Friday, February 22, 2013

My "Best Of" Paris: Ten Fab French Bistros

I recently asked Greg what he loves most about living in Paris. "The food," he replied, without hesitation. No big surprise there. Because he also lived here as a child, he's especially fond of places that recall the Paris of his youth -- aging bistros, the ancient cobbler's shop with a wall of French celeb photos from the 70's, the knife sharpener who still plies his trade from an old cart he wheels through the streets. (He rings a bell to bring neighbors out bearing their dull knives).

Most of our favorite Paris bistros have also been around for a while. (Or at least feel like they have.) These are frequented more by locals than Michelin star-seekers (of course we love those, too), and won't let you down next time you're seeking classic French food in Paris. So, in no particular order, here goes...

Le Taxi Jaune, 3ème: When Greg and I lived in the Marais, Le Taxi Jaune was our neighborhood go-to. With its vintage bar and cracked tile floors, it still feels slightly under the radar despite its location in the ever popular 3ème. The food is authentic French with a twist that keeps it fresh; the vibe is Paris bourgeois-boheme. Reserve ahead. 

La Laiterie Saint Clotilde, 7ème: This is our new neighborhood favorite (new to us, that is). Run by a mother and son duo, the menu is happily limited and everything is delicious. At a recent dinner with friends, I had a memorable curried veg soup and way-better-than-average magret de canard. (Can you tell I like duck?) Greg devoured his meal so fast, I didn't even get to sample it. Always a good sign. 
Au Pied de Fouet, 7ème: The perfect neighborhood spot for lunch where the welcome is convivial (the owner treats everyone like his personal guest) and the food has a home-cooked appeal. It's not refined cuisine but a great, budget-friendly choice between visits to bigger name restos. The confit de canard is solid and there's usually a nice fresh fish option. Take your post-meal coffee (or digestif) at the bar and enjoy the bustle of this lively spot. Sitting cheek to jowl with neighboring diners keeps things toasty. Go for fun, not romance. 

Le Casse Noix (15ème): When a foodie friend came to town for a night, he delivered strict instructions for our meal: "Think great food and he's paying."(I replied that this is always how I think... ;). After remembering it was fashion week and discovering all the "it" tables were impossible (Le Frenchie, Septime, Chateaubriand), we decided on Le Casse Noix for a meal that put food way ahead of fashion. Greg swears it's the best boudin noir he's ever had (On principle alone, I can't eat the stuff but my fresh cèpes in butter thing-y was to die). Fans of the creamy, whipped egg white dessert, ile flottante, will also be rewarded. A good choice for lunch if you're visiting the Eiffel Tower. Book ahead.

L'Ourcine (13ème): You can read my full review of this terrific bistro on the HiP Paris blog. It's off the beaten path in the 13eme and well worth the trip for a fab meal and to wander the village-like streets of les Buttes aux Cailles neighborhood.

Cafe des Musees (3ème): Always well-reviewed and popular for its reliably good food and great Marais location. I love this one for an unhurried lunch when visiting the boutiques and museums in the neighborhood. It's open daily and filled with locals and a smattering of visitors. Fun and yummy, a good combination.

Le Chemise (11ème): I loved this bistro because it brings together two favorite things: updated classic French cooking in a sleekly designed but cozy space. The service was attentive and cool crowd was what you'd expect for the location between Oberkampf and Republique. Helmed by a young chef who trained at La Tour d'Argent, this is a fun find that's on my "must return" list. (And yes, it's Le Chemise, not "La...", my French grammarian friends.)

Josephine "Chez Dumonet" (6ème): A favorite haunt of French icon Gerard Depardieu, this classic Parisian bistro offers superb service and an excellent meal in a timelessly lovely, art-nouveau setting. I went recently to celebrate a friend's birthday and we were treated to complimentary glasses of wine and a gateau (to share) large enough for a group twice our size. We ate like queens (and were treated like them, too). All this loveliness comes at a price so plan to splurge. Located on one of my favorite Left Bank shopping streets, rue Cherche-Midi. 

Le Bistro Paul Bert (11ème): Everyone knows that the Paris food scene is focused in the 11ème. Drawn by affordable rents, a central location and hip vibe, young chefs are opening new restos here seemingly daily. Bistro Paul Bert isn't new (the new Le 6 Paul Bert is just down the street) but it's truly a classic (and not in a stuffy, un-fun way). We had a late dinner there recently and were pleased to find it bustling with a cool clientele of all ages. The food was delicious and the service attentive but unhurried. Go, you'll be happy you did.

