Between the tower and the café - Seeking Balance on a week in Paris

We took the shorter line to the elevator at the West leg of the Eiffel Tower. I held my umbrella gingerly above our heads, nevertheless poking one or two of the taller gentlemen joining us in line. At the ticket control, we showed our pre-ordered tickets, receiving compliments from the agent for the green paper that served as our tickets’ backing. Within minutes, we crammed into the elevator and climbed to the second floor. And so I was here again, on Monsieur Eiffel’s beautiful monstrosity.

The view from the Trocadero Gardens the day before we climbed

This past week, Amy and I visited Paris for fall break. The week off from school, due to Luxembourg’s observation of All Saints’ Day, provided the perfect opportunity for Amy to visit Paris for the first time. It wasn’t my first time. I had visited thrice in the past five years, and on my one childhood foray to Europe, a two-week trip with family 16 years ago.

On one’s first visit to Paris, or to anywhere really, one is a tourist and must do tourist things, the Eiffel Tower standing above all other items on the tourist list. I visited the Eiffel Tower on my first trip to Paris – one of my strongest memories of that trip is the shame and fear I felt as I tiptoed up the open-air stairs to the second floor while my younger brother raced ahead of me with not a hint of hesitation. I also visited the Eiffel Tower in 2006, on my best friend’s first knowing visit to Paris, and in 2009, while leading a school trip for many high schoolers who had never been to Paris, which made this the fourth time ascending through the metal crosses and bars, with the fourth virgin companion (counting myself the first time).

There are a few ways to explore a city. One can follow the tried and true approach of guide books and tourist sites. One can search for the forgotten corners of a city, those considered out of fashion now. Or one can seek out the new, the untouched, the mythically authentic.

In a world capital like Paris, especially in Paris, the latter approaches are all but ridiculous. In seven days, one can either follow the tried and true or flay themselves in the self-righteousness particular to experienced travelers, those who “refuse to conform” and “blaze their own trail.” I am not above self-flagellation, especially of this nature, but it gets silly, and when there’s the moderating force of a reasonable traveling partner alongside, I find it best to succumb to my inner tourist and push the traveler’s ego aside.

Finding it best doesn’t mean submitting willingly, nor easily. Throughout the week, I tried to find the balance between seeing what must be seen and feeling at least a bit liberated from the standard, from the road well taken. Not (only) to wage a futile battle instead of enjoying a vacation, but to heighten the enjoyment, to enrich it. At least, I tell you that.

Meanwhile, we climbed the second elevator and ascended into the clouds. When looking for novel inspiration, we humans often look skywards. I comforted myself with the idea and took in the cityscape below.


Our fundamental circumstances made this a different trip than the previous ones I had taken to Paris. For the first time, I visited Paris as one should, with a lover (considering my “bounteous” history of lovers, I know that’s surprising). For the first time, we visited by train, the TGV regional fast train that made the 230-mile journey from Luxembourg in just over 2 hours. For the first time, we spoke a modicum of French, at least a little bit more than “bonjour,” and “merci.” And for the first time, we stayed in one of the hipper neighborhoods of the city.

La Butte Aux Cailles, Quail Hill, is a small city hill in the 13th arrondisement (district) of Paris, in the Southeast of the city, near Place d’Italie. The hill, the tallest point in the city according to the “official” website -, actually takes its name from a businessman named Cailles, who bought the hill and set up a vineyard there in the 16th century. The district became an area of workers and rag collectors (chiffonniers), and then the setting for a major battle in the counterrevolution against the Paris Commune of 1871 (the Commune lost). Until the 1990s, the hill remained a local haunt, insignificant, before at last a mayor of the area decided to build up the bar and leisure scene to welcome the tourists and hipsters. Et, voila, we arrived.

Credit to Monsieur Jacques Bousiquier. I'm not sure what's going on with the pink sky.

A nice article in the New York Times tipped me off to its existence, and shortly after I booked our stay in a hotel there, located right below the Place de la Commune de Paris. Our suspicions that the area was hip were confirmed twofold: first, by the abundance of bars, restaurants, and cute tea salons that we passed each morning and night; secondly, by my friend C., a Frenchman who for me epitomizes young Parisian cool, and who often chooses these bars to visit when he comes into the city from his suburban home. 

