J’aime Paris! Paris has so much to do and see, but you don’t want to see Paris; you want to experience it. Like a good French meal, this city begs to be enjoyed slowly, in small bites, and savored.
It’s easy to imagine how the impressionist movement got its start in this town. For us, Paris wasn’t about running around town to check off a long list of all the tourist sites and attractions (and there are plenty). It was about getting an impression of the city, the people, the culture, its history and, of course, its food.
With a new girlfriend, you don’t get to know her by reading her yearbooks and hastily touring her childhood stomping grounds. Rather, you take her for a walk along the Seine, you share a glass of Bordeaux, and you engage her in conversation over a slow, drawn-out meal. We found Paris to be much the same.
Besides, you can’t see everything when you travel. Money or time will always become a constraint. Instead of stressing out over what I haven’t seen, I've learned to throw up my hands, slow down my pace, and experience what I can right in front of me. In tourism, as in French life, choose quality over quantity.
Below are 5 ways we slowed down and got to know our girl, Paris:
Steps at Montmartre: One night Tom and I wondered around looking for a restaurant that a friend recommended. We didn’t find the restaurant, but by the grace of good fortune, we stumbled upon the steps that lead to the Saint Pierre de Montmartre Church, which sits atop a hill overlooking all of Paris.
The steps were packed with people; both tourists and locals sat in rows like an audience in an arena. Friends, families, and even complete strangers huddled in groups on the stairs to enjoy each other and the views.
Street performers dazzled the audience in hopes of a good tip. Men walked around selling beers and wine to the crowds like hawkers at a baseball game, and a few groups brought instruments to add a beat to the joyous routine.
And a routine it was, as we learned when we returned a few days later to soak it all in again. It seems, each night an audience gathers to watch the sun descend and witness the flipping of the switch to turn on the “City of Lights.”
Who were we to reject the ritual? So we cozied up on the concrete steps and enjoyed the show.
Picnics in front of the Eiffel Tower: On our first full day in Paris we headed over to Rue Cler to shop for fresh cheese, cured meats, warm bread, seasonal produce, and French wine for a picnic. Then we walked a few blocks over and slowly enjoyed our meal with a view of the Eiffel Tower.
It had rained that morning, but by noon the sun was out and the sky was clear. We sat there for about 3 hours enjoying our food, wine, and great people-watching. I also fiddled with our new camera and played with all the different settings.
We enjoyed the atmosphere and view so much that we returned a few days later at night-time accompanied by our two dear friends, wine and chocolate.
We had several other picnics throughout the week as well. France is amazing because, unlike America, it’s so affordable to get fresh, natural food and respectable wine. In France, these are a necessity, not a luxury reserved for the wealthy. We never spent more than $10 on a bottle of wine, yet we still enjoyed some fantastic vino.
Riding Bikes Through The Streets: Tom and I were staying just outside the city. We took the RER (train) into the city each morning, so we definitely got to experience the joys of public transportation and French body odor.
But once we were in the city, we preferred to walk everywhere. On the metro you don’t see the city as you pass by it. Plus, we saved a few bucks.
Then, Tom discovered the public bike program. We have seen it in other cities since, but not one better than what we experienced in Paris.
They had bike stations every few blocks. We paid a flat fee of about $2 USD per person per day and as long as we didn’t have the bikes out for longer than 30 minutes at a time, there was no additional charge. And bike lanes were prevalent, making it easy to navigate through thick city traffic (so long as you followed them).
I remember one moment in particular, in which we were riding through the city. I looked up to soak in all the beautiful architecture and I thought to myself, this is one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen.
Unfortunately, at that same moment I missed a sign indicating the bike path was splitting temporarily from the road and I led both Tom and I straight into a dark tunnel reserved for cars and trucks only.
Needless to say, all of the drivers were severely agitated by us, two off-beat bikers in their lane. Even their horns sounded French, and I suddenly had a Home Alone flash back; I could hear them saying, You know, Tom and Jaime, you’re what the French call Les incompetents!
Had we taken the metro everywhere, we would have arrived to our destinations quicker, earlier, and more efficiently, but we would have missed our journey (and our detours).
Home-Cooked Dinner with Marie-Claire: Using our favorite site for lodging, we booked a private room in an apartment outside of Paris. Our host, Marie-Claire, was a single woman with a daughter at boarding school.
On her Airbnb profile, she mentioned that she enjoys French cooking and would be happy to cook a meal for her guests provided they pay for the food. Naturally, we took her up on this offer.
So one evening, after a day in the city, we arrived back to the apartment to the smell of shallots on the stove and simmering apples. Marie-Claire explained what she was making and how.
Then, she brought out apertifs in true French-fashion to kick off the meal. For the next 4 hours we slowly relished her 4-course meal and cross-continental conversation, including a break for sorbet to cleanse the pallet. And as a special kicker, her sauce on the salmon was a local specialty of her home in the Loire valley. You can download the recipe below (so simple, but so delicious!):
Staying in the nicest hotels in France with the most well-connected concierges couldn’t have facilitated such an intimate peak into today’s French life. Merci, Marie-Claire!
Sitting, Watching, Waiting: For much of our time in Paris, Tom and I simply wondered around. We found parks and gardens, we found busy street corners, we found opulent buildings, and from each we sat, we watched, and we waited to soak in the city around us.
One day, we left the Louvre and headed out toward the Avenue des Champs-Élysées for a stroll, but on the way, we stumbled upon a huge fountain in the Tuileries Garden. Around it were cute green chairs that everyone (locals and tourists alike) pulled up to the fountain, just to sit.
There was nothing really to do and no street performers to entertain us. But everyone else seemed to have mastered the sweet enjoyment of doing nothing. Foreign to our American pallets, we figured we ought to give it some practice.
So we pulled up a chair.
I'm Jaime. My husband is Tom. Suburbanites, backpackers, and expats...we've been them all!