Le Comptoir du Relais (6ème): And last but not least, my still-reigning favorite. The beloved outpost of star chef Yves Camdeborde has never failed me. We go (early) for dinner with the kids, bring visiting friends, and enjoy lunches a deux. The key is to go right as they open (12 noon for lunch or before 7pm for dinner) to avoid the inevitable queue out front. The people watching and the food are both consistently superb. 

As I wrap up this list, I realize I could go on and on. Any favorites you'd care to share? Stay tuned for more recommendations to come. A bientot!

Friday, February 15, 2013

Getting Schooled in France: Part Deux

In my last post, I wrote about proposed changes to French education. What I didn't say is that we've also been considering some changes for our kids, including the possibility of a private bilingual school for next year. So earlier this week, at the time appointed for the incoming first graders' evaluation "group play date," we went and visited one. Here's how it went...
- - -
"Adele Frost?" calls a friendly looking teacher. Adele shuffles behind my leg and chews on the sleeve of her blouse. "Est-ce qu'il y a une petite Adele?"

"Oui! Here she is!" I call out cheerfully, hoping my upbeat tone will ease Adele's sudden attack of nerves. I nudge Adele gently forward as all eyes turn in our direction. A line of mostly-smiling five-year-olds has formed in front of the teacher, sporting sweet French dresses, Jacadi sweaters and polished leather shoes.

"Viens ici, Adele," the teacher says encouragingly, giving her a patient and indulgent smile. Adele's face crumples into a frown and thick tears well in her eyes.

"Noooooooo!" she howls, employing much of the power of her well-developed lungs. "She looks mechante, Mommy! You said they would be nice." Other mothers avert their eyes, silently grateful that at that moment, they're not me.

I kneel down and pull Adele onto my lap, cooing softly but firmly in her ear while trying (under watchful eyes) to deploy the right parenting approach. "But the teachers are nice, sweetie. And look how happy all the kids look. You're just going to go play for a little while and see if you like it. Mommy will be waiting here when you come out," I say, straining for a calm, nonchalant tone.

"But I don't like it! I don't want to go to this school! None of my friends are heeeeere," Adele replies, as juicy tears streak down her reddened cheeks and tiny pools puddle beneath her nose.

I quickly assess my options:

a. Respect Adele's discomfort and honor her stated desire not to attend this admittedly intimidating play session, thereby tanking her shot at admission and the possibility of bilingual schooling for another year. In short, we bail.

b. Acknowledge her feelings but insist that she'll be fine and once she actually gets in the room, she will enjoy herself. (This, I know, is what will happen, and is therefore what I believe to be the right course. This assumes, however, that I stay in full control of my own emotions and handle this with great skill. Ahem. If I push too hard, she'll balk. She's a kid who needs to think things are her idea.)

And then there's option c. where I head straight to last-resort parenting: bribing, threatening and generally losing my cool. I hear myself say things like,"Okay Adele, if you don't go in, that's your choice, but we're going straight home and we're not going to do anything fun." And, gathering myself a bit, "Now honey, I know this feels a little scary, but has Mommy ever left you someplace bad?"

Adele considers this. "Yes! You have, Mommy! Remember that time you took me to the Centre de Loisirs and the teachers were so meeeean."

Mmm. Okay, she had me there. (Guilt, guilt...think, Paige, think!) By now, the group is shuffling toward the classroom, ready to draw pictures of les bonnehommes, show off their pre-reading skills and generally dazzle their future teachers.

Adele doesn't budge.

Precious minutes tick away. I feel my throat constrict as I pull the last trick out of my (desperate parenting) hat. "Adele," I whisper in her ear, "If you go in, Mommy will let you have chocolate after." She pauses, considering my offer, no doubt sensing my desperation. Finally, she shakes her head and begins pulling me toward the door.

Okay, forget it, I think. This isn't the end of the world. We're happy with the kids' school and love our neighborhood. No need to improve on an already good thing, right?

And then, out of the blue, appears a sweet smiling woman who kneels in front of Adele and recites (in flawless English) all the fun they're going to have. "We'll listen to a story! And draw pictures and sing a song! Won't you come with me Adele?" she asks, her hand outstretched.

And then, as if by magic, Adele's face shifts and she offers the teacher one of her most-winning smiles. "Okay!" she says brightly, releasing me from her grasp. She takes the teacher's hand and heads happily toward the classroom. The teacher turns and gives me a reassuring nod. As I watch them saunter away down the hall, Adele turns back to wave, "Bye, Mommy!" she calls as they disappear into the room.

I take a deep breath and try to gather myself, scanning the now empty room for any witnesses to this surprising turn of events. With an hour to kill before pick-up time, Cole (who has played the role of star big brother in this little drama) and I head to a nearby cafe and treat ourselves to two steaming mugs of chocolate chaud. As we review the events that have just transpired, we both just shake our heads. When it comes to five-year-olds, you just never know.