Of course, Amy and I are far from hip when it comes to our night lifestyle; we would note how the hill buzzed each night around 9 or 10pm as people started to fill the bars, while we like pumpkins returned home to our hotel to go to sleep. For while the neighborhood was a plus on the whole, well located, interesting, and with a hotel that was cheaper than its quality would fetch in the center, it was also not super close to the center, not close enough that we could easily return to the hotel before dinner. With one exception, our days were long affairs, morning till evening of touring and shopping and sitting in cafés, and then at last of dining and returning home, with no interest in joining the buzz. At least we two are compatible in our unhipness, and we enjoyed our hill all the same, and said we’d be glad to live there if we ever move to Paris. 

So each night and morning, at least, we shared in a new place.


Kids Hanging out in the shadow of the Sacre Coeur's dome
Our touring was long, hard, and fruitful. All the places I wanted to return to or visit for the first time, we reached. I hadn’t been to Montmartre in 16 years, and so gladly climbed up the steps to the Sacre Coeur and walked around the winding roads, re-informed both by Amelie and this fine book on the hill’s beauty, and its artistic and cultural history, respectively. I missed out on the Musée d’Orsay five years ago and hadn’t been since my philistine youth either, and so we made sure to stroll through the Impressionist Gallery and check out the big Toulouse-Latrec paintings. I wanted to visit the Musée de l’Orangerie, home to famous art dealer Paul Guillaume’s collection of 1900-1920 Parisian-milieu paintings, Modigliani and Soutine and all the rest, and we detoured into here after finding a much too long line at the Louvre on Halloween (we did make it to the Louvre three days later). 

The last museum was our favorite, or at least mine (Amy waffled on choosing a favorite), of the three. It is most known for its holding of 8 giant paintings by Monet of his beloved water lilies, separated into two rooms of four paintings. While I remembered that as a child, I held Monet’s fascination with his water lilies as the prime example of why art was lame when I argued with my parents about going to museums, I could appreciate his effort to bring stillness to the center of the city (the museum is located on the edge of the Jardin des Tuileries along the right bank, between the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre). A temporary exhibit on turn of the 20th century Spanish painters also suited Amy’s and mine interest perfectly, and we especially appreciated “La Granadina”, a piece by Hermen Anglada-Camarasa. 

Human Lily in Contemplation of Water Lily

Modligani's portrait of Guillaume's elegance
Monsieur Guillaume’s collection most excited me, however. Very fine works from my favorite art period included Picasso and Matisse, Renoir and Cezanne, Derain after his fauvist fame, but also Henri Rousseau, Maurice Utrillo, and Chaim Soutine, all well displayed. Amedeo Modigliani, one of my favorite painters, had several paintings represented in Guillaume’s collection. Beyond this joy of old favorites, my happiest discovery was the work of Marie Laurencin, a French woman I knew nothing about before and plan to learn much more about afterward. What better can art, writing, or museums do than inspire new learning?

Chanel 1923, by Laurencin

We also lucked into choosing the right days to go into the museums, weather-wise; Tuesday and Thursday, the worst days Paris threw at us, with rain and wind and a trace of the dismal European gloom that had settled into Luxembourg two weeks before, found us in the Orsay and the Louvre, respectively. The rest of the time, we marveled at the sun, the yellow leaves, and the buzz in the streets. Before we left, I postulated that early November is the time to catch Paris in its most natural element, and this week only confirmed my guess. Not yet plagued the cold of winter, nor the emptiness of August, but instead imbued in the perfect distillation of the grays, browns, and blues that represent the breadth of the city’s palette, tinted now with those yellows and oranges on the trees.

In that color template we took strolls through the Jardin Des Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg, the latter on Sunday morning, as formal and informal groups of tai chi practitioners rotated their hips and arms on the fallen leaves. In the Tuileries, we stopped to watch people feeding seagulls and ducks in the pond, and then the seagulls and ducks fighting like needy children, the seagulls louder and more insecure, in larger packs; the ducks more centered, zen even, focused on beating the seagulls back only as a means to food, and not an assertion of ego or pride.

