Monday, 17 April 2017

Paris au printemps

The last time I had been to France was five years ago, when I visited my friend Sarah, who was studying in Besançon. The last time I had been to Paris was 12 years ago, on a day trip from Picardy on a family camping holiday.
If you know a little about my educational background - half of my BA was in French - this fact may surprise you. But having had a horrible time on the French half of my year abroad (Belgium), a fantastic one on the German one (Austria), then finding something resembling happiness in Berlin, I was not in a hurry to revisit the European francophonie. I just didn't feel welcome there and there wasn't really anything that excited me about it. At least the time I've spent discovering Quebec is making sure that over a decade of French lessons and tens of thousands of pounds of debt doesn't go to waste...
As for Paris, aside from the period of my late teens where I got into New Wave cinema, unsure whether I wanted to be or be with Anna Karina and Jean Seberg, I had always perceived the city as a bit overhyped... and maybe even cheesy. I probably wouldn't have chosen to go of my own accord, which is why I was glad when one of my friends from uni suggested our little gang have a reunion there.

So on a personal level, there was quite a lot resting on this trip.

I spent the first one-and-a-bit days on my own, adrift in Paris. I wanted to defy its notorious priciness; sometimes in big cities, it feels like you have to pay for the privilege of breathing its polluted air. When I stumbled across a falafel shop and got a hefty pitta plus a not-insubstantial side of wedges for €6.50, keeping me full for the whole afternoon, I felt like I had cheated the system.

I had bought a pack of 10 metro tickets for €15. In another attempt to cut costs, I stubbornly managed to go almost a whole day without using a single one of them, walking down Rue Faubourg St Denis until I could no longer ignore the pain in my feet. I guess I had it in my head that unless it was more than two stops away, using one was a waste - which is sort of true, especially since distances between metro stations in Paris are extremely short (I remember at one point I could see the previous station through the tunnel while I stood on the platform...)

I went to the famous English bookshop on the south bank of the Seine, Shakespeare & Company. I'm sure it can be a magical experience, but it felt a bit obnoxious just because of all the school groups in there (whatever, I'm grumpy). I stayed in there for an absolute maximum of 10 minutes.
I sat in the Jardins du Luxembourg for a while. It was quite sunny out. I liked how there were chairs all around the fountain and nobody seemed to be stealing them. I visited a bookshop I liked more - the Librairie du Québec - and was hard-pressed to choose just two books to buy.

A little unsure what to do next, I took the metro to Jussieu and liked the area a lot. I drank a homemade lemonade in a nice café called Nuance. I visited the Arènes de Lutèce, which is one of the few elements of the Roman history of Paris that you can still see.

I walked a little way up towards the Latin Quarter, then back down again. I sat in the Jardin des Plantes for a bit, took a picture of the Grand Mosque around the corner, then went back to my hostel and had a rest. I went out again in the evening with the intention of buying some fruit, but got distracted by a bar/record shop called Walrus. I drank a hibiscus tea there while reading Magic, Revue Pop Moderne, a cool French music magazine that happened to have a feature on the Montreal indie scene.

The next day, my first port of call was getting some good coffee. I went to Café Coutume in the 7th arrondissement - the first remotely hip coffee shop I had seen so far. It was chemistry-themed. It seemed to have a lot of English-speaking visitors, drawn in by its offer of brunch.

I then walked back across the Seine to the Grand Palais, where a rare books fair was taking place. In the end, I felt a bit annoyed for paying the €10 entry, because it was just full of old books I couldn't afford or take with me anyway - the whole thing wasn't really what I had gauged from the website. Or maybe I just didn't want to spend very long there because it was so hot and my shoes were pinching my feet more than ever. I guess I'm glad I got to go inside the Grand Palais?

Then it was off to Hank Pizza - a vegan pizza place! Yay! This salad and slice of pizza cost €8. I went for a pineapple and ricotta one, but it was so hard to choose between them all.

I went to meet Nikita next; she was at a hairdressers' with her head in a basin, which was a very funny way to see each other for the first time in a couple of years (she'd been passing through Berlin with a friend and we got lunch). Sarah was due to arrive soon at Gare du Nord. After a mad dash to get onto the bus from there to Jaurès station, we checked into the hotel. It was Ibis Budget - pretty good if not for the transparent shower door, paper-thin toilet door and hard mattresses! We sat on the bed eating tortilla chips and salsa, chatting and laughing. It was the first time I had managed to see Sarah since graduation and it was pretty nice.
We still wanted to get some proper food, though. The plan was to go to Belleville. It was a spring evening, we were young, gorgeous and strolling down a Parisian avenue, everything was wonderful. As we descended into the station, we witnessed a fight between two men. We tried not to gawp as we slotted our titres de transport into the barriers and they popped open.
At the bottom of the stairs, ticket controllers were stopping people. It was Friday night, after all. I reached into my pocket and gave the man mine. He scanned it and said bluntly, 'This is from the bus, not the metro'. I could barely speak as I realised what had happened: I'd put one clean ticket in my pocket ready for the barrier, oblivious to the fact I hadn't thrown away my used one, which was in the same pocket. So then why had the barrier accepted it? I still had to reckon with a €35 fine. Petulantly, I paid it, then started crying in front of my friends.