An hour later, we return to pick up Adele and find her smiling broadly in the arms of one of the teachers. She bounds toward me, with all her characteristic vigor. "It was SO FUN, MOMMY! I loooove it here!" she says.

And despite it all, I know she means every word.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Looking Back on Paris; Looking Ahead at French Education

It's hard to believe we've just celebrated two years of living in Paris. We've all really grown and changed -- both as a family and individuals -- especially the kids, who were just three and five when we landed and began our adventure. Here they are at the airport when we left Boston. Little did they know about the new world they were about to discover.
As I've watched them adapt to life in Paris, I've been struck many times by the resilience of children and how much we adults could learn from their example. As I've written about before, neither Cole or Adele spoke French when we arrived so learning the language was perhaps their first and greatest challenge. And yet they managed to make it look easy. Unlike adults, they seemed to learn French almost by osmosis, absorbing the new words and sounds alongside new words in English. They never had a moment of explicit instruction, just loads of play and total immersion. In fact, learning to speak was almost a Darwinian matter of survival. Unless they adapted to this foreign tongue, they would remain outside the experiences of their peers and unable to partake of the joys they saw around them. It wasn't always easy, but I have never regretted the choice to put them directly into French school.

Now, as you may have heard, there are changes on the horizon in the French schools. For more than a century, French schools have followed an unusual four-day week with no classes held on Wednesdays. Initially, this was structured as a compromise with the Catholic church (that had, until then, directed French education) and was designed to allow for religious studies on Wednesday. Needless to say, this model has become outmoded and the new government of President Francois Hollande is committed to making some (and in my view, much-needed) reforms.

But like any sweeping (or even sometimes modest) proposed social changes in France, these have met with strong resistance. There have been two teachers' strikes that have shut down the schools and manifestations that have drawn thousands of teachers and parents. Petitions have been circulated; meetings have been held.

The International Herald Tribune did a great story that spells out all the details. As for how I feel, I'm mixed. I agree that kids should attend school five days a week. It's better for their rhythm of learning and I'd prefer five shorter days to the current four really long days. But there's something pretty great about having a day "off" with the kids in the middle of the week. Their day is busy with classes and activities and it gives me some quality time with them like what we used to have when they were toddlers. I am aware, however, that this system is quite burdensome for many parents and is simply not sustainable. What do you think? If your kids are in French schools, do you support the proposed changes?

And so we'll see what the future holds. As I'm often reminded, in life there is only one constant: change. And speaking of changes, they're still in the works for my blog. In the meantime, thanks for sticking with me and for visiting my little corner of Paris. A bientot.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Changes in the Works!

I know, I know. It looks different around here (and not necessarily in a good way...) But it's going to look better, I promise.

A redesign of this humble blog is under way. I'll be making some final tweaks over the next couple of days before I unveil a new site. I have big plans for my little corner of Paris here and I hope you'll stick with me as I work out the kinks.

In the meantime, here's fun picture of some street art I spotted on the rue Babylone. (Just in time for Valentine's Day.) A bientot!

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Little Corner of the Left Bank

Maybe it's because of the name (rue Monsieur le sweet!) but I wanted to tell you about a little corner of the city that I love. It's in St Germain between Saint Sulpice and the Luxembourg Gardens, not far from metro Odeon. I was in the area last week for an appointment and took a little detour to stop by one of my favorite English language book shops, the San Francisco Book Co. It's one of only a handful of similar shops in the city and I always find something wonderful (usually on the shelves out front before I even walk through the door.)

I don't know about you but I much prefer second-hand books (and the shops that sell them) to the piles of shiny new releases at the big chains. Something about finding that perfect book among slightly dusty stacks and feeling like it was meant for that. It's also great knowing that someone else has relished it before you. Books aren't meant to be new, they should be dog-eared, loved and ideally, shared. It's as if you're contributing to the life of the book by discovering it, savoring it, then passing it along to another reader.

In fact, several streets in that area are dotted with specialty or rare booksellers, especially along the rue des Medicis near the Palais du Luxembourg. Their dusty windows filled with gorgeous antique leather-bound books feel right out of another time. The fact that they (still) exist here is yet another reason to love this city.