Those Jardins gave us the necessary space and contemplation to brave the human maze beneath the pyramid in the Louvre, or the bustle of the Champs des Elysees, if not for long, and to squeeze into the Arc de Triomphe and the Notre Dame. We climbed neither of the heights in those two sites, nor the dome of the Sacre Coeur, glad just to register and check the sites off our list. And on our last day, Friday, after checking off most of our sights, we took the clichéd but still worthwhile boat cruise, receiving a nice summary of all the places we had been along the Seine. Plus, the guide had an amusing bit going in both French and English, which can be fun for an hour.

All these things on our list were necessities, unavoidable for any tourist coming to Paris. We didn’t avoid them. We tried to do them smartly, I guess, but we went to all these things. To take the long view, going through all these tourist sites, we ran the baptismal gauntlet, the initiation process that will allow us to be mere visitors next time we go to Paris, and not tourists. I did score one major victory on this front, at least: we did not attend the Moulin Rouge. The once and present cabaret, now home to a tacky Vegas-style revue (www.moulinrouge.fr) along the red-light district street bordering Montmartre, gave off an aura of tackiness and gaudy crudity, such that Amy decided she didn’t need to shell out 100 euros for the show. A big relief.

Enough madness in Montmartre for us


About to explore the Latin Quarter. Reading as ever. It gets irritating sometimes.

 Outside of the touring though, we explored Paris as well as one can on foot over seven days. Amy and I unveiled our patented travel strategy, tested in smaller cities (and not really when we visited New York this summer, because we were busy and only there for 4.5 days), and lo, it worked wonders in Paris! Or maybe not wonders, but we got to see a lot of the city, just the way each of us likes to see a new place.

To wit: on four different days, after blundering around under my guidance towards or through a neighborhood, sometimes eating lunch, one day gawking at the Pompidou (Amy hated it), we found a café. Once settled in the café, respective bladders empty, we went about our tasks: Amy went out shopping, while I sat there and read, wrote, and studied French, meanwhile sipping tea. So we settled into Montmartre on our first full day, I nestled in the corner of a café near the Place des Abbesses, as the radio played cheesy French pop songs, while Amy explored the artsy boutiques and shops, picking out a new purple coat for winter. So again in the Latin Quarter, me first at the relatively corporate Malongo and then the neighborhood El Balto, where I enjoyed the soft indie-sounding music and the cute bartender, as well as the eclectic gathering of customers, while Amy held long conversations with clerks in luxury boutiques about their lives to date, and also bought clothes. 

Brass band clearing the street on Ile de St. Louis
We explored Le Marais and Île de St. Louis this way, areas I hadn’t been to before. The former, part of the broader Bastille district, houses the Jewish quarter and a number of intriguing alleys and shops. The latter is the island behind the Notre Dame and boasts a great collection of mansions and private homes, but also a long street for shopping that, due to the high buildings on each side of it, does at least somewhat feel separate from the rest of the city. There I found a salon de thé called La Charlotte de l’Île. The woman behind the bar was actually behind a bar of keys, plucking out a beautiful etude on a piano. The two customers, a middle-aged man and a girl my age, chatted, she talking about how this was her only day in Paris, he about how he hated American coffee. I sat in a corner opposite totem-like pieces of art on the wall, unpacked my backpack, and got to work, while Amy put a bow upon her shopping efforts, buying gifts for friends and family, and for herself too.
La Charlotte's Wall


While that sort of traveling wasn’t explicitly “Parisian”, we made sure that our culinary experience was authentic. Or rather, I made sure. Amy’s taste is not for the heaviness of French food, and so we catered to that some nights – Thai, Mexican, Moroccan, and macrobiotic veggie restaurants all appeared on our dinner docket, and Amy found fish two other nights.

