A couple of Parisian friends, Michael and Philippe, just succeeded in selling their apartment. They invited us to come celebrate their move — thankfully, without asking us to help move! So, a fun weekend in Paris — in the real Paris, with a moment or two at some famous locations.
Our friends had a pleasant one-bedroom apartment in the 18th arrondissement. The 18th is in the north of the city and includes Montmartre and Sacré Coeur. We got a little lesson in the real estate market. Michael told us that in recent months, property prices have risen alarmingly, but are drooping a bit now — unfortunately when they needed to sell. He said that the prices have risen over 10,000€ per square meter (m2), which is a psychological frontier for his neighborhood. OK, let’s translate that. A one-bedroom apartment might be 50 m2 or about 500 square feet (sf). 50 m2 x 10,000 €/m2 = 500,000 € ($ 550,000) ! Think if you’d like something bigger, say 150 m2 or 1,500 sf: Come with 1,500,000 € ($ 1,640,000).
Look at these more luxe properties advertised in the upscale 16th arrondissement:
Let’s just say we are content with visiting; no need to try to live here. Too bad!
The other side of pretty
We certainly prefer to stroll on the iconic Haussmannian boulevards and down ornate side streets; it’s all so attractive and so “Parisian.” When you think of Parisian streets and buildings, you are probably thinking of the last half of the 19th-century. In 1853 Emperor Napoleon III commissioned a radical rework of the city. He tapped Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to lead the effort. Up until that time, Paris was still largely what it had been in medieval times: crowded neighborhoods, meandering narrow streets, little sunlight, no sewers. Much of the heart of the city was dangerous and full of disease. It was a hotbed of discontent. Napoleon wanted to clean up the city, in all its dimensions. Not unimportantly, he wanted to create access for his military to quash popular unrest and rebellions. The glorious tree-lined boulevards that we enjoy today were really tools of political control. Still — they’re now among the many joys of Paris.
(The source for these maps is this fantastic interactive site.)
But Paris is a very big crackling city, full of architectural successes and failures from every period. Very many of the buildings in Paris today have been built since the Second World War. The track record of 20th-century architecture has generally been less than wonderful. No surprise to anyone that most of what has been built in Paris in this period is uninspiring at best, hideous at worst. There are plenty of streets and neighborhoods – especially the farther out you go from the historical center – where all you see are flat walls and stripes or punches of dark glass.
Fortunately, the heritage of pre-war architecture and urbanism is so strong that usually the modern infill just gets accommodated. The scale of the streets is still comfortable. Storefronts remain animated. Mature sidewalk trees soften everything.
Of course Paris is filled with buildings and neighborhoods from all the prosperous times. That’s what makes a living city. Thank goodness its bones are so sound, and Parisians (on the street, and in the government) are passionate to keep it that way.
A few of our closest friends
Since Michael and Philippe live on the back slope of Montmartre, they took us to one of their favorite little neighborhood restaurants nearby. Our strolling route included a quick ride on the funicular up the hill, and then past the grand stairs below Sacré Coeur. It was a lovely June evening, so just a few folks had camped out on the steps and on the grass to enjoy the grand view of the city.
On another evening, after a fine dinner in the 16th arrondissement, not far from the Trocadero, we couldn’t resist catching a peek of the Eiffel Tower. Again, with just a few fellow-tourists!
The best métro
One reason that we find Paris so easy to explore is the métro, or subway. Just a practical aspect of city life for residents and visitors alike, so it’s perhaps easy to take it for granted. However, the lines are so clearly marked; the stations are plentiful and not far apart (as they can be in London); the trains run frequently, even in late evening; the stations and trains are clean; and riders are civil. Get a Paris Visite multi-day pass, and jump all around the city to your heart’s content.
Paris is a great world city. You can find all the world in Paris.
As you know, we see the world through the lens of “where shall we eat next?”. We live in a corner of deep France. Pretty much all that we have access to (other than home cooking!) is French food. Poor us! But that means, when we go to Paris and the rest of the world, we’re hungry for food of the world. On this trip, we had meals at Argentinian and Indian restaurants, an American-diner breakfast, and fine dining at Japanese-French and Korean-French fusion restaurants. When you visit Paris, of course eat the wonderful French cuisine. But don’t forget to taste the world there too.
International also means political. Just outside our hotel, we came upon this small but passionate demonstration. The complicated connections forged in France’s colonial exploits retain their fuel today.
André Okombi Salissa is a Congo-Brazzaville politician and former government minister. In 2016, he challenged President Denis Sassou Nguesso for the presidency. He was sentenced to 20 years of forced labor for “threatening state security.” Jean-Marie Michel Mokoko is a long-time politician in Congo Brazzaville. He also opposed president Nguesso in 2016 and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Today’s Congo-Brazzaville, or Republic of Congo, was a French colony from 1880. It became the independent country of the Republic of Congo in 1960.
The joy of outdoor cafés and restaurants
So simple and obvious that it’s easy to forget how essential to the Parisian quality of life are the ubiquitous outdoor cafés and restaurants.
