April in Paris (1997)

My wife and I recently returned from our fourth annual April trip to Paris. Last year we stayed at an individual apartment in the third arrondissement, which we rented via a U.S. travel agency. This year we went one better and cut out the middleman, renting directly from the owner of an apartment in the seventeenth. This apartment may be familiar to readers of the rec.travel.europe newsgroup, as it is often promoted there by its owners, who live in the same building, one floor below and on the other side of the stair landing, providing easy access without threatening our privacy.

As with all locations in Paris, we were close to a Metro station, in this case the Porte de Champerret station on the number 3 line. Last year, we were more centrally located, near the Etienne Marcel (number 4 line) and Arts et Metiers (lines 3 and 11) stations. This reliance on a single line caused us to transfer more often this year. In transferring, the big deal was not waiting for the train, as they ran regularly and frequently, even on Sunday; it was in trekking from one platform to another. Unlike the New York system, where several trains may stop at the same platform (West Fourth Street comes to mind), with very few exceptions each train in Paris has its own platform, and these platforms are separated by long pedestrian tunnels. The Tokyo system shares this feature; we forget about London, and have never been to Moscow. Our longest walk was at the Stalingrad station, transferring from the number 2 line to the number 7 line on our way to Berthillon (Pont Marie station).

Porte de Champerret is also a major bus hub, and this year we ventured onto the buses for the first time. Buses often gave us direct routes where the Metro did not. We did not hesitate to jump on a bus during the second half of our eight-day stay, when we had weekly transit passes. The Coupon Hebdomadaire is valid for Monday through Sunday, an imperfect fit for our Wednesday through Wednesday stay. It costs 72 FFR, compared with 46 FFR for a packet of ten tickets.

Despite our heavy use of public transit, we still managed to walk quite a lot. We shrugged off the stares and travelled everywhere with two navigational aids, a compass and the 9 by 12 inch, arrondissement per page, version of the Michelin map (number 15). The kit was cumbersome at times, but it had its rewards. We never got lost and could easily determine how best to reach our next destination.

On our walks, we could always recognize a school or synagogue without looking up. The telltale sign was a street level barricade that blocked all parking spaces in front of the building, apparently a preventive measure against car bombs. All garbage cans in the Metro were sealed, as were most garbage cans outdoors, a preventive measure against the fragmentation bombs that have come into fashion in the last year or so. We found a few open receptacles in small parks along the rue des Ecoles, in the fifth, but these were exceptions. Identical receptacles in the Place Dupleix, in the fifteenth, were sealed. Neat to a fault, we carried our litter until we returned to our apartment, but the litter all over the streets and the Metro suggested our behavior was not the norm.

One afternoon we went to Garnier to buy a libretto for Giulio Cesare, which we were scheduled to see two days later. With an hour to kill before the opera store opened, we took the synagogue tour of the ninth, where the Michelin map shows eight synagogues within a few blocks of each other. A gentleman at the first of these, on the rue de la Victoire, reported this is the biggest synagogue in Europe, even bigger than London's. It was big enough to merit a police bus and a few strolling gendarmes at the nearest intersection. We were denied entry to the synagogue, and were advised that we needed to schedule a visit via the security office around the corner. A gentleman there gave us a phone number to call, which we hope to do on our next visit.

Gendarmes and national police with submachine guns were much in evidence at the Etoile RER station and the Gare de l'Est railway station and probably at all other such stations. This reminded us of the similarly armed police who manned both sides of the Champs Elysees between Rond-Point and Concorde in September 1986, shortly after a rash of synagogue bombings.

Getting tickets for the opera was difficult. Last year we reserved tickets by phone ( before our trip. This year we called on the first day phone orders were accepted, but no tickets were available. The opera decided this year to honor all subscription requests, no matter how badly this depleted the ticket supplies for other channels. Tickets were still available via music retailer fnac, and a friend graciously offered to acquire tickets on our behalf. We now see that we may have been able to call fnac directly,

This year we saw several movies, an activity that may not come naturally to many American tourists in Paris. With demanding jobs, a son in elementary school, and no television, we don't see nearly enough movies at home, and Paris may be the best movie town in the world. Single ticket prices are typically 49 FFR for first run films in well-appointed multiplexes, 40 FFR for revival firms in shoebox theaters on the Left Bank. We saw Shine and Donnie Brasco in first run, and Ninotchka (Lubitsch), To Be Or Not To Be (Lubitsch), You Were Never Lovelier (with Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth), and Distant Drums (Raoul Walsh) in revival.

