back

Very Welcome by Sheila Campbell


Itıs my first day in Paris, and I head straight for my favorite bar: Anne et Valentin in the Marais. They donıt serve drinks here. Instead, I pull up a high stool and a young man with spiky hair brings me pair after pair of eyeglasses frames to try on. I finally choose a pair of hot pink metal frames with a mustard-colored interior. When I get home, Iıll have lenses put in them.

Buying eyeglasses in Paris is one of my pilgrimage stops on every trip. Besides Anne et Valentin, I shop at the tiny Face à Face on the rue St. Honoré. There Iıve purchased big white sunglasses and red plastic frames edged with black lace. On the Left Bank, I visit Francis Klein at 30 rue Bonaparte, where the glasses frames are so outrageous Iıve never actually purchased a pair, but I canıt resist trying them on.

While Iım on the Left Bank, I dash into another of my never-miss spots, Ladurée, the famous tea room. Yes, itıs crowded with tourists, but I also saw Candace Bergen and her husband having breakfast there on my last trip. The shop looks older than it is, with its oriental wallpaper and low chairs that look more suited to a boudoir. One rainy afternoon, I sat in Ladurée with a few friends from lunch till nearly dinnertime. We sampled the crispy macarons in flavors of bitter chocolate, coffee, rose petal, ginger lime and salted caramel. One thing I love about France is that once you sit down in a restaurant, they donıt bring you the check till you ask for it. The table is yours as long as you like.

If the weatherıs good, I might stroll over to the Jardin des Plantes and spend the afternoon people-watching. In summer the parkıs flower gardens almost glow in the sunlight. I grab a bench (the French rarely sit on the grass in parks), read a good book and watch the parade of couples and families all around me.

Not too far away is Parisıs Grand Mosque, where the tearoom seems to whisk you back to yesteryear in Morocco or Algeria. I once ate a tangy chicken tagine with preserved lemons for Christmas lunch there, when most other restaurants were closed.

Another of my favorite lunches is a luscious salad at the Jacquemart André museum in the 8th arrondisement. The mansion was built at the time Baron Haussmann was razing medieval Paris and installing its wide boulevards. The museum features a collection of Italian paintings, as well as frequent special exhibitions, but sometimes I skip the art and just have lunch. You have to arrive early to get a table. The caféıs decor is warmed with a ceiling by Tiepolo and Brussels tapestries on the walls. I rarely hear English spoken there, Parisians feel that the Jacquemart André is their special place.

After lunch, I treat myself to an hour or so in the nearby Parc Monceau. This park, dating originally to the time of the French revolution, is unique because it was styled after an English garden, with meandering walkways and small architectural follies like a Dutch windmill. Huge old trees provide shade for the nannies minding babies in their prams.

A late-afternoon treat is hot chocolate at Angelinaıs across from the Tuileries, also in the 8th. Okay, so a small pitcher of hot chocolate costs $10 in this rococo gilt tearoom. The chocolateıs so thick you might eat it with a spoon. I always intend to skip the homemade whipped cream, but never quite manage to resist.

Of course I visit the great art museums. Iıve learned that, to avoid the lines, itıs best to enter the Louvre at Court des Lions. The Louvre is simply too big to take on all in one day, so I visit my favorites. In the room of large French paintings, I gaze at Davidıs Coronation of Napoleon, an enormous painting. Napoleon crowns his kneeling wife Josephine, both of them laden with ermine robes. The scene is totally over the top. David didnıt even witness the real ceremony, the whole thing is political propaganda of the most magnificent kind. I also tour the entire room filled with Van Dykeıs cycle of Marie de Mediciıs life, full of allegory and flattery. I love these pictures because of their sheer silliness, they always make me smile.

If I donıt have time to go into the Centre Pompidou for the museum of modern art, I still stop in the museum shop for inexpensive gifts. One of the best views of Paris, however, is riding up the glass-enclosed escalators high above the cityıs rooftops.

I satisfy my curiosity about avant garde art at the Palais de Tokyo, located on the Avenue du Président Wilson in the posh 16th. Here the art is often experiential. You walk or climb through it, set off sounds with your very presence, watch objects change shape and color. It too has a terrific restaurant, and a gift shop for the teenagers in your life.

At the end of a few long days walking the streets of Paris, a friend and I take the long Metro ride out to the working class suburb of St. Denis to relax at Hammam Pacha. At this womenıs baths, groups of local women, clad only in tiny bikini bottoms, chat and wash and bathe together. Attendants slather us with brown mud. Afterwards, we relax in the harem-style pavilion, drinking mint tea. A Muslim woman, now dressed in hijab and long robes, breaks away from her friends and offers us homemade baklava theyıve brought with them. It's our tradition, she says, to welcome strangers. Once again, Paris makes me feel very welcome indeed.

Sheila Campbell - Silver Spring Maryland, United States