Perfect Tense


After ten days of colds, flu, rainy weather and general post holiday torpor, my daughter and I were ready to fling ourselves into Paris. Oh, Hazel had actually accomplished something since New Year’s Day - she and Eric had a great time recording this song. Meanwhile I’d been on the couch coughing, sneezing and trying to breathe.

One problem with going to Paris is the pressure to have the perfect experience. What if that hotel/meal/stroll/ or museum/cafe/wine/coffee/croissant isn’t the absolute best encapsulation of all the romantic myths you’ve had dangled in front of you from the first time you read “Madeline” or saw “Funny Face” or “Breathless”? I feel really lucky to be close enough to just drop in occasionally for a few days because it takes the pressure off a little bit. But I still wanted us to have the best time.

January is a great time to visit, after the holidays, before the spring and right when the winter sales start. I found a good deal on a decent hotel in Place de la Sorbonne. I love this area near the Sorbonne, all the curly haired kids clustered around in their black coats, smoking and talking. Yes, there’s no more smoking in Paris bars, restaurants and cafes, impossible to believe but the weather is mild enough that people don’t seem to mind gathering out on the sidewalks to light up. Probably the reality just hasn’t set in yet - at this point all the standing outside seems like a cheerful novelty.

I’d also written down some promising inexpensive restaurants (chowhound.com). As soon as we dropped off our bags we headed on foot towards what I believe is Chinatown, even though on our previous trip we found amazing Chinese food in Belleville. This time it was down towards Place d’Italie and Rue Tolbiac. We kept seeing these unattended Velib' bike stands and were determined to figure it out and ride bikes before the end of the trip.

We were starving and decided to try a Vietnamese place, Pho 14, which looked crowded and inexpensive and was delicious. About fifteen euros for a huge bowl of rare beef and noodle soup, chicken dumplings, tea and soda. The couple next to us made it their mission to explain the use of the various sauces, sprouts and leaves, until at one point I swear the man was about to start feeding me with my own chopsticks.

Now that Eric and I have gone GPS, I find myself constantly “planning a route.” We actually took the TomTom (all the names are hateful, but somehow we hate Sat Nav most of all, so it’s zhay-pay-ess or TomTom) with us on foot in Bordeaux one time, and wanted to drop through a hole in the cobblestoned street when “Jane” loudly implored us to “turn right, now”. We thought we’d turned the sound off.

So, back to me and Hazel. Our "route" to return to the 5th took us up Rue Mouffetard, which I remember from many years ago when my friend Angela and I came here for a week or two. It doesn’t make sense that Hazel is now the age I was then. I mean, in my mind I’m still twenty (okay, thirty) with all the energy and possibility and good will in the world still in store.

If you love movies like I do, Paris is paradise. And this part of the city has at least one movie theater on every street. I don’t think I’m exaggerating. Imagine for a second any movie that you’ve been thinking, hmmm, I’d really like to see (fill in the blank). Within a ten minute walk, here’s what I saw playing: Barry Lyndon, Serpico, Play Misty For Me, some Marx brothers, Pasolini’s Salo (not a film to sit through more than once but there it is if you’ve been curious), and dozens of new and old films I’d never heard of. We picked the one that was starting at exactly the minute we passed the theater, a cop thriller with Joaquin Phoenix and Mark Wahlberg.

A great thing about seeing movies here is that no matter how hackneyed the dialogue or contrived the plot, you’re seeing it in Paris so it immediately takes on layers of meaning that probably aren’t even there. And because you see it in a cinema full of non-English speakers, you can enjoy it as much for the style and the action as for any sort of evolved storytelling. Now that I can read French a little, I see how the subtitles simplify everything until it’s downright primitive. Which of course makes me question whether I’ve really ever seen a French film, especially something with a lot of dialogue, like Eric Rohmer. But maybe it works the same way in reverse - you miss a lot of the subtleties (and possibly some of the failures) and take away the basic intention of the filmmaker and details like clothes and cars and room decor. Anyway, we really got into the chase scenes and everything - although possibly the best moment was when Hazel told the idiotic babbling women sitting next to us to shut up, in perfectly accented French.

