Paris: Gone to the chiens in the city of light

By Michele Hewitson

Michele Hewitson ticks off the items on her Paris to-do lists and discovers even more to do.

Chef Otis at Le Taxi Jaune cafe in Rue Chapon, Paris. Photo / Michele Hewitson
Chef Otis at Le Taxi Jaune cafe in Rue Chapon, Paris. Photo / Michele Hewitson

"Relax!" said the supercilious Parisian waiter.

This was an excellent idea except that the reason I was failing to relax was because a supercilious Parisian waiter had just chased me, shouting, out on to the street. I had forgotten to indicate that I would be drinking my beer outside.

This reminded me that before I go to Paris again, I must learn how to say in French: "I spit on your surcharge! What are you going to do? Call the gendarmes?"

I won't do any such thing. I will forget, again, to mention that I am having my beer outside and I will again be chased by a supercilious Parisian waiter demanding an extortionate eight bucks for sitting outside with the dogs.

They don't charge the dogs. The dogs are provided with free bowls of water.

Any waiter worth his graine de sel will leave you in no doubt that, in Paris, a dog ranks higher than a tourist.

And really: what is eight bucks to sit on the street, in the Marais, on tiny, uncomfortable chairs, in the traffic fumes, with horrible dogs about your ankles, while a Parisian waiter is rude to you?

And what good advice those waiters give. If you go to Paris you must relax. But it is hard advice to take when you are being a tourist who likes food, because you have lists: the best steak frites joint list and the best duck confit one, the perfect croissant shop and the perfect macaron shop (the bloody things were everywhere, I even saw a loaf of bread studded with broken up bits of macaron, which would seem to me to be a food crime - but what would I know?). I was also waiting for an email to tell me I had a booking at one of the very cool underground supper clubs.

It made me feel exhausted just reading my itinerary, never mind accomplishing it. But luckily all of this stuff was on the laptop, which stopped working on the first day. So I didn't do anything on my lists.

I ate at places that looked nice enough, that I passed while out walking, aimlessly and perfectly happily. I went on the carousel in the Tuileries gardens. It cost $5 and there was just me, and one child, going round and round.

The carousel wrangler was so amused he took a photograph. A few people tittered. But by the time I got off, there was a small queue of people who were not children waiting to get on. This is the first and last time I will ever set a trend in Paris.

I decided to eat quiche lorraine, or crepes with lemon and sugar, most days, for lunch, because I like both of those things, buying them wherever I happen to be walking past. Some were terrific; a few terrible. Who cared?

One day I relaxed, properly: I stayed in my apartment and read my book and only went out to get another quiche lorraine, a bottle of wine and a bog roll and, later, to the courtyard to drink wine with the nice neighbours.

I went four doors up and across the road to have my dinner at Le Taxi Jaune because it was the closest restaurant. Le Taxi Jaune turned out to be a very, very good restaurant, run by an ambitious young chef called Otis (his father was an Otis Redding nut) who does amazingly good things in a classic with a modern twist way to sweetbreads and horse - should you be feeling like horse for your tea - and white asparagus and whatever is in season.

One night I wandered home from Chez Nenesse, the canteen around the corner (they're open when they put the door handle back on the outside of the door at 8pm), after a pretty good magret de canard and perfect artichokes and most of a bottle of red wine ordered in error (I thought I was ordering a glass, truly), enjoyed in a room with black and white tiles on the floor and dusty lace curtains at the windows ... when I heard a brass band playing Abba.

I followed my ears and found a very gay band led by a rotund fellow in very tight, gold lame trousers and the street full of merry dancers. A slightly grubby-looking old geezer in a grubbier trench coat grabbed my hand, kissed it, and waltzed me into the middle of the street, where we wobbled about inelegantly until we were almost run down by a truck.

Would he like a drink? By the time I got back with his beer, he was dancing with another lady. Well, pah! I said, and threatened to pour his beer over his faithless dancing shoes, at which point he abandoned the pair of us in favour of the beer and swaggered off, glass in hand, without so much as a backward glance. Aah, Frenchmen. Even the bums are lady killers.