But, as stated, I ensured that at least one of us tasted the best French cuisine had to offer. Twice I ate steak tartar - raw beef, essentially, served looking like an uncooked burger but tarted up with onions, capers, and other spices on these two versions that I hadn’t had before, making this the best steak tartar I ever ate; I had French onion soup several times; a croque madame and a croque monsieur once each (elegant ham and cheese sandwiches, the first one with an egg on top); we both ate crepes twice, once for dinner dessert, once for lunch; one day for lunch I ate rabbit; and the coup de grace, as it was, the best meal of the trip for me, was the foie gras/pot au feu combination, or in other words, goose liver paste and then a beef stew. This eaten on our second to last night, in a restaurant called Le Tresor, the Treasure, in Le Marais. Something about the way the fig marmalade offset the sticky texture of the bitter paste, how it all melted in my mouth, how it all revolted Amy on three different levels, made for a delightful Parisan meal.

I'm not sure what part of that could gross anyone out. Mmmm.

There’s a lot I love about traveling, much of which was covered on this trip. I love planning for trips. I love taking the train. I love seeing new places. I love feeling like a foreigner, and I love blending in to the anonymous crowd at the same time. All these things, and those covered above, the food, the sites, the exploration, all are part and parcel of getting on the road.

But I also love that feeling of displacement, that mentality that one must adopt to travel. The feeling of not being where one belongs. This displacement opens one up to see ordinary things as extraordinary, to regain an awareness of the world’s strangeness. Standing back from the fishbowl of everyday life, the traveler can glimpse the little things that add up to make life whatever life is, in all its weirdness and tragedy and joy and glory.

These little things, they appear in moments, in encounters, in quiet spaces. We found the moments most when eating, where our most direct contact with others came. In the macrobiotic restaurant, we sat in tight quarters next to an American and his French female companion. He had white hair stretching back into a pony tail and down into a full facial beard, and he stretched his conversation to talk about his political views, favorite French directors, traveling itineraries, ex-girlfriends’ tattoos, and down into the finest detail. His companion took it all in far more grace than we managed to, I starting to break out laughing right towards the end of dinner as he pulled out series of magazines he brought with him when he traveled to show her.

Or there was Halloween night. Dia de los Muertos, as we went to a Mexican restaurant recommended by our Mexican-American friend in Luxembourg. Both of us were somewhat sick, each in our own way, and the Mexican disappointed. What didn’t disappoint was the performance of the two girls sitting behind me. Young girls, about my age, Mexicans, clearly good friends, they spent the whole dinner looking at their phones. Texting, checking email, updating facebook, I don’t know. If there’s a set of circumstances that sums up the world we, Amy and I, live in, it’s sitting in a Mexican restaurant in Paris, feeling ill, while two Mexican girls living in Paris spend their whole dinner on their phones. Sigh.

Not all of these moments were happy ones. As we went to cross Place de St. Michel, we heard a thud and then saw a man fall down on the sidewalk. A bus stopped in front of him. We missed the collision, but it appeared that the man walked into the bus which had tried to run the light. There was no Jordan Baker around to explain what happens when two careless people crossed paths. Anyway, we stood and watched and wondered while others attended to the man, who appeared to have suffered a blow but was moving all his hands and legs, and with no signs of bleeding. We crossed the streets with much greater caution for the rest of the week.

But then there are moments of silly confusion, rather than the grim sort. The group of elderly Italians in the metro station who couldn’t figure out the tickets, and so we spoke broken Italian to them, they spoke broken French and English to us, and finally, unable to find a complete Italian sentence beneath my French, I showed them that the ticket machine actually worked in Italiano. “Bravo!” said a joyous man in the group, and he cupped my right cheek in gratitude. The cheek glowed in warmth for the rest of our metro ride.

Or like the middle-aged American who came on to Amy at the Musee d’Orsay.
“Vous etes Parisienne?” he asked.
“Non, je suis Americaine,” she responded with a smile. I walked back over to her at this point. He saw me, broke into a grin, and said, “Oh, me too. You know, I picked the wrong person, but gotta practice that French.” We encouraged him to keep working on the French.

Really though, when I talk about moments, I don’t mean any of this. I mean the opening into a peace of mind, into a harmony with the breath and with the air around, a quiet space. Many people find their quiet space through spirituality, or through rural towns, or through nature.