Anyway, I picked up Run by Anne Patchett at the SF Book Co. (a relative bargain at 12E for a hard cover) and continued on toward metro Odeon when I made a happy discovery of a different sort: an adorable boutique called Kyrie Eleison. Do you know this little shop? The selection of slightly retro dresses, candy colored denim and carefully-selected accessories is as chic and feminine as the shop's owner who greets (and helps style) her customers with a warm smile. She's the kind of salesperson you hope for (but don't often find) in Paris. I spotted some fun sale items and what's more, it's an independent boutique -- something that seems harder to find these days on the Left Bank. 
I'm surprised I haven't stumbled upon her shop before because it's just a couple doors away from my favorite restaurant in the area, Le Comptoir du Relais. This gem, helmed by beloved chef Yves Camdeborde, is hardly undiscovered but always worth the wait for its fresh, inventive takes on French classics and great people-watching. They don't take reservations so go a bit early to avoid the dinner queue or arrive before noon to nab a table for lunch (service starts at 12noon).

I then wandered down toward Saint Sulpice and did a bit of window shopping before hopping on the 87 bus and heading home. A fun way to pass a couple of hours on a chilly Paris afternoon. Do you have any favorite spots on the Left Bank? Do tell...
À bientôt!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Paris in the Snow

New Englanders are nothing if not hardy in the snow. There are seemingly born with an instinctive sense of how to dress for it, commute in it and -- above all -- shovel it. Most get a secretive thrill out of the act of shoveling snowy sidewalks (I know my husband did), scraping ice-covered windshields and sprinkling salt over the pavement.

Despite living in the Boston area for eight years, I'm no New Englander. I never quite adjusted to the harsh reality of winter: seeing mountains of snow piled atop my car, wrangling squirmy toddlers in and out of snowsuits, wearing clothing that always seemed better suited to a warming hut on a ski slope than life in a busy city. Alas, I could never shake my inner Californian.

Which brings to Paris and more specifically, to Parisians, in the snow. In case you haven't heard, we've seen quite a lot of snow here in the last few days. And from what I can tell, Parisians bear a stronger resemblance to Californians than to Bostonians when it comes to managing it. It began on Friday like a winter dream: a veil of white descending upon the city, making it glow in a shimmery softness. We enjoyed a morning of snowballs fights and built a mini bonhomme de neige before our feet froze and we heard the siren song of a mug of chocolate chaud.

That was the weekend. Today, Monday, was a different story, as Parisians trudged grumpily through what New Englanders know as a "wintry mix" of snow, rain and ice that clogged gutters and piled in slushy mounds along every sidewalk. No one shovels here, you see. No one owns snow shovels (and they probably wouldn't do it anyway). So the scene on the streets was one of ill-outfitted Parisians (I spotted more than one woman teetering on stiletto bottines) trying to navigate the unfamiliar terrain and grumbling all the way.

Nonetheless, the city looks pretty magical. If the forecast proves correct (always a serious if in Paris, we're likely to see more of the white stuff as the week continues.) As for me, I'll be busting out my inner Bostonian, feeling oddly at ease as snow blankets the City of Light.

Friday, January 11, 2013

New Year, New Moi

It started with a question. If I acted more like a real Parisienne (you know, confident, cool, assertive, unflappable), would I actually begin to feel more like one?

Why, you ask, would such a thing concern me? After all, I live in Paris. I've integrated well into our local community, I'm ridiculously blessed with a great family and good friends and even get to do work I love. But this has nothing to do with all that. It has to do with me. On the inside. I'm ready to make some changes that aren't about geography or fitness or getting organized (although I have some of those on my resolutions list, too). These changes are of the inner variety; the idea that it's high time to embrace my own power, to stop waiting for the world to give me what I seek and to simply go out and get it. No apologies.

And so in the spirit of the motto, "fake it 'til you make it," I turned my question into a challenge: What would happen if I acted out (on the outside), the changes I seek on the inside? If I act stronger, would I feel stronger? If I speak up, forcefully and clearly, albeit in my perfectly imperfect French, will the grouchy boulangere give me fresher baguettes? If I take to the streets like I'm worth a million bucks, will I feel like a star inside (no matter what I'm wearing?) If I venture a conversation with that mom at school, can I blow it off as nothing if she does the same? Basically, can I bring a new level of confidence and resilience to all (or most) of my life's interactions?

If I do, I believe more of what I seek will come: deeper connections to my loved ones and friends; greater joy in my daily life in Paris; the courage to write (and speak) what's true, even if it's hard or uncomfortable. These are things I resolve to do.

There are lots of great reasons for me to make these changes: to be a better role model for my daughter, to be a better partner, friend and even writer. But mostly I want to do it for me. And isn't that what getting older is all about?

And so in this spirit, I tackled yesterday. I strode the rues as if I owned them, greeted strangers with a shoulders back, my-French-may-not-be-perfect-but-it's-just-fine confidence, finished a piece I was writing and didn't apologize for a thing. And you know what? It worked. Nothing revolutionary actually happened, but I felt better, stronger -- more the me I want to be. And maybe even the tiniest bit Parisienne. :)

How about you? Any resolutions you care to share? Happy and healthy new year to you!