A week after I returned from Paris, I visited an up-market restaurant near where I live. Though I have always been partial to their warm chocolate cake, I have to say it tasted like hell. It was chocolate brown all right, but the flavour defied description. It had nothing to do with the ingredient I used to nibble on in my hotel room in Paris: it was more like sweetened sawdust.
It is almost two weeks since I have returned from my trip, and a listless depression has settled over me. I can no longer use my erstwhile favourite Elizabeth Arden perfume, Green Tea: the stench is entirely artificial. Neither can I deal with the nerve-gratingly synthetic ‘aroma’ of lemon grass and mandarin orange that deluxe hotels spritz around their lobbies. The only trouble is that I’m not sure I can afford to have Gallic tastes. Where magazine, my bible during my trip to Paris, mentioned that Diptique, “the ultimate shop for perfumed candles” was near Metro station Maubert-Mutualité (when you are in Paris, the most oft-quoted landmark is the nearest Metro station). The only trouble was that the station in question was nowhere near any place that I ever went to, and a long Metro ride, changing lines a couple of times just to buy a perfumed candle was an indulgence I thought I could do without.
I was wrong. After returning to Delhi, I set off to a fancy lifestyle store that keeps Diptique perfumed candles, and paid Rs 2,450 for one. “You paid how much for a candle?” thundered my husband. Of course, its fragrance (natural French jasmine) wafts all over my flat and uplifts my mood, but I do envy those who can achieve the same high with chemically manufactured lemon-grass.
It’s not as if Paris doesn’t have its share of tourist traps. I encountered two: one was the Mona Lisa, the other the Galeries Lafayette. The Louvre – you CAN’T visit Paris and leave it out – is the largest and best-known internationally of all the museums in the city. I was awe-struck at its lofty ceilings and wall murals. It’s so large that you should set out to look only at certain subjects in one day: 17th and 18th French painters for example. The Mona Lisa is in the section that houses Italian art and sculpture. Be warned that she is the least imposing of all the paintings there. She is also the one who has the most crowds around her, making sense of the term “being famous for being famous”. That section of the Louvre was the one with the most number of tourists – other sections have a preponderance of locals, out with their young children for a day of art appreciation.
You are not allowed to photograph the Mona Lisa. You are not even allowed to photograph the halls before or behind it, where Italian masters have created scenes from the Bible or from court life. Most of them are stupendous works of art, but they get short shrift because of their famous neighbour.
There’s hardly a map of the city, a bus, Metro or boat ticket or a newspaper or magazine where Galeries Lafayette was not advertised. There was probably a promotion going on while I was there. The upshot was that it was as crowded as Chandni Chowk during Diwali week. There was a perfume section that was as large as a Beijing People’s Store, a wine section the size of a football field and a kitchen section that begged to be revisited when the crowds thinned, the better to examine the deep sauté pans and Sabatier knives.
In another league altogether was Bon Marché, a far more genteel store, which lacked entirely the ambience of a football stadium on World Cup Final day. Their food hall was so immense that it had to be housed in another building – quite common for all the big- league department stores. Unlike Fauchon and Hediard – two of the most famous food stores which had their own brand of whatever was stocked – Bon Marché stocks a variety of brands. The genuine endeavour seemed to give the customer as wide and eclectic a range as possible, so that you are guaranteed to find whatever it is that you are looking for, whether you are on a budget or have just won a lottery.
I bought a baguette and a thick slice of rabbit terrine. The baguette was easily the best I ate in Paris and together with the terrine, made a memorable feast, sitting on a park bench in a nearby garden. That particular garden was where drop-dead elegant Parisian ladies of a certain age walked their dogs. And guess what: the dogs were drop-dead elegant too. In this style-crazed city, beauty parlours exist for dogs as well as their mistresses. And unlike most other countries, where the words ‘old’ and ‘shapeless’ are spoken in the same sentence, Parisian ladies in their sixties and seventies are streets ahead of their younger counterparts in stylishness and elegance.
You don’t have to be a customer of Gaultier or Givenchy to wear stylish clothes. You don’t even have to shop within a mile’s radius of legendary Rue de Faubourg St-Honoré to dress well. Many Metro stations have unassuming little shops selling clothes, which are every bit as stylish as those at coveted addresses. The only drawback is that they may not be inexpensive: very little in Paris is. There are many cities that excel in tourist trash – inexpensive collectibles for the not-so-discerning. Paris is not one of them.
I looked around frantically for gifts that were within my slender means – a succession of metro tickets, taxis, espressos at pavement cafes and museum entry tickets saw the Euros disappearing from my wallet at a fearsomely high rate. In not-too-inexpensive Switzerland, dinky prototypes of cowbells make winsome key-chains and rear-view mirror danglers. In Holland, thinking up cutesy ways with Delft pottery is a national pastime. In France, the best I could do was to buy key-chains of the Eiffel Tower from an army of Senegalese vendors who swarmed the Left Bank. Maybe I just looked in the wrong places, but except for a couple of shops not far from Notre Dame, there were no lurid T-shirts, aprons or kitchen towels with the words ‘I love Paris’.
There were compensations however. There was scarcely an area of the city that did not boast of at least one gourmet shop. Some specialized in chocolate bon-bons, others in pastries and still others in farmhouse cheeses, breads and pates. Neighbourhood general merchant stores were a quarter-full with wines. As basic a commodity as bottled water came in dozens of different specifications: with bubbles and without; mineral, plain, sweetened or astringent. Outside, wild mushrooms and lush tomatoes in seemingly artless piles beckoned the customer.
Paris does have its gloomy side, as I’m still finding out. I feel aggrieved when flowers don’t smell the glorious way they do in Paris. I’ve resigned myself to giving up cheese – authentic French cheese made with unpasteurized milk is unlikely to find its way to our shores. And I’ve learnt that just because a product is called chocolate, doesn’t mean that it actually is.
Finding your feet in 5 steps
1. You’ll need one day to visit the area on both sides of the Seine between Notre Dame and Eiffel Tower. You can take a boat ride one way and break journey at as many outdoor cafes as you can, because this must-see, must-do circuit is nothing if not tiring.
2. Much shorter is the Place de la Concorde-Champs Elysées-Rue Faubourg St Honoré circuit. You run the risk of not seeing a local face in Champs Elysées – it’s so touristy.
3. Visiting museums is a quintessentially Paris thing to do. If you aren’t at all culturally inclined, drag yourself around any section of the Louvre just to be able to say you’ve been there.
4. Spend the flight to Paris gainfully employed: learn ten phrases like S’il vous plait (excuse me) and Ou est…? (where is?) When you want to ask for directions, find a younger person – they’re more likely to speak English. Prefacing your English with a few words in French (Bonjour, Bonsoir) will go miles.
5. As a very rough guide, Euros 120 will get you a strictly no-frills room in a dingy but clean hotel in the centre of Paris; Euros 20 will get you a single dish meal in a bistro with one glass of house wine; Euro 5.50 will provide you unlimited travel for one day on the Metro.