This post sums up my two months in Paris, and considers whether the experience can be replicated. It was a great trip, and it met or exceeded my expectations in almost every respect. Some of the conditions for its success were rather unique, however, so another similar trip might well not be as good.
Imperfections. There weren’t many!
- The weather was the only respect in which the stay was significantly imperfect. Paris is normally chilly in April, but the first half of May was unseasonably cold and cloudy this year. I bundled up, and did indoor things — mostly museums — when it rained. This wasn’t a big deal, however, and it enhanced my pleasure when we did get a warm day.
- I never did figure out how to use the Vélib’ bicycles that are all over the city. Our credit cards don’t work in the machines, and my Navigo pass didn’t help. Supposedly you can buy one-day or one-week passes from a mayor’s office or a tabac but the ones I visited knew nothing about this. Although not being able to ride was annoying, you see more when you walk and it’s safer, especially since there are no helmets.
- Second-hand smoke was often an annoyance on the terraces of cafés. Sometimes I chose an indoor table (all non-smoking now) but most often I just gritted my teeth and enjoyed the rest of the experience.
Sociability. I’m quite a self-sufficient person, and I don’t mind being by myself for long periods. But being alone for two solid months would have been too much even for me!
- Guests. My primary plan to address this issue was to rent places that had an extra sleeping spot and invite friends to visit. This worked very well, since Jason visited for nine days in April (extended from five because of the Icelandic volcano), Jaime visited for seven days at the start of May, and Michael came for a long weekend later in the month. This assured me of the doses of friendly sociability that I needed to keep the stay in balance. There was a notable difference in the rhythm of life when a guest arrived, since they naturally were fired up to put their limited time to the best use. I had no problem adjusting my metabolism to “vacation mode” but my daily routine was more relaxed and perceptive — truer to the ideal of the flâneur — when I was on my own, or with a resident. I realized from the outset that my guests would want to see many of the same sights, so I avoided the “top-ten attractions” when I was on my own. Fortunately, there was a good deal of variation in my guests’ interests, and the Louvre — the only place I visited with all three of them — had plenty to keep me interested. The people who stayed with me were wonderful guests, but I realized that I took a considerable risk by putting out a general invitation — another time I would more carefully select whom I invited.
- Visitors. Another important source of sociability were old friends who were visiting Paris for a few days or a few weeks, but not staying with me. I had perhaps half a dozen meals with visitors, including a reunion with a high school classmate whom I hadn’t seen in several decades. Not one but two HGLC Steve’s visited — one teaching an architectural course in Paris and the other on a long weekend with his partner from their current home in Zurich. I enjoyed taking them to the less-touristy restaurants to which residents had introduced me. This element of sociability was an unexpected pleasure, and it added significantly to my enjoyment of the trip.
- Residents. The big surprise and great pleasure of the trip was the residents I came to know and like. I had hoped to meet a few people, and perhaps stir up a little romance, but my actual experience in Paris was far more sociable than my life in Boston. I met people mostly through mutual friends or on the Internet, in addition to the three people I already knew, HGLC coordinator Elliot Marks, Loring Tu and my cousin Lisa. Things started rather slowly, since residents have busy lives, and in most cases we were meeting somewhat cautiously for the first time. But again and again a sympathetic chord was struck and soon I was being invited over for dinner, meeting partners, and planning additional meals and outings. I don’t really understand why such a strong rapport developed between all these younger folks and a flâneur of twice (or even three times) their ages — apart from those who are attracted to older men. But their kindness and friendship made my stay a truly wonderful experience.
- Prague. A special circumstance of this visit was my side-trip to see my old friend David in Prague. This added yet another warm, sociable episode, along with a turn-the-tables situation in which he was my tour guide.
Food and Drink. The food is terrific, but not cheap. The wine is both.
- Home Cooking. Having apartments meant that I ate a healthy breakfast every morning before going out. In April I also cooked a half-dozen dinners at home, but after I started getting swept up in the social whirl I ate out more often. Typically I would have a restaurant meal for either lunch or dinner, then a sandwich — either from a bakery or made up at home — for the other meal. I developed a real taste for a French brand of sardines packed in extra virgin olive oil, including olive slices. Along with lettuce, tomato and mustard on half of a baguette, plus half of a fresh pastry, this made quite a tasty and wholesome meal.