For example, a slice of nature in the middle of the Seine
I am fond of those things. I can appreciate those things, and include them in my life. For me, however, the quiet space is to be found in a city, among the convenience, the noxiousness, the bustle, the rush, the bums, the haughty elitists, the overpriced stores, the touristy areas and the undiscovered nooks, but the agglomerations of people and buildings and stuff all in a smaller, denser area. The moments come for me when I can find space amidst that area.

The moment came on Thursday night, in the steady rain. I stood outside, under an umbrella, while Amy made a last purchase for the night, of pharmaceutical products hard to find in other places. Darkness had long set in, the glow of streetlights filtered by that rain, lending a fuzzier, more romantic lens to the evening.

I stood across the street from a church. We were in Le Marais, and an orthodox Jew in his wide-brimmed black hat walked by me, buzzed or tapped in a code, and entered a building to the right of the store. Shortly after, the church bells started, ushering in 7:00pm. I was across from one church, but one or two others were in earshot, and their clocks were not perfectly synchronized. One chime from one church chased the chime from another, and soon the two or three separate bells chased each other, unclear which was leading and which following. The chase lasted for a minute, bells falling on one another like the rain on my umbrella. And then the silence returned, or rather, the buzz of the city preparing for dinner and a lively night. The moment settled on me. Amy then came out the store, and we went off to dinner.


View from Montmartre

But I can’t end without finishing off with the Tour de Eiffel. The Eiffel Tower, a ridiculous structure, built only to perpetuate its own glory and that of its city. A ugly metallic phallus pointed upwards to nowhere, an eyesore, a cliché, an irrelevancy.

Or else the Eiffel Tower, a brilliant piece of work, a shining example of constructed meaning, literally. The Eiffel came to serve a purpose as a broadcast tower, which is why it outlived its original 20-year life span. But it also served its own purpose, as the current centerpiece of the city, its most famous structure, and the guiding light to all visitors of Paris, at least.

One can’t escape the Eiffel Tower. There it is looming from the window of the Louvre, or the Musee d’Orsay. Here we see it around the corner from the Sacre Coeur. There it is from the boat, of course, the last stop before the cruise returns eastward. The Arc de Triomphe now serves as a prime lookout to see the Eiffel. The Trocadero Gardens unroll perfectly at the Tower’s feet. Everywhere you go, there you are, in the Eiffel Tower’s shadow.

So we didn’t escape the Eiffel Tower, but submitted to it as wisely as we could. We came with preordered tickets, printed on that lauded green paper. The positive side to preordering was that our line wait was much shorter. The negative side was that our date was fixed, and we picked the worst one, Tuesday, where the weather was perfect to visit the Musee d’Orsay, but not to see the city.

Things looked grim, or dim, actually, from the second floor. Through the fog we could barely make out the Arc de Triomphe, we could just catch the dome of the Hôtel des Invalides below, we couldn’t find the Notre Dame, and the Sacre Coeur blended in with the white around it. Rain fell on us as we stood out on the edge to get our photo taken, and again sideways as we waited in line for the summit elevator.

The soupy fog - can you see what's behind it, just visible?

I hoped that we might somehow rise above the clouds when we reached the top, but I obviously did not take any meteorology classes in college. The cloud was thicker from the summit, so that we had to strain to regain what we had seen 500 feet below. We took one quick tour around the top of the tour, had enough, and did our best to descend as quickly as I could.

I apologized to Amy for not checking the weather before booking our tickets, even though I booked about a week before. “It’s ok, we didn’t have to see everything,” she said. “The rain’s kind of nice, anyway.” I smiled, relieved that at least this, the one major duty of our stay, wasn’t a failure with the audience that mattered. (And I tested her feelings on the rain by leading us to walk to the Orsay, about a half-hour trip.)

I also smiled because I thought about the next time we would have to deal with the Eiffel Tower. Probably, it will be when Amy’s family comes to visit next summer (right guys?). In any case, I will be more than capable of buying them the tickets online in advance. And Amy will be more than capable of leading them up to the top. After four times, I think I’m well through with the damn thing for a while.