shoebox in paris

Thoreau said, “I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion.”  

It’s a fair sentiment, though with my budget, I’m more likely to be crowded on a pumpkin.

Using AirBnb, the glorious startup that connects travelers with private homeowners in the perfect meeting of supply and demand, I’ve had the comfort of a cozy, well-priced place to sleep in Strasbourg, Lyon, and the Riviera.

I’ve also found a few pumpkins: simple, private, and deathly uncomfortable.

The most memorable is a studio apartment in Paris.

“Apartment” is generous, “broom closet” somewhere closer to the truth. I think the ad, actually, described the place as A Shoebox in Paris. I respect “Olivier” for the honesty. While poetic, he did not use “shoebox” as a charming diminutive, but as a realistic description of the room’s actual dimensions.

The room was the size of a spacious American bathroom.

But it was Christmastime, and the idea of it all was irresistible. Despite arriving via a seven hour OUI bus from Strasbourg, it felt impossibly glamorous to be spending the week in the City of Lights. Given my history of misadventures, I should have known better, but once again I was starry-eyed. I pictured museums with no lines (and I’d get in free with my carte d’éducation). I dreamt of flawless French classics: buttery steak and perfect crème brûlée. There would be a light snowfall around the Eiffel Tower. 

It was so close: the perfect winter vacation, great escape from Montluçon. But first we had to lug our bags up six flights of stairs.

The task accomplished, the first problem we encountered was where to put our two suitcases. To give an idea of the available space, the bed was such that, should you share it, one person was effectively sleeping in the “kitchen” (a hot plate, a sink), while the other lucky traveler had an excellent view of the bathroom, sleeping nearly inside it as they were.

You had to step on the bed (and over a sleeping roommate), to access the bathroom, actually, which “closed” via a sad little accordion door and which contained a crusty bar of soap and an emphatic note in a rough English translation explaining how exactly to flush the cantankerous toilet.

There was one spot of glamour in the room, a small coffee table that accumulated over the course of our trip articles that advertised an entirely different sort of vacation, the kind that doesn’t involve freezing showers, the kind that might allow a bath towel in place of a washcloth.

The table held bright new novels from the Shakespeare & Co English bookstore, a bottle of pale pink Chanel Mademoiselle, and the creamy pastel boxes and bags from our visits to Ladurée for macarons that, temporarily, made me feel like a queen at Versailles instead of a mouse in a shoebox.

This wobbly balance between glamour and grunge became a theme for the week (and truly, for my whole life in France).

Christmas Eve, we wandered around looking for that perfect little brasserie. An hour and a walk through Montmartre and Pigalle later, we admitted defeat and had Christmas Eve dinner in a Chinese traiteur. We sat in our skirts and tights and heels and ate egg rolls and orange chicken, eight euros a person. The restaurant was empty, save for the family that owned it: the little girl playing by herself, the father watching a ninja movie in the corner. But we ate on fine, pretty plates and drank wine out of heavy glasses, leaving lipstick on the rim.

Then we went to Christmas service at the Notre Dame. Candles, the Christmas story in French. The organ music thundered through the cathedral and I felt stunningly small faced with all this grandeur, all that history, all those people.

Christmas Day we spent at the Pompidou, the quietest I’ve ever seen that place. My Christmas tree this year was a modern art piece: colorful bulbs that lit up suddenly every few minutes.

For Christmas dinner, wanting to avoid Orange Chicken Part II, we googled best Christmas dinners in Paris and booked one, a splurge. We ate at a beautiful place in Montmartre, feasting on oysters and foie gras and a fruit salad with lychees and the recommended wine pairing. The restaurant was full of non-Parisiens. The locals, we assumed, were home with their families.

The trip, like our AirBnb, wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It was exhausting. Paris was cold, rainy, and gray, and there were more tourists than ever.

One day we went out of our way to go to a Christmas market near Nation. A far cry from the Christmas market we’d enjoyed in Strasbourg, this one was dripping and pitiful, on its last day. Most booths were closed, and still we got conned into buying expensive cheese. A lady yelled at me about gingerbread. We talked with a chef selling Portuguese custard tarts who disclosed his love for Merle Haggard and started singing “Okie from Muskogee” (definitely the best part of that day).

Overall we spent too much time in the dystopian underworld that is the metro, and we ran out of money and had to eat lentils for a month afterwards.

In pictures it is lovely, all pale sunsets and gold lights, but really it was cold and cramped and a little lonely in the way that Christmas without your family can be.

