It is said that you can only truly understand a man's mettle when he hits hard times. When life is going well, it's easy to be gracious. However, to be gracious as your world collapses around you takes inner fortitude and class. I think the same can be said about countries and cities.
In Japan after the earthquake and nuclear reactor fallout, stories abound about orderly lines for supplies, ongoing respect for the elderly, and model citizen behaviour. Even in the relief camps, the Japanese were still recycling. No rowdiness, no pushing, no theft- just gentility and calm like a Japanese Ikebana arrangement. This is when you know the moral fibre of a place runs deep. Japan is a high-aesthete culture where structure and order are of utmost importance. In disaster, they clung to those principles and they served them well.
Recently, I spent eight consecutive days in Paris and then in Rome. Even a casual glance at the news would tell you that both cities have been hard-hit by the global recession. The euro is teetering, businesses are closing and unemployment is high. Just a few years ago when good times rolled, both cities were giddy on joie de vivre: glamour, shopping, partying, laughing, dining, sharing, giving...
Then came the deluge... of bad news.
In response, Rome has become a nasty place. The scary underbelly of the Italian character has gone into overdrive. In scarcity, the city Italians have clung to the worst of who they are: cronyism, chicanery, malevolence. There are more cab drivers trying to rip you off, more street scams coming at you, more underhanded dealings, and Italian joviality has almost disappeared. I am going to stay away for a while.
Across the aisle, Paris has become an even more wonderful city. In scarcity, the city French have clung more tightly to the best of who they are. A sense of "we are French, — educated, stylish, civil" has permeated the city. If you have never been to Paris, now is a great time to go. If you have already been, it is a very magical time to return.
I think when the best of what a place has to offer is free or near-free, then the citizens are not as affected by the loss of material things. The best of Paris is simply walking around Paris — an activity available to anyone of any income at any time. Beautiful buildings? Check. Tree-lined streets? Check. Stupendous public parks and gardens? Check! Talented musicians doing impromptu concerts all over the city? Check! Inexpensive delicious foods and wines? Check! Friends who are never too busy to stop for a café or un verre de vin? Check! Check! Check! This is Paris, a carefully constructed dream of civilised living.
I have always loved Paris, but after the recent trips I treasure it even more. The city is so well crafted for rich experiences and lasting memories. My six-year-old niece was with me on her first trip. As we toured around, there were so many five-cent carousels on the streets and public statues to climb to hold her interest. Yes, Dora the Explorer had gone to Paris to climb the Eiffel Tower, but my niece discovered so much more than the uber -famous steel structure. "Uncle, I'm tired," oft gave way to "Uncle, what's that?"
My Aunty D with bad knees and ankles joined us for a day trip from London via the Eurostar train. I was concerned about how we would walk Paris with aching feet. No problem. The streets are populated with well-placed shaded benches and coolers. The thoughtful thoroughness of Paris city planning is unmatched.
Walk Rue Mouffetard for inexpensive costume jewellery and culinary delicacies from all over the world. I love the juice-dripping roast chickens from the spit roast. Butter croissants and baguettes from the Eric Kayser boulangerie nearby are a must. For a real treat, their bacon-infused roll is one of those mouth-watering discoveries that I dreamt about for months after having it. Best eaten when freshly baked.
Pick up some cured meats, cheese and a couple of bottles of wine and walk 20 minutes or hop a cab to one of the city's best designed parks, the Jardin de Luxembourg. Sit next to the pond in one of the dozens of public metal chairs (nobody a tief them?) and get lost in a good book, watch the toy sailboats, or take in a show of marionettes.
When you tire of the Jardin, walk across to the very touristy but still charming Boulevard Saint Germain and settle down in a café for some A-class people-watching. The city has the most universally stylish people in the world --regardless of income. Even the inexpensive chain stores like H&M, Zara or Mangos have a far better selection in Paris than they do in New York because working men and women demand it. Watch the parading street-side fashion show and take style tips on scarves, hats, bold accessories, and layering! Even in the summer they layer for style.
Sunday morning, my editor NMW recommended mass at Sacré Coeur in Montmartre. What a delightful idea that was. It does not matter if you do not speak French, the pageantry and iconography of the Catholic Church works its spell in any language. A post-mass walk through the quirky shops, picturesque bohemian bars and eateries of Montmartre make for a great Sunday afternoon.
The best view of Paris is at Le Georges restaurant on top of the Centre Pompidou. From this vantage point you can see all the city highlights in one swoop: Notre Dame, Montmartre, Eiffel Tower, Pantheon, and Les Invalides where Napoleon is buried. Technically, you need a reservation to get into the elevator to go to the top. I usually just say that I have a reservation and go for the view. Look confident, though, or they will block you at the door. If you have spare change, have the 20-euro glass of champagne. But skip the expensive mediocre food and lousy snobbish service -- it's all about the view.
The Pompidou view is best seen at dusk, so you get Paris by day and then Paris by night. The famed City of Lights has been a little less lit since the recession. Many of the once grandly lit public spaces are now either in total darkness or partial shadow. "JPS" concerns are global. But even though it is a little dimmer than it used to be the night view of Paris is still spectacular. And free.
I did have one insane (very insane) indulgence. It was the second time I had been to Paris with my oldest sister and we had not hung out in some time. There was cause for celebration. Eagerly, I reserved a table for two at the 3-Michelin star restaurant Epicure at the Hotel Bristol. Both my sister and I are serious foodies and so the idea of experiencing a 3- Michelin star restaurant in the most gastronomically sophisticated city in the world was very appealing. We got decked up and went. The setting was grand. The wait staff was attractive. We ordered the degustation (tasting) menu. Sacré Bleu! The meal and the service were stupendous. BUT it was the most expensive meal I have ever had in my life. I have to say it was not worth the money. I felt kind of foolish. (So foolish that I dare not even tell my readers what I paid for the meal.) I was also roundly told off by Parisian friends who said that no self-respecting French gourmand would be caught dead paying that much money for food in Paris. That's actually true. The place was filled with newly rich Russians, Arabs and Americans. There were no French people in sight. OK, OK, been there, done that, won't do it again.
For an authentic French experience, stay at Le Citizen Hotel near Belleville. It's a little outside of tourist Paris but worth soaking in. Walking along the Canal St Martin are mostly ordinary Parisians and a few off-beaten-path explorers like yourself. The hotel gives you an iPod on check-in which is already preloaded with maps, restaurant recommendations and French music. It feels like the far frontier of great hotel service. Only in Paris would an "ordinary" hotel be so extraordinarily thoughtful.
There is value to reconnecting with the simple things. And in Paris these simple things — beauty, art, civility, affordable food and wines, camaraderie — things free and near-free are what make the magic of the place endure. Long live Paris. Vive Paris.