Yahoo! mail and shake him. What’s Australia got that Paris doesn’t?

There’s time for one last visit. A final chance to catch the faint whiff of vinegar when you first open the wedgewood blue door, followed by the uber detergent smell of ultra hygiené French dish washing soap; to walk on the creaky parquet floorboards past the gloss royal blue dining room wall hung with the mounted jackelope; to hear the sound the hot water heater makes as it chugs into action when you turn on the shower in the bathroom with the broken skylight and the mirrored wall; to lay in bed and watch the ceiling rosette turn pink with the lights from the tourist boats gliding by on the Seine below; to unwrap a paper package of fresh croissants on the coffee table with the tall windows thrown open.

It will be April in Paris for our last visit, perfect weather for the simple luxury of an evening out in the Marais where visit after visit we repeat the same routine. First to Au Fer au Cheval where we will hope they will offer with our drinks a plate of tortilla or little pieces of bread with ham or cheese or gherkins, not the peanuts! Then across the street to La Belle Hortense where the middle-aged and vaguely Goth barmaid (forever in my mind wearing an electric blue dress and black boots) pours wine and makes coffee and smokes. Then back across the street to Les Philosophes for a dinner of tomato tatin and carnard confit in miele with Cote du Rhone blanc.

The first time we went to Paris after moving to London, D. suggested we make ourselves a copy of the key at the BHV, that marvel of a Parisian department store. I’ve carried that key around with me ever since, a symbol of our new European life. The truth is that since we got our Cotswold cottage, we’ve been neglecting Paris. Its existence will soften the blow of our lost Paris hideaway. Still, I think I’ll keep the key.