Another night I came home to find hundreds of rollerbladers, many lit up like Christmas trees, streaming past the end of my street.

This happened every Friday, a gendarme told me.

"It eez normal. The Government encourages eet. To stop the smoking."

I was out on the street, smoking, at the time. I'd booked my apartment, at 24 rue Chapon, in the heart of the Marais, for the courtyard, so I could smoke. Every time I lit up, some French bag slammed her windows shut. I didn't return the favour by banging with a broom on the ceiling every time her kids stomped up and down over my head. Anyway, it turns out it is much more interesting out on the street. You get to know the residents.

Around 7.30am the basset hound waddles up the tiny, narrow alleyway and, beyond a disdainful and fleeting glance, does not deign to acknowledge me. It manages to appear superior even when it is crapping in the middle of my street. It is a French dog. It is common knowledge that French people are snooty towards foreigners. You have yet to meet their mutts.

There is also a terrible, darting, big black brute, a Gerard Depardieu of a dog, which I belatedly realised peed every morning on the bollard I had been using as a smoking perch. Mostly the dogs in Paris are chic little numbers, coiffed and pampered, and for all I know, perfumed. Rue Chapon's regulars are another breed altogether.

Rue Chapon is not the chicest street in the Marais but, like its doggy residents, it has a certain shaggy charm. The French guy across the courtyard tells me he is selling his apartment: for €750,000 ($1.2 million). I tell another resident, who says: "He is dreaming!"

I tell him about the window slammer and he says, "You do as you want. This is your courtyard. We are a community of artists. You smoke!" He is a smoker. Though I notice he is never seen smoking in the courtyard.

My neighbours write me charming little notes suggesting what I might do that day around the neighbourhood. So much for snooty French people.

Here are some of the things I found to do while wandering around Paris that did not involve queuing and did involve relaxing.

1. Rue Chalot: Little hip art galleries and shoe shops exhibiting footwear only a fetishist could love. I saw a bicycle dressed up as a tiger in a shop window.

2. Musee de la chasse et de la nature: The loveliest, cleverest, emptiest museum in the world, possibly. An ode to hunting and the relationship between man and the natural world. Make your own birdsong by pushing the little brass buttons in the songbird hall. It is impossible to resist giving the little stuffed fox, curled up on the Louis XVI chair, a pat (there's nobody to shout.) In the bear hall I also made the most of what is likely to be my one and only chance to stroke a polar bear. This one stands guard in one of the marble hallways and is about 2.5m tall and terrifying, even stuffed.

3. The Marche aux Enfants Rouges in rue de Bretagne: Supposed to be the oldest market in Paris. Buy armfuls of cheap sweet william. People will smile at you if you wander the streets of Paris with bunches of flowers - and that is a nice thing.

4. Les Halles markets: Buy a peony or two, a few fresh sardines, a straw punnet of the first wild strawberries (only €25).

5. Musee Carnavalet: A slightly dry but nicely old-fashioned museum devoted to the history of Paris. It is in two once amazingly grand townhouses and the gardens are fittingly formal. You could take a couple of madeleines, a volume of Proust and a seat in the gardens and enjoy looking like a proper Parisian tosser.

6. Au Cloitre des Billettes: The last medieval cloisters in Paris, which often houses exhibitions. I saw enormous, elegant marble cats by Leopoldo Martins which demanded to be stroked. The equally elegant art dealer provided white cotton gloves for that purpose. How much? €38,000. But I wanted a cloister to display my big cat in. "Anything is possible, Madame," he said, suavely. Even sans cats, the cloisters are a peaceful place to while away an hour.

But that's a list. You could take it with you to Paris and have a relaxing time.

Or you could just go. It's Paris. Anything is possible.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific offers daily flights from Auckland to Paris, via Hong Kong.

Further information: The official Paris tourism website has lots ideas for things to do. Or you can just wander round and see what takes your fancy.

Michele Hewitson travelled to Paris with the assistance of Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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