- Tourist Traps. For one reason or another I had several meals in places that cater almost exclusively to tourists. The food was usually good enough, and the waiters were sometimes quite cute, but I usually found the experience unsatisfying. One of these restaurants was teeth-gratingly kitschy, and all of them featured clueless Americans talking loudly at nearby tables. I ended up avoiding these places wherever possible, although I realize that someone who didn’t speak French would pretty much have to eat in such a place.
- Local Favorites. I preferred eating at places recommended by my resident friends. In most cases the other diners were French, and the overall experience felt more authentic. The food in these spots was usually quite good and always good value. I usually could find reasonably healthy dishes on the menus, and I didn’t gain weight on the trip despite the rich sauces and richer desserts. Most often I was content with a carafe of the house wine, unless I was with someone who had more refined taste.
- Haute Cuisine. I only ventured once to a Michelin star restaurant, with Jaime. It was a great experience, and I can see doing it again some time, but $160 or so for lunch isn’t a habit even I can afford to acquire.
Replication. It was a great trip, but can I do it again?
- Paris Again. I had such a good time that I am strongly inclined to plan another similar trip to Paris, perhaps in May and June, 2011. There are some concerns, however:
- What would I do? Much of my time on this trip was spent exploring and taking photographs of Paris neighborhoods, many of which I was seeing for the first time. While I’m sure Paris has plenty more to reveal, the thrill of initial discovery is bound to be much less on a second visit. A partial answer would be to plan more junkets outside of the city proper. I want to see Mont St. Michel, for example, and I might rent a farmhouse in south or central France for a week or two. But I also think I would need a new project to provide focus for my time in Paris. This might be photo or video essays on particular neighborhoods or people, or something altogether different.
- Sociability. The fact that I now know a bunch of nice people in Paris would help get my social life off to a good start. But I wouldn’t be able to take for granted the same level of sociability. Some of the social energy that my trip generated may have related precisely to its limited length. I’m sure the friends I’ve made will be pleased to see me back in town, but whether they’ll have as much time to spend with me another time is something of a question. There’s an even bigger issue concerning guests. It isn’t too likely that the friends who stayed with me this trip will want to return to Paris a second year, and without them I’d need even more social support from local friends. Other friends might be interested, but there would also be a greater risk if I haven’t traveled with them before. Visitors to Paris (who don’t stay with me) can be reliably expected, even more in June than in April, but they don’t afford as firm a social anchor as a house guest.
- The Blog.This blog, and the way in which it kept me in touch with friends and family, has been a considerable part of the pleasure of the trip. This might not work, however, either for you or me, a second time. Perhaps a more sporadic blog would continue to engage, but I’m afraid that daily posts, at least from Paris, would feel repetitive.
- Somewhere Else. Another city would have the virtue of being relatively unexplored (by me), so I could do something similar to my sojourn in Paris. But only a few cities that I know of have the depth and richness to support such a long stay, and each raises at least one additional issue:
- London (very expensive)
- New York (already pretty familiar, to you and me)
- Buenos Aires (some language and safety issues)
- Istanbul (language barrier)
- Tokyo (expensive and language barrier)
- Sydney (already pretty familiar to me)
- Toronto (may not be enough there)
- Barcelona (some language issue and maybe not enough there).
One additional criterion would be whether there is a CityWalks deck for the city, since I really enjoyed being able to grab a card and set off. A further question is whether friends would want to visit, and whether I would find friendly residents (with a shared language!) — it could be quite lonely if not. On balance, another city would present a lot more risk than a second stay in Paris, although also more challenge and novelty.
- At Home. Might it also be possible to replicate the pleasures of this trip back in Boston? To walk the city streets with the perceptive eyes of the flâneur? To meet cool new friends with a thrill of mutual sympathy? In short, to live with intensity and style? Unfortunately, the pull of old habits and the deadening of familiarity fight against this. I will try, however, to bring at least some of the spirit of my sojourn in Paris back into my daily life here in Boston. Will you help me?
Bonus: Here’s an interesting map showing the density of photos that have been geotagged in and around Paris, and an even more interesting map which distinguishes photos tagged by Parisians from those tagged by tourists (props to Alan Norbauer)! Geotagging maps for other large cities are also available.