On my way to Kiev a couple of weeks ago, I took advantage of a 22-hour stopover in Paris to recharge my inspirational inventory. I did not catch sight of the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, or the Champs-Elysées, but instead spent a full day wandering the tangled streets of the Latin Quarter, historically the heart of the city’s intellectual and artistic communities. Les Deux Magots, the café where Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, and Ernest Hemingway mingled their communal brainpower, still attracts both locals and tourists in droves to its street corner. The neighborhood thrums with the buzz of conversation and life lived in the public forum.
Ladurée, the bakery that invented the macaron, is also here (though this location opened only in 2002: I didn’t make it to the original venue, which has been open for 150 years). The pyramids of delicate cookies displayed in its front windows lure in passers-by, where counter girls in French maid outfits brave the crush of customers who glom in the tiny front room to select their flavors, everything from classic vanilla and chocolate to raspberry cream and cinnamon raisin. Already stuffed with lunch when I walked in, I savored just one, a tiny meringue sandwich filled with exquisitely smooth salted caramel. This is the culinary equivalent of a porcelain doll, so sweet and delicate that you must not tread heavily on the floor while a batch is baking lest the cookies’ shatter-prone crusts quake and split.
I might have bought more, but I still had Poilâne to visit, maker of what may be the world’s most celebrated loaf of bread. I arrived late in the afternoon, when the shop was nearly empty. A small selection of baguettes, buns, and larger loaves rested on wooden shelves, along with a few quiches, turnovers, and boxes of the shop’s signature butter cookies. The Loaf (I got a small bun version) comes dusted in a thick layer of flour, white as a powdered sugar doughnut. It is made from sourdough, and its dense, chewy texture and tangy flavor beg for a smear of salted butter, the European kind made from slightly fermented cream. As the street urchin I was that day, I devoured it straight from the bag, its wheaty aroma mixing with smoke from the cigarette of the man walking in front of me.
Over the course of the day, I visited 5 bakeries, 4 bookstores, 3 galleries, 2 cafes, and a street market before settling down to dinner outside at a local bistro. Despite the evening chill, crowds pack tables along the sidewalks to share “un apéro” (the preprandial aperitif is apparently enough of an institution in France that it merits its own abbreviation) or a meal.
Most every establishment posts its menu outside so potential customers can decide if the price and selection is right, a tradition I wish more US restaurateurs would adopt. Most menus include a selection of the day’s cheeses, as well as a wine list, which is generally short—just 5 or 6 options. They generally don’t bother listing vintages, vineyards, or country of origin: it is understood that they are all French.
I watched the crowds stroll by while I ate: a galette (hearty buckwheat crepe) stuffed with ham, cheese, and egg, a green salad, and a bottle of very expensive water. (Having not slept in over 24 hours, I was afraid that wine would put me over the edge. I would have been fine with tap water, but never figured out how to order it.) I wondered how they got all these 20- and 30-something men to don fashionable glasses and pants that fit. For dessert: apricot flan from the patisserie next door, plus a pain au chocolat for the next morning’s breakfast, which I would eat in a lounge at Charles de Gaulle International Airport at 4 a.m.
Not quite sure what to do with myself now that the shops had closed and I was too full to eat anymore, I was standing on a street corner looking confused (apparently), when someone came up behind me to ask if I needed help finding something. Bertrand was of the fashionable-glasses set, and while I am not generally in the habit of going for drinks with men I meet on street corners, travel tends to inspire a certain abandon that, when tempered with a little common sense, opens us to experiences we wouldn’t otherwise have.
There were no seats left in the nearest bar, so we stood at the counter, doing our best to stay out of the way of waiters shuttling wine at breakneck speed. The sound of glasses crashing to the floor punctuated our conversation with striking frequency. Bertrand and his friend Mathieu gracefully endured my abominable French for a full half-hour before revealing their sparkling English. They poked fun at the cliché of a day I’d had: “Did you choose your lunch (un sandwich au jambon et un café crème) because you think that’s what the French eat?”
I responded that I had ordered it because I wanted a ham sandwich and coffee, which was true, but the question got me thinking. To some degree, they were right: I had come to Paris in search of a fantasy, and I had crafted the experience carefully in order to meet my expectations about what the city is or should be. I did not scratch beneath the surface, but reveled in a dreamlike world where everyone wakes up at noon, eats croissants and cheese and drinks wine all day until— oh la la!—its time to go home in order to wake up and do it all over again the next day.
When we travel, it is often just this sort of experience we seek: “authentic” in a fairytale sort of way. Naturally we don’t go looking for the mundane. But even (and perhaps especially) when we avoid the tourist traps of museums and monuments in favor of “cultural tourism,” we risk reducing a place to a caricature of itself if we seek to confirm that the picture we carry in our imagination conforms to reality.
Thus let me close by noting that I could just as easily have ordered a hamburger and fries instead of a crepe at dinner (as the couple next to me did), that the local Starbucks was just as packed as the other cafes I visited, and that RedBull appears to enjoy equal popularity among Parisian teenagers as it does among American ones. I admit I brought my own fairytale to life for 22 hours. Call it cliché, but hélas! it was delicious.