You see and feel convivial life everywhere. Such a pleasure to settle at a little table outside facing the sidewalk, order a coffee or a beer or a glass of sparkling wine, sit, chat, and watch the Parisian world go by.
Les Puces de Saint Ouen: Antiques and Flea Market
We came to Paris this time with a little mission — really an excuse to explore the Puces de Saint Ouen.
Our mission was to find an old crystal-ly ceiling light fixture; something to clean up and restring for the ceiling of a bedroom. You may recall that a few years back, we had some luck to find something similar at a street market in Nice (blog post).
The Puces de Saint Ouen are located just outside the périphérique, which is the ring-road that defines central Paris (Paris intra-muros). Central Paris inside; suburban Paris outside. The word puces is properly “fleas.” But here, it is also “flea market” ! Since the 1870s, this has been the location for flea-ridden flea markets. At the beginning, it was just an unorganized place for city scavengers to hawk what they’d “found.” In 1885, city officials cleaned the location up, which attracted more acceptable merchants. By 1946, the market had matured into what is the world’s first antiques market district. It has become rather upscale, but there are still corners that offer some garage-sale character.
For a few hours, we wandered from market stall to market stall. It seemed like it was kilometers and kilometers of stalls and markets!
Here and there we found candidates for our ceiling light fixture. Since this is Paris, we expected that prices would likely exceed our budget. So, we came prepared to exercise our bargaining skills (such as they are). At one shop, the saleswoman quoted a first price as 550€; quite a bit higher than we wanted. That would take some very effective haggling.
At another shop, we spotted some unusual fixtures. A cluster of clear-glass vessels made up each fixture. The vendor explained that these lights came from a 1970s restaurant. His colleague had transformed them from a black mess into these sparkling lights. His first price was 2500€ each. We smiled, asked for his card, and then left never to return!
As our energy was flagging, we continued down a long, relatively quiet, eclectic stretch of market stalls. Suddenly, there, slumped on a piece of old furniture was a dusty pile of crystals and a metal hoop: a disheveled ceiling light fixture. The vendor came over, held it up. He wanted to make sure that we knew that the metal parts were bronze. Perhaps that’s true… We noticed that a couple of the crystal strands were missing. The vendor pulled out an even more disheveled wall sconce that had a few strands of similar crystals. He said that he’d throw the sconce in so we could restring the crystals in the ceiling fixture. We asked the price, very ready to go into bargaining mode. The price he quoted was shockingly reasonable. No need to haggle. We think the vendor just wanted to get rid of the “bronze” and crystal mess. We, however, know exactly how to bring it back to life. That is, after all, the fun part of scouring a flea market.
Simple classic tourist stops
A calming beautiful complement to strolls along Parisian streets is a meander through the Jardin de Luxembourg. Queen Marie de Medici created the garden in 1612. (To distort Mel Brooks: “It’s good to be queen!”) Today, the château is the site of the French National Senate. But for ordinary Parisians, it is stylish green escape.
We particularly love the French-style groves of trees, beneath which you can loll on a bench in the cool shade.
Happily, they’re making progress on the rebuilding of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. We thought that they were aiming to finish the reconstruction by the opening of the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris; however, it seems that December 2024 is the target date. It looks like they have quite a lot more still to do.
Challenges of a chef entrepreneur
We enjoyed a very lovely dinner at a French-Korean fusion restaurant; more about that below.
This was a Saturday evening. Only two tables out of about a dozen had customers, including our table. There were four staff: 2 chefs, 1 sommelier/server, and 1 server. The servers were young men in formal blue suits.
After our successful dinner, the chef poked her head out of the open-kitchen area. We smiled, inviting her to come see us. She’s maybe in late 30s or early 40s, Korean by way of LA and now Paris. Her husband is French, and her two young kids insist on talking in French even when she talks to them in Korean. We said that we were surprised to see so few diners on this Saturday evening. She sighed, and explained what she sees: The pandemic was, as expected, a disaster. But even now, in the wake of the pandemic, many of the people who used to work in the neighborhood have not come back. This has gutted her daytime business. During the pandemic, many well-heeled Parisians escaped to the countryside. While, post-pandemic, they have come back for their city lives, they tend to slip out of Paris on weekends. So, weekends are no longer big business days either.
We asked about assistance from the government during the pandemic. She said that she hadn’t received any aid. She had opened the restaurant just a few months before the onset of the pandemic lockdown. The government calculated assistance based on, at minimum, one year’s business accounting. Since the restaurant was so new, she didn’t have enough history, and the government wouldn’t help.
On top of all that, French taxation takes away so much of what she earns, that she can’t get her head above water. (We’ve heard the same report from friends who have small businesses in France. They say that salaried people in big companies do very well; retired people receive reasonable benefits. The small businesses have to pay more than their share.)
We could see a combination of passion about her restaurant and creative life, and weariness and sadness amid years of unending difficulties. To us, she was a lovely energetic person, full of talent, an excellent creative chef. We recommend her restaurant whole-heartedly. Please go an enjoy a delightful meal, and support a deserving entrepreneur: L’Octave.
This is an attractive tiny neighborhood restaurant. A young Japanese couple — chef and hostess — have created a French menu with Japanese touches.