Finding movies in Paris is most easily done by buying Pariscope, published every Wednesday for the Wednesday-Tuesday week, and costing only 3 FFR. Viewers with limited French comprehension, including us, must check for v.o. (version original) features and avoid v.f. (version francais). The v.o. films have French subtitles, while v.f. ones are dubbed. Foreign films are out, as we're likely to miss too much seeing Chungking Express in Cantonese with French subtitles. The listed starting time is when the doors open, not when the program starts. For viewers who want to skip the previews and commercials, many listings include how many minutes into the seance the film begins.

Unless you plan to arrive in Paris on Wednesday, you can study the film offerings in advance by consulting Cine Fil Sommaire, which covers the same ground as the Pariscope movie listings and has various search features. For both Pariscope and Cine Fil Sommaire, you'll need to be able to read some French.

We saw Shine in the Grande Salle of the UGC Cine Cite Les Halles, a 15 screen behemoth in the Forum Les Halles. The multiplex opens for business before 9:30 a.m., unheard of at home in San Francisco. The seats in the Grande Salle are highly tiered, and they have individual numbers embossed on their upholstery. Speakers ring the room. Perhaps owing to the number of screens, Cine Cite forsakes the customary snack girl walking the aisles in favor of American style snack bars, one on each level.

Lubitsch appears to be a mainstay in Paris. Several of his films were playing in repertory two years ago at the Action Christine Odeon, in the sixth (right next to Jacques Cagna's La Rotisserie d'en Face, for the gourmets in the audience). This year they have moved to sister theater Action Ecoles, in the fifth. We suspect they will stick around long enough for us to see all of them on subsequent trips.

We had hoped to see Branagh's four hour Hamlet on a big screen in Paris, but all we got was the familiar preview. As the film is showing at Cannes, its French release has been delayed until mid-May. Having seen To Be Or Not To Be just three days earlier, we had the wicked pleasure of standing up and filing out when the preview came to that famous scene.

There is one, perhaps only one, aspect in which the Paris movie scene is inferior to San Francisco's, and that is its utter lack of double bills. In San Francisco, the Balboa and St. Francis present double bills regularly, the Castro about half the time, and the Vogue, Royal and Alhambra occasionally. In nearby Berkeley, the UC Theater usually follows the nearly extinct practice of showing a different double bill every day, and the non-commercial Pacific Film Archive usually shows two films, with the pair costing just a dollar more than the first alone.

Every day started with breakfast, purchased at a neighborhood bakery and eaten in our apartment. There was one bakery immediately facing our apartment house, and a second about a block away. This concentration is similar all over town, and leaves us marvelling, happily, at how local demand can support so many outlets. The offerings at most bakeries are very similar (patisseries also have sweets), and while some are a little better than others, the quality is uniformly high. We found one bakery, at the intersection of the rue Cochin and rue de Poissy, in the fifth, with some great rolls made of raisin bread. This is similar to, but better than, the Pane Uva from Il Fornaio available in some Bay Area supermarkets.

Many stores are closed on Sunday, but one of our two bakeries was open. For other goods, we had to visit the nearest market district on the rue Poncelet. Last year, in the third, our nearby market district was on the rue Rambuteau. This year we also visited markets on the rue Cler, in the seventh, and in the Montorgueil district, in the second.

Lunch was never a sit down affair, usually just some bread and water picked up along the way. This was Julie's concession to me, as I preferred to save my appetite for dinner. We broke this rule the day of the opera, as dinner would be later than usual. Julie typically skipped the cheese course at dinner, in favor of dessert, and decided to satisfy her craving this day at lunch, in Fauchon's cafeteria. We missed out, arriving at 3 p.m., just as most of the counters were closing.

We fell back to rue Cler market, where we had crepes and fresh raspberries. The crepe maker started with a ready-made shell. While this was an improvement on the pre-fab crepe we bought near Montmartre last year, it was not as good as the crepe the year before, where the street vendor started by pouring batter onto his spinning grill. We think that vendor may have been in the rue Buci market.

One of the better snacks came at Berthillon, closed Monday and Tuesday. Several shops on the Ile St. Louis sell Berthillon sorbets, but we insist on going to the source, for the widest choice of flavors and the dubious advantage of waiting in the longest line. Last year, when our apartment had a full-sized refrigerator with a separate freezer, we bought a half-liter of sorbet to prolong the pleasure for several days. This turned out to be a mistake, as sorbet is best enjoyed at a precise temperature and we had neither the knowledge nor the skill to maintain that temperature. We have since resolved to buy our sorbet by the scoop, whatever the cost (currently 9 FFR per scoop).

Dinner was the big meal of the day. Last year, we went in for Michelin stars, including Taillevent, L'Ambroisie, Laurent and Le Boule d'Or. Of these, Taillevent and L'Ambroisie were great, Laurent was a loss, and Le Boule d'Or, a return visit, was less interesting than the year before. This year we decided to cut back, with our only Michelin stars at Chiberta and Michel Rostang, the latter not far from our apartment.