I know this, remember this, and still I am nostalgic. How was it that not so long ago I rented a terrible, memorable little shoebox in Paris with my best friend? Where are the croissant crumbs and freezing fingers, or, on fortunate nights, the oysters and champagne? Where are the endless espressos and afternoons free to wander?

Christmas in Paris was like the room’s promoted “Eiffel Tower view”: both sound a little more glamorous in the telling.

But we did have our shoebox view. It was there, if we stood on the bed to see out the high window. If it wasn’t obscured by the January clouds.

The trip, the view: awkward and uncomfortable and lovely still. There it was, if we were lucky: the top of the tower, sparkling brilliantly into the night.

 

Maman + Lyon: our trip begins

In February, my mom came to visit me in France for a whole two weeks. My dad had told me about his plans months before and I could hardly keep it a secret, but waited to let Mom find out on Christmas day.

We started off our trip in Lyon. Mom has heard a lot about it from my travels, but had never gotten to see it for herself. I strongly prefer this city to Paris, having been to both recently. I made the mistake of going to Paris during prime tourist time (Christmas) and it was enough to put me off for awhile. Lines for the vestiaire, lines for the bathroom, lines for my favorite bookstore. Crowded cafés revealing disappointingly average bowls of onion soup: another tourist trap. 45 minutes on the metro.

Paris is better if you know how to plan, and honestly that’s not my strong suit. Lyon feels a little more sacred, unspoiled by the over-commercialization of the romance of France (a place that becomes decidedly less romantic when it seems like half the world is there). Lyon is colorful, lively, warm, the stomach of France.

Mary and I went to Lyon a day before my mom flew in and got settled in at the AirBnb. In typical AirBnb fashion, this required codes and keys and the finding of a surreptitious flowerpot. Once inside, it was spacious and cool with big windows providing a view of the Saone river. By far our greatest AirBnb success.Lyon river view

We met my mom at the airport the next day and we spent a fun couple of days around le Vieux Lyon, mostly, eating and biking around.

I took mom to Les Halles de Paul Bocuse, a big covered market now dedicated to the famous French chef (whose face can be spotted across the street, painted onto the side of a building). Paul Bocuse and the halles that bear his name are dedicated to the highest-quality ingredients. C’est où les produits sont roi (where the products are king. Things really do sound better in French, don’t they).

Mom was craving a croissant so we bought a few and then we bought a box of macarons from Sève, my absolute favorites after the famous Ladurée in Paris. macarons boiteVanilla bean, peach apricot, rose. The lady was patient, her gloved hand hovering over the pastry case as Mary and I scrambled to decide which flavors to order, each one individually. Deux roses. Non, quatre. Cinq, c’est bon.

Macarons are one of the few patisseries that taste as good as they look. They don’t look good for long, though, because they don’t last long. Delicate, ephemeral. If it sounds like I could write poetry about these little cookies, well. I have.

We got around almost exclusively by bike, and it was dreamy, although Mom may have a slightly different opinion. Me, anyway, I was flying. Lyon has a really nice, user-friendly bike system, and the bikes are big, with comfortable seats, baskets, lights, and working brakes. I had forgotten what it felt like to coast down a hill and feel adrenaline instead of terror.

One day we biked to the Parc de la Tête d’Or, where we pedaled leisurely around the zoo and visited the botanical gardens.

We ate dinner almost exclusively in bouchons, the traditional Lyonnais restaurants, and Mom had such Lyonnais and French classics as boeuf bourguignon and salade lyonnaise. img_8326-1Our unanimous favorite, though, was a place called Les Lyonnais.img_8346-1 We sat at communal wooden tables and ordered classic food a bit more originale (interesting, different), than other places we’d tried. The place has personality, largely due to the servers, one of whom, sixtyish, has huge black framed glasses and a white beard, always making droll, ironic comments in French (and a little English). He’s the kind of guy who’s always smirking, but you can tell he loves his job.

The menu itself has a sense of humor, promising such delights as the “Unforgettable Onion Loaf.”

Besides bouchon fare, we ate fair number of brioche aux pralines and tried fun ice cream at a popular shop. I had mascarpone and sheep’s milk yogurt flavors. Technically it was a little too cold to be eating ice cream cones outside, but I was also wearing four-inch clogs and riding a bike over cobblestones, so what do I know about practicality.

We went to the Musée des Beaux Arts just in time to see the last days of the Matisse exhibit. This was a real treat for me. I’ve gone to a lot of art museums this year, (including contemporary art museums in like five major cities), and I’m always on the hunt for the kinds of bold colors that Matisse prizes. So to have all this in one place was major eye candy.

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After a fun couple of days, we headed to the South of France, where we attended the cheesiest festival of all time.

To be continued, in other words.