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Aspen Times Weekly Voyages edition: A nap in Paris

Stewart OksenhornAspen Times WeeklyAspen, CO Colorado
Stewart Oksenhorn/Aspen Times WeeklyA man with some soccer skills entertained us on a hill overlooking Paris.
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Paris never fails to deliver the sights. Turn any corner and there is something to see – not just legendary museums and magnificent palaces but gorgeous street scenes, monumental public art installations, window displays in patisseries and chocolatiers that look so perfect you almost don’t want to order something for fear of messing with the arrangement.Forgive me, then, for saying that my fondest memory from a recent nine-day stay in Paris came with my eyes closed. It was a nap. But oh, what a nap.Arriving in Paris on scant hours of sleep, we followed the standard experienced-traveler’s advice: Don’t go to sleep. Not yet. So we dropped our things in the apartment we had rented and headed out into our ‘hood – the Marais district, an expansive area on the Right Bank that has fairly recently turned fashionable, the center of gay culture and the Jewish community, and home to the city’s surging falafel industry. Face planted in the Rick Steves travel guide (highly recommended), I guided us down business-like Rue Beaubourg and then left onto Rue Rambuteau, where Paris blossomed in all its glory: bakeries, fish markets, people going about their everyday business – which for the French means sitting facing the street and having extended chats over many mid-day cups of coffee. We peeked into a serene courtyard of some museum or such, gawked at the cute shops in centuries-old buildings and worked our way through narrow streets. We came to our lunch spot: Chez Janou, a quintessentially Provenal-style bistro on a lovely, leafy corner, where we sat outdoors, ducked the cigarette smoke from the next table over and had a knockout fish dish. For dessert – bien sr! dessert after lunch! – we followed our daughter, Olivia, to a pastry shop she had spotted a few blocks away. But my wife, Candice, had her heart set on backtracking to Chez Janou, reclaiming a table and ordering the mousse au chocolat.Best. Idea. Ever. The waitress put down a party-size bowl with a party-size ladle, plus two spoons and two dishes. Then she walked away. My French is far from perfect, but I’m pretty sure what she said translates to “OK, my American friends, let’s see you not make utter pigs of yourselves.” So this was a take-as-much-as-you-need situation. With chocolate mousse. The best chocolate mousse ever. I think we handled the situation properly, coming just to the line of piggishness but stopping short of cleaning the bowl. As we left, I peeked behind: no irate waitress coming after us, no gendarmes.

– Free –

Stuffed, jet-lagged, weary, content, bewildered by the fact we were actually in Paris, we stumbled toward the Place des Vosges, a one-square-block park built by Henry IV in the early 17th century. The square was packed. Winter had just ended, swiftly replaced by bright sunshine and warmth – the sort of weather that I had been led to believe doesn’t really happen in Paris. We sat on the grass, and I realized what was inevitably ahead. Sitting turned quickly into full horizontality. We groggily grabbed for backpacks and jackets to shove under our heads. And within seconds all three of us were gone, lights completely out, sleeping the sleep of the utterly exhausted, protected by the impressive old buildings that envelop the plaza. Bon voyage.The nap lasted less than an hour, but what it lacked in length it made up for in intensity. Jet lag overcome, we walked to the opposite corner of the Place des Vosges for our first sightseeing, the home of the great playwright and human-rights activist Victor Hugo. We explored the Marais, coming eventually to what might be the most adorable part of Paris: the Rue de Rosiers, the heart of the traditional Jewish quarter, where three well-known falafel spots stand and where a group of Orthodox Jews was inviting passers-by to put on the tefillin, a set of elaborate black straps and leather boxes used for prayer. Figuring, “When in Paris … ,” I put on the tefillin and said my bruchas.We settled into our Paris pattern. Sleep late, find a coffee and croissant for Olivia, dash across the street to Bob’s Kitchen for a smoothie and rice dish, then out for a long day of seeing the sights.We hit all the biggies: the tall things you can climb up and look out from (the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe), the holy places (Notre Dame, St. Sulpice, Sacre Coeur), the museums (Louvre, Orangerie, Orsay), the royal gardens (Luxembourg, Tuileries, Palais-Royal). We walked the great streets: Mouffetard, lined with crperies and clothes stores; the winding paths on Montmartre, the only hill in Paris. (The Champs-lyses, famed as they are, don’t qualify for greatness. The most noteworthy sight there was the huge line of people waiting to go into … a church concert? A Jerry Lewis movie? … No – Abercrombie & Fitch!) Often it was the unexpected things that had the greatest impact – like the guy who did phenomenal things with a soccer ball for the crowd on the steps of Sacre Coeur.I went alone to the Pompidou Centre, which I recommend (if for the escalators alone), and I highly recommend doing it the way I did. After a day of old art that offers few surprises at the Louvre and Orangerie, the Pompidou’s collection of modern art was consistently startling.I confess: Our dining was largely unplanned. We tended to walk and gawk until we got hungry and then found a place to eat wherever we happened to be. Which might be why I come to this conclusion: Parisian food lacks in creativity. They seem to have hit certain points in culinary evolution and called it good. And sometimes this was justified: I had moules marinire (mussels in broth) that were extraordinary; I had maybe the best slice of pizza ever, fortified with a blob of fresh mozzarella, from a streetside stand. At the falafel spot Chez Marianne, I bit into the most delicious olive I’ve ever tasted, when my daughter looked at me and stated, “This is the most delicious olive I’ve ever tasted.” You can’t argue with the breads, pastries, ice cream, crpes and french fries. But the element of surprise was mostly missing: There is a way to do things in Paris, and that’s how they do them.Candice’s go-to food was at Bob’s Kitchen, a tiny vegetarian spot run by an American named Mark. Bob’s was a demonstration that the French can learn a few things about food from us Americans – during lunch the place was packed with Parisians.When I dream about our trip to Paris, my guess is I won’t be visited by memories of wonderful bistros or spectacular produce or the taste of that olive. Nor “Mona Lisa,” “The Thinker” or “Venus de Milo” – cool, but I’ve seen pictures.I’ll dream about putting my head down in the Place des Vosges and having a nap for the ages.stewart@aspentimes.com


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