The D&O Diary is on assignment in Europe this week. In an abrupt and vivid scene change, I left the PLUS International Conference in Orlando last week and flew straight to Paris, to attend a conference of the International Association of Claims Professionals last Thursday and Friday.
My prior visits to Paris have all taken place in the warmer months; I was unsure what Paris might be like in November. Here’s what you need to know about Paris in November. Yes, it is late fall – temperatures are cooler, skies are greyer, evening gathers earlier, and it rains a bit. But it is still Paris.
Because we have visited the major monuments on prior visits to Paris, during this visit we focused on places and locations that while perhaps visited less frequently by tourists are nonetheless fully Parisian. Paris is a city of neighborhoods and the great thing about the Paris metro is that you can descend in one part of the city and emerge just moments later in a completely different neighborhood. One special area away from the busier environs of the Latin Quarter is the Rue Mouffetard. At the northern end of the street at the top of Mont Sainte-Geneviève is the Place de la Contrescarpe, a large quiet square ringed with cafes and brasseries that has something of a small village feel. The Rue Mouffetard itself – which is lined with small shops selling wine, cheese, tea, clothing and books – has rolled downhill toward the south since the Roman era. The area is also now laced with student bars, including one called (I am not making this up) “Student Bar.”
Despite the cooler temperatures and occasional rain, the city retains its romantic atmosphere, even in November. Late one rainy evening while we sat at a sidewalk café in the Place de la Contrescarpe, a pair of dogs trotted past. The canine couple apparently decided that — despite the rainy conditions and cool temperatures, and the fact that an entire café full of people was watching them — the moment had arrived to try to make some puppies, right then and there. Même pour les chiens, Paris est une ville de l’amour.
We also visited another neighborhood away from the usual tourist itineraries. One of our law school classmates recently moved to Ménilmontant, a gentrifying area where clubs and restaurants sit next to falafel shops and halal butcheries. On our way out to the neighborhood on the metro, we paused along the way to have a look at the Bassin de la Villette (pictured left), on the Canal de L’Ourcq, a pleasant area far off the tourist grid that was an agreeable place to visit on a sunny afternoon. We then met our friend at the Restaurant Astier, a brilliantly updated realization of the traditional Parisian Bistro, on rue Jean-Pierre Timbaud. (Our friend, who has lived in Paris for many years, chose the restaurant with a great deal of care. It did not disappoint.) During dinner, we chided our friend for complaining about how young the habitués of the clubs on nearby rue Oberkampf seemed, but on the way home we saw for ourselves the crowds of adolescents spilling out of the bars and smoking on the sidewalks. Man, they looked young. (For those readers who have college age kids spending a semester in Paris and wondering what their kids up to, I can testify that they are hanging out on Rue Oberkampf.)
Though it is remarkably easy to move around Paris on the metro, it is even better to walk. Even in November, it is great just to walk around Paris. We started out Saturday morning in the Jardin des Plantes, where a few blooms remain despite the cooler temperatures, and then we made our way along the Quai Saint Bernard to the île St Louis. After lunch on the island, we crossed to the opposite bank and walked to the Bassin de l ‘Arsenal, where the Canal Saint-Martin connects to the Seine, adjacent to and just south of the Place de Bastille. In one of those happy coincidences that can make travel so rewarding, it turned out that there was an antique fair on the streets along the Bassin. Over 350 stalls lined the sidewalks, full of a fascinating array of art, furniture, jewelry, linens, and various other remnants of centuries of Parisian luxury living.
We had stumbled upon a real Parisian event, but we were not the only American tourists strolling through the stalls. We overheard one American couple trying to determine whether they could have the painting they wanted to buy shipped back to the U.S. Their question whether they could have the painting shipped via UPS or Fed Ex drew a blank look and an uncertain shrug from the proprietor, so in the time-honored tradition of Americans overseas, the American gentleman raised his voice and said with great care “WE (pause) WANT (pause) TO (pause) SHIP (pause) IT (pause) TO (pause) A-MER-I-CA.” It is well known that by shouting and speaking very slowly even a Frenchman can be made to understand plain English. (Actually, most everyone I ran across in Paris spoke perfectly serviceable English; even with my poorly remembered college French, I had few language issues.)
We made another interesting discovery in the streets just east of the antiques festival. Running along the Avenue Daumesnil to the east of the Opéra Bastille in the Faubourg Saint-Antoine is an abandoned railway overpass –now called the Viaduc des Arts — that has been converted into a colony for artisans and craftsman. The structure’s brick archways been transformed into workshops and galleries where artisans make and display furniture, vases, plates, sculpture, ceramics, musical instruments, picture frames, toys, leather goods, clothing, shoes and a vast array of other goods.