Drawing a line under that day, on Saturday the rest of the group had arrived in Paris. We walked along the Bassin de la Villette, a canal, and Nikita led us to Le Pavillon des Canaux, which she described as a dolls' house café. I hadn't been expecting much, but wow! It was super cute. Google will be better for photos, but there was an Alice in Wonderland-esque kitchen, a dreamy bedroom and so on. The other significant aspect was that this was the only place I encountered in the whole of Paris where I could get soya milk with my coffee...

Me in the "kitchen" at the Pavillon

Afterwards, we walked up to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and had a picnic with lovely views on a perfect spring day.

We met up with Reema, who'd just arrived on her own, and had a drink at Moncœur, which was a nice outdoor bar in Belleville. I went off on my own and ended up getting off at République, where I was desperate to drop into the nearest espresso bar. Unfortunately, I was starting to feel a little fed up of it all, but was trying to keep my spirits up. Wandering around, there were a few things going on that Saturday on the Place de la République, including a trans* and sex worker rights demo and a Sikh stand offering pay-what-you-want vegan curry.

I met up with my friends again at Saravanaa Bhavan, an all-vegetarian Indian restaurant. It was pretty good and not too expensive, either. The plan was to go out that night but I just wasn't feeling it; I think a combination of the sun beating down on my face the whole day, the emotional shock of seeing friends from long ago all at once and generally processing this bustling new city.

On Sunday, I went to Musée de l'Homme, which was good as far as museums go. For lunch, it was time to try out Hank Pizza's counterpart: Hank Burger. That was also very nice! I walked past Le Potager du Marais afterwards, another vegan place, but decided I was too full to get anything (crème brûlée, though!). I then headed to Marks & Spencer at Gare de l'Est to pick up some of the food I miss so much for the journey home.

After a stressful time in Charles de Gaulle airport, I was relived to be home in Berlin. I'm trying to work out how I feel about Paris; I think maybe it would be worth visiting again at another time of year, when it's not so hot and I can allow myself time to discover it at a slower pace. But to be honest, I don't really feel the pull and would prefer to discover other places. Aesthetically, it is a beautiful city, but not very much underneath interests me. All in all, I found being in Paris very overwhelming. I don't want to dislike it, but at the same time it's not trying very hard to win me over...

Vegan in Paris

I must admit that one huge factor that had been holding me back from returning to France and Belgium was the fact I had had a very poor time as a vegan - and even as a vegetarian - in those places. I was hopeful to see if anything had changed over the years.
Well, yes and no. There certainly isn't an oversaturation of vegan restaurants in Paris. But I had done a bit of research online, so I had an idea of where to go when hungry.
In the reviews I had read of the restaurants I ended up not visiting, almost everyone had written "book a table" or "it gets crowded". This was quite off-putting to me, as I didn't want to make the effort to go all the way to a certain place only to be unable to eat there. It seems that there is a vegan community in Paris, but since there are so few places that cater them when they want to go out to eat... well, all of them go there at the same time. I got the feeling veganism is viewed as more of a fad there.

I was determined not to spend too much on food anyway and it was fairly easy to find things in supermarkets that were "accidentally" vegan. One day, I got a reduced bulgur salad, a tub of hummus and some bread for lunch from Carrefour, which came to just under €4. I later spotted some coconut milk yoghurts there. There were quite a few Lebanese falafel places around. I saw one organic shop chain, Naturalia, though there are probably more; there, I got a pack of 10 delicious chocolate biscuits for €3. I must admit I had also brought provisions from Berlin and in the end, was really glad I did.
One of the most disappointing things about the trip was missing out on the famous French café culture, as sitting drinking coffee while reading is one of my favourite ways to pass the time. As I said, I encountered just one place that offered soya milk with coffee, so I was limited to drinking espressos, rather than spending an hour sipping a larger drink. I really wanted to find a vegan pâtisserie, but this wasn't straightforward either. On the day I woke up back in Berlin, I got a vegan croissant from Bio Company and had to appreciate the irony.