Rostang has the pomp we have come to expect from a two-star or three-star joint. One measure of pomp is what happens when one of us leaves the table and drops a crumpled napkin (cloth, of course) on the table. In no time flat a waiter swaps the old napkin for a fresh, folded one, enclosed in Rostang's monogrammed napkin ring. Taillevent earned its third star last year by having a waiter present to pull the table out as one of us stood up.

Our failure to drink wine robs us of a good deal of ceremony. Rostang tried to compensate for this with matching his and hers bottles of Badoit, each in its own silver holder, with the labels facing us. As part of the two-star treatment, we were forbidden to pour our own water. The waiter disappointed us by pouring one at a time. We had hoped he would pour both together, one with each hand, then twirl the bottles around his index fingers as he returned them to their silver holsters.

Rostang's menu was heavy with lobster, and one of us partook for the appetizer. For the rest we had various forms of chicken, fish and duck, all of them good but not great. The high point of the meal was the sorbet course before dessert. The waiter wheeled out a cart with five silver tureens and asked us to choose flavor and quantity. We secretly wanted him to leave the cart, but we wimped out and requested just one scoop each. Come dessert, Julie had a chocolate tart that cried out for vanilla ice cream, and the waiter obliged with a scoop of the creamy vanilla sorbet.

One amusing sidelight of our Rostang visit came near the end of the meal, when a middle-aged American at a nearby table stood up, draped his arm around the maitre d's shoulders, and requested a brief tutorial on the rules of tipping in Paris. The maitre d', obliging to a fault, cheerfully complied.

Our favorite meal was at Chiberta, which we last visited in 1994. The flavors continue to surprise and delight. The service seemed less stiff than one would expect in a restaurant as well decorated as this. The only disappointment involved the cigars on the dessert menu. We didn't partake, but two gentlemen at the next table did, clouding up our corner of the room just prior to our dessert. We grudgingly tolerate cigarette smoke in Paris, but have not yet decided whether we should do likewise for cigars.

Other meals near our apartment were at La Petite Auberge and Bistrot de l'Etoile. The former we selected at random while walking through the neighborhood the day we arrived. The latter is a name restaurant, one of Guy Savoy's satellites. The food may have been slightly better at Savoy Junior, but after a week we can no longer remember clearly. At the former, we had our first of several apple pie desserts, called tarte de pomme ronde by Larousse Gastronomique. This consists of a thin pastry shell covered by concentric circles of thin apple slices, slightly browned, and served warm.

Two meals, one good and one bad, were followups of one good meal from last year. Prior to that trip, a friend of ours had recommended a restaurant near Le Monde en Tique, a technical bookstore on the rue Maitre Albert. Not knowing the name (we now know it's Atelier Maitre Albert, but we still have not visited), we wandered around and stumbled upon a small informal restaurant that friends of Julie's had recommended many years earlier. It was Le Petit Plat, on the rue des Grands-Degres. We walked in, sat down, and had a very good meal.

This year Le Petit Plat turned into Le Reminet. A magazine review in the window noted that Le Petit Plat had moved to the fifteenth. While we were reading the review, a woman walked up and engaged us in conversation. She was the assistant chef, and spoke enthusiastically of the owner's cooking skills. We returned a few nights later and had a good meal, not as good as last year, but good enough that we would gladly eat there again.

The relocated Le Petit Plat was a letdown. The cooking wasn't bad, but it was very ordinary. The waitress disappeared for long intervals, and the chairs seemed to be built for much smaller people. The only good thing was the music, a recording of James Brown's greatest hits.

Dinner after the opera is a problem that, in four years of trying, we still have not solved satisfactorily. This year we planned on visiting Baumann Ternes, on the other side of the seventeenth from our apartment. Our plans went awry, as Giulio Cesare let out around 11:30, putting us at Baumann shortly before their midnight closing time. The greeter directed us to Le Bouteille Verre, a couple of blocks away, open until 5 a.m. There is a second Le Bouteille Verre, with the same owner, a block from our apartment, but it closes at midnight. The food was tolerable, the smoke heavy, and the prices reasonable. The lesson we brought with us this year was not to order a full meal, since in most restaurants, both in Paris and San Francisco, we have found the main course to be the weakest. We both had large appetizers and called it a night.

Our remaining dinner was at A l'Impasse, a small restaurant in the fourth, close to the Place Bastille. As the name suggests, the restaurant is near the end of a cul-de-sac. While the cooking may not rate a Michelin star, it is still quite good in both substance and presentation. The ambience is comfortable and the small service staff, which includes the fourth generation owner, friendly and accommodating. It's also cheap by Paris standards, 135 FFR for a three course dinner, beverages not included. This is a place we expect to visit again.

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