As fascinating as it was to watch the artisans at work, we chanced upon yet another hidden Parisian treasure nearby that was an even better discovery. Along the top of the viaduct is the Promenade plantées, a pleasant green walkway that runs for over two miles at rooftop level above the hubbub of the street through the heart of the 12th arrondissement. The walkway is a verdant retreat from the busy city’s commotion. Despite a light rain, we walked the length of the promenade, feeling as if we had discovered a secret spot in the heart of Paris.
In addition to exploring new neighborhoods, we also had a chance to fulfill some long-unfulfilled tourist objectives. Anyone who has spent time in Paris has seen the advertisements announcing various artistic performances that adorn many walls and buildings, particularly on the Left Bank. I have long wanted to see what these shows were about. On Friday night, we attended a chamber music concert in the venerable Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, one of the city’s oldest religious sites and the burial site of many of the Merovingian kings. The beautiful music from the stringed instruments soared into the ancient structure’s vaulted ceilings. The historic setting and the beautiful music made a pretty amazing combination.
Not everything we did involved unfamiliar places and experiences. We chose some places to visit precisely because we had visited them before.
Several years ago, I took a public speaking course that included an extemporaneous speaking exercise in which the class participants were given five minutes to compose a speech on the topic “my favorite restaurant.” The others spoke about their preferred neighborhood establishment or the local place where they could take their children without strain or trauma. By contrast, when it was my turn to present, I described Restaurant Le Christine, a restaurant on rue Christine in Paris’s Sixth arrondissement, which we first visited on our honeymoon, in 1983. We visited the restaurant a second time when we visited Paris with our children in 2003. We returned to Le Christine again this past Saturday night, thirty years after our original visit.
The restaurant’s décor has been updated since our first visit; the interior is now lighter and more colorful, but the service and food remain memorable. Our three-hour meal — consisting of seven courses, each paired with its own delightful matching wine — was a truly remarkable culinary experience. After soup, foie gras, two fish courses, a rumpsteak entrée, a plate of cheeses and salad, a desert and coffee, we wandered very slowly but contentedly back to our hotel. Were I called upon again to deliver a speech about my favorite restaurant, I would still refer to Le Christine, which remains an important landmark on the map of my own personal Paris.
The next morning, we walked to the Church of Saint-Sulpice, nearby our hotel. Though we had trouble following the French-language liturgy, the service was beautiful and the music was stirring. The 17th century church may not be as renowned as its slightly larger and more celebrated neighbor Notre Dame de Paris, but it has recently enjoyed a little of its own celebrity status as a result of its star appearance in the book and movie The DaVinci Code. In an earlier time, churchmen marked out on the church floor a longitudinal meridian between the church’s two transepts, as an astronomical tool to aid more accurate calculation of the correct date for Easter. Sunlight coming though small openings in the southern transept at noon on the equinoxes strikes various demarcated points along the meridian. The book erroneously identifies the line as the Paris meridian; numerous plot twists follow the suggestion that the line provides a signpost pointing the way to the hiding place of the Holy Grail. Following the church service, we were among the many tourists photographing the gnomon demarking the meridian line in the north transept.
After the church service, we rambled through the quiet Left Bank streets, eventually making our way to a brasserie near the Pantheon. Sitting in the early afternoon sun and huddled against the chilly breeze, we shared a plate of Normandy oysters along with a little white wine. After lunch, we strolled in the crisp November sunshine through the Jardin du Luxembourg (pictured below right), which is yet another important landmark on my personal map of Paris. The most essential Parisian spirits inhabit the gardens, where romantic couples slowly promenade and little children sailing their boats in the central fountain shout happily “Regardez, Maman! Regardez!”
In his memoir of his time in Paris, A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway wrote “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived it differs from that of any other.” Hemingway’s words confirm a view I have long held, which is that everyone who has visited the city believes, like me, that nestled within the city’s timeless monuments and beautiful streets is their own personal Paris. I sometime think that Paris is like an experienced courtesan who manages to convince her many lovers that each of them alone is the only one that has enjoyed her secret pleasures.
On Monday morning, I boarded the Eurostar at the Gare du Nord to make my way to London to attend the Advisen Euro D&O conference. As the train raced northward through the countryside, I couldn’t help looking back toward Paris wistfully. I hope I get a chance to return to Paris again before too long. But even though I know I can always go back, it is difficult to leave Paris behind..
Very special thanks to my good friend Helga Munger of Munich Re for inviting me to participate in the International Association of Claims Professionals event and giving me the chance to visit Paris again.
November in Paris