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Sunday, January 8, 2017

Me and Paris

“We could swap.”

I’d always thought I’d go to Paris for the first time on my honeymoon, it all seemed so romantic, the City of Lights and Love. And when my very pragmatic friend Karen asked “So how long are you going to wait for some man who may or may not show up, before you go to Paris?” “Hmm. 40,” I replied, confident as only a 28-year old can be that they will certainly be married by the time they reach the antiquity that is 40.

So in celebration of my fortieth birthday, I went to Paris with my friend Nannette. The next year, I went with Karen. Then Mary.  Susan. Karen again. Carol. Lori. Karen again. And again. Sandy. Bryanny. Yes, for 17 years I never met the one, never got married, never went to Paris with a boyfriend. Until last summer. But that's another chapter...

It was on that trip with Lori for her 50th birthday that we discovered the Hotel Artus and the marvelous concierge Sanjay Kaloya. Forget concierge, Sanjay is a wizard, with an encyclopedic knowledge of Paris and the ability to make things happen with a single phone call. Over the years and after several stays at the Hotel, we became friends.  After the hotel sold and became a bit too expensive for my price range,  I’d drop by and see Sanjay whenever I was in Paris and soon, I was invited to his home for dinner with his delightful wife Djamila and their two sons.  As Sanjay hails from Mumbai and Djamila is French, the meal was always a delicious mix of their two cuisines – think samosas and tarte tatin. Over one of these meals together, Sanjay mentioned that the family usually travelled to Colorado in the summer for vacation. My mother had passed away recently and I'd inherited the family home on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. I casually suggested that they were welcomed to stay at my house near the beach if they didn’t want to travel so far when Djamila replied, “We could swap.”

We could swap. 

Never have three little words made my heart soar! We could trade abodes for four glorious weeks in the summer! Suddenly a dream of moving to Paris was a reality, albeit for four weeks. (Knowing my love for Paris my mother used to always joke that she knew the moment she died, I’d sell everything and move to Paris. Here was a way to keep everything AND move to Paris! Merci, Maman!)

So that July, with Petey my Cairn terrier safely handed off to friends, I flew to Paris and literally changed my life.  And have repeated the process for the past four years.

Fast forward to summer of 2015. I’m sitting at Café de Flore (or just Le Flore to us regulars) with my glass of butter-colored pastis, jotting down witty observations of life in this corner of St. Germain and thinking, “oh no! I’ve become a cliché of the single middle-aged American woman writing earnestly in her leather bound journal. (At least my two beloved cats had passed on so I wasn’t quite such a stereotype!)

But then I realized that while at first glance, I might seem like these women, I was having a very different Paris experience. I felt like I knew Paris. I had friends here. French friends, which any ex-pat will tell you is a rare achievement.  I no longer needed to look at a map, could manage the subway and train systems fairly easily, and didn’t have the least amount of guilt if I decided to spend the afternoon enjoying a glass of rose while overlooking the Seine, rather than queuing up to see the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. I’d become a flanuese, happy to just walk around without a particular destination in mind. My French was far from perfect but I could make myself understood and felt more comfortable with the language each day. Although I must admit, I learned that a few nods  and well-placed “ah, oui” or  shrugs with a “D’accord” could make me appear much more fluent than I actually am. I felt “presque Parisienne” – almost a Parisian.  (Sidenote: I have a little pouch that I carry in my handbag that reads “I’m not French enough to live in Paris.” Still holds true.)

I stopped writing journals that listed my every activity and instead, picked up a camera or used my iPhone to capture those moments I wanted to remember. Then two years ago, I picked up a nice pen and a leather-bound journal and started to enjoy being a writer once again. Only this time, it was anecdotes, observations, bits of advice, rather than “today I went to …”

I became known to friends as a diehard Francophile and they began asking for suggestions of where to stay, what to do when they were going to Paris. Information beyond the basic guidebook.  The more time I spent in Paris, the longer and more comprehensive these lists became – this was a list for a friend with a celebrity partner who needed some more out-of-the-way activities, this friend likes to shop but isn’t much of a foodie, these people are traveling with young children. This woman likes a bargain/is a beauty junkie/won’t eat meat/wants to hit the museums.

After spending a day writing a fairly exhaustive list for a friend (photographer/windowshopper/vegetarian) going to Paris for the first time, I put a post on Facebook offering to email the list to anyone planning a trip and got a huge response, including more than a few comments that maybe I should write a book. Or a blog.

So that’s what I’m doing. A very personal guide to Paris, filled with my own photographs and stories, tips and unsolicited advice. Some of the stores may change owners, restaurants close and hotels turn over ownership but the basic information and bon mots should be pretty timeless.  My hope that this essays will enhance your next time spent in Paris and encourage you to feel “presque Parisian” as well! Bon voyage!

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