Next day we walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg to the Catacombes, which were sadly shut for repair. An elderly gentleman saw us reading a map and insisted on making sure we got on the appropriate bus. He claimed tourists don’t make enough use of the buses and that they are much more efficient than those in say, New York. He was a retired professor who’d taught briefly at Columbia and probably wanted to speak English for a little while. Funny how I often have these weird hybrid conversations lately, where the French person presses on in English while I defend my right to speak French, no matter how badly. It seems to work out somehow.

We took the bus to Bon Marché department store because I’d read about the magnificent food hall, and it really was an experience. The bottled water section alone went on for acres, with every kind of water from every possible country, and the same went for fish, sausage, cheese, chocolate, anything you can think of eating or admiring food and drink-wise. For four euros each we bought delicious sandwiches and ate them next to all the beautifully dressed Parisians who were chowing down. I love how noone is too chic to stand or walk around chomping a baguette.

Found an interesting bookstore, Cine Reflet, with nothing but film studies and biographies and magazines in French and English, and in the same street (Rue Monsieur Le Prince) a restaurant, Polidor, which was full of charm, communal tables and all kinds of people eating basic old fashioned cheap food. It was colorful and enjoyable except for the ominous note at the bottom of the menu that warned the beef came from various European and Eastern European countries. Maybe it’s living in the Limousin, where the beef is justly famous, or Eric’s aversion to produce grown in Holland (when we drive through the Netherlands he points out the miles and miles of weird glowing greenhouses), or the fact that even supermarkets here are much clearer about identifying where things come from, but I ‘ve become more conscious of how and where something's grown can affect the quality. And so I found myself walking around later that evening with a queasy feeling. We stopped off at Biere Academy, a scholarly bar, and that seemed to help. There’s something about sharing a humble brew with my daughter that makes me wish I could go back in time and do more fun stuff with my own mother, instead of fighting about my right to wear a leather jacket and dark eye makeup...

The next day we spent hours at the Musée de la Mode, ogling the Christian Lacroix-curated fashion exhibit. The attention to detail in the clothing, and in the way everything was grouped and displayed, was inspiring. Then we treated ourselves to sandwiches, tea and pastries at Ladurée.

The fact that this was the first day of the soldes, or winter sale, a huge event in France, was lucky for us. Not so much from a consumer point of view, but because we were able to go into Printemps, one of the big department stores, and paw through racks of the most beautiful clothes, still way out of our price range even though everything was marked down (what’s half of 1,954 euros for a Derek Lam coat?).

A perfect sunset, a good Chinese restaurant around the corner from the hotel, and finally, that Velib' ride that started off perfectly on the tiny winding streets of Ile-Saint Louis and took a frightening turn when we ended up pedaling for our lives alongside eight lanes of traffic. Still, what a great scheme, where for one euro fifty you use your bank card in any kiosk, take an available bike and return it anywhere in the city.

We were both exhausted from all the walking, looking, eating and drinking. Why then, was it impossible to sleep? Maybe because it was the last time I’d see Hazel for a while. Or cause I missed Eric. Or maybe I’ve gotten used to the quiet and spaciousness of the country. I couldn’t help but think about all the people to the left, right, below (not above as we were on the top floor of the hotel, where the most “charming”, read cheapest, rooms were) going about their Parisian lives. Thinking great thoughts or whether they’d remembered to buy milk. Creating, copulating or just watching inane French television. Centuries and centuries of dreams, ideas, people, layers of wallpaper, thoughts, cups of coffee, bottles of wine, half-read books on nightstands. They were all keeping me awake. I had to go outside.

Walking around at 6 AM it was still completely dark. If this was America, there’d be people on their way to work or the gym already, but in Paris it was just me and the street cleaners, in their green uniforms spraying water. I saw a man coming out of one of the smaller rues carrying a baguette, so I turned down that way and found the bakery he’d come from. The warm pain au chocolat (or “chocolatine” where we live) was so good I felt like some kind of criminal for eating it in public.

Later that morning I got a little teary putting Hazel on the train to the airport, and at that moment I was exactly like my mother. I entered the fray of the soldes for a little while, looking for something nice and cheap to wear in Monoprix and, God forgive me, the Gap. Exhausted from lack of sleep, I stumbled into a little cinema to see “I’m Not There.” It was Dylan. By Todd Haynes. In Paris. Except for the fact that Hazel was gone (and some of that part with Richard Gere) it was perfect.