Date of Trip: December 2004
To celebrate our anniversary, my husband and I decided to eat our way through the crepe-a-go-gos in Paris, among other gastronomical indulgences. We also rented an apartment this time, rather than a hotel, for the coziness factor.
I had always heard that living like a native was an affordable way to dig into the personality of a city. I found an Internet ad for a studio apartment that claimed to be inexpensive and charming in Marais on the Isle St. Louis, an island next to Notre Dame. The ad said that the apartment was inexpensive and charming. I am always suspicious of housing ads that use the word charming in them, but the price was right and the pictures were effective, so we reserved it. We paid only 550 (around $700) for a 7-night stay. Breezy French windows opened onto a small balcony overlooking Rue St. Louis. We were on the fourth floor, so the view was panoramic.
A nod to the left and the right carved out a circular vision of a typical Parisian street: a fromagèrie, a creperie, several restaurants, a couple of hotels, a florist, and a knick-knack store. There was a L’Occitane store immediately below us. Across the street and two doors to the right was a chocolatier. What else could we have asked for? A computer, maybe.
Voila! There was a small Dell with a high-speed Internet connection in our apartment. This came in very handy for checking out stores and restaurants we wanted to visit. It also saved us the hassle of finding an Internet café whenever we wanted to check our bank balance.
Our bed was comfortable even though it was a queen-size bed, and my 6-foot, 6-inch spouse usually requires a king. The first time he sank into its cushiony folds, he thumbed his approval.
There was a small kitchen with a trailer-sized refrigerator and a stovetop. No oven, but at least we could prepare fruit and cheese trays and chill champagne. So we felt we had a semblance of a studio apartment.
Then there was the bathroom. The toilet, we were informed after we had plunked down the required cash, was from a boat. For that reason, one had to flush in intervals so that it could flush everything down. One also needed to add water as it was swirling in mid-flush. If there was more than a teaspoon of a foreign substance in the toilet, we had to flush more than once. The toilet sounded anguished when in use, analogous to a giant pipe strangling a tree trunk. Slowly. Did I mention the putrid stench that emitted from the toilet if you failed to flush it every few hours?
The hexagonal shower stall was painfully small. If you closed the door, you literally had no room for your arm to scrub the rest of you, so you had to keep it slightly ajar. I had the feeling I was in the movie This is Spinal Tap, when the bass player gets stuck in the plastic pod he is supposed to jump out of to start his solo. Luckily, this shower was at least tall enough to accommodate Dirk, or we would have demanded our money back. One more woe: The water pressure was at a trickle. I found new ways to wash my hair with water that dribbled out at the same rate as if there were a Greek god standing above me spitting through the spout.
So why did we stay? The location was difficult to beat. We were on an enviable street in the middle of our dream neighborhood. We did have a snug bed and magnificent view, plus a small but serviceable kitchen.
We were on a mission during this trip – a crêpe-eating mission. For that reason, we visited many of the crepe-a-go-go carts we found on our routes to other destinations. They aren’t all called crepe-a-go-go, but that’s what they are. Each one consists of a cart, usually run by one person (99% of the time it is a man) who has two crepe pans. You choose a flavor, pay him, and then watch him create a crepe with your choice of fillings.
Every vendor we saw employs the same methodical steps to create the perfect crepe. First, he pours the batter in a circular motion onto the pan and then coaxes it along with a small squeegee-looking object called a rake to even the batter out. He waits for a moment until the crepe steams and bubbles, and then he flips it over with a long, thin spatula, the kind that bakeries use for frosting cakes. He adds the requested toppings, waits another moment, folds the crepe in half, and then folds it in half again to form a triangle. The crepe is slipped into a paper pocket envelope and handed over. It is a scrumptious accompaniment to sight-seeing and shopping.
My husband’s crepe of the week was a ham, cheese, and egg crepe. The egg was cracked open on top of the crêpe, and then the rest of the ingredients were sprinkled on as the egg cooked.
My favorite was the sizzling sucre-beurre, or sugar-butter crepe. The man who prepared it for me dusted the sugar on first, then dropped a pat of butter into the middle of the crepe, waited just until it began to melt, and then folded it up. The dairy tooth side of me thought, “This will never be enough butter for the likes of me. I should ask for more!” But I didn’t want any “Ugly American” connotations following my karma around, so I kept my butter-loving mouth shut and accepted my crepe. Immediately, I tried to bite through to find the butter. To my surprise, I could taste butter in almost every mouthful.
Some of our most cherished days entailed walking through a neighborhood, ducking in and out of stores, and stopping for a beverage or a snack. This is the way to eat in Paris: a bit here and there, some exercise and culture, and then another little something to nibble or sip.
We spent several hours in cafés drinking chocolat chaud (hot chocolate) or café crème (coffee with cream). I found a perfect place for hot chocolate, done the old-fashioned European way. I was served a small pitcher of steamed milk and an even smaller pitcher of dark chocolate syrup for my hot chocolate. I poured the milk into the cup and added the syrup as necessary. To add to your experience, each serving arrives with a cookie. What I really love about true Euro hot cocoa is that they are never too sweet. The pure chocolate essence really kicks through.
We ate a lot of casual meals during that week, buying bread, cheese, fruit, and wine for easy at-home dinners in front of the French-language TV (with cable, by the way -another deal-saver). But we did venture out for a restaurant experience or two.
Those of us who do not like second-hand smoke always travel to Europe with a sigh of resignation, knowing that as delectable as the chausson aux pommes or sauerbraten may taste, a trail of nicotine and tar could easily follow it as an unwelcome chaser.
It was our last full evening in Paris. We had passed La Fourmi Ailée several times on our way to other destinations and finally decided to try it. Non-smokers are ushered to an upstairs room, which resembles an old artist’s garret from the late 19th century, something out of La Bohéme. A set of oblong skylight windows hung gloriously above us, lending light to an otherwise dark alcove.
There were several vegetarian items on the menu. I ordered the vegetarian lasagna, which is made with tofu instead of an overload of cheese, a common mistake made by people who don’t truly understand the vegetarian diet. A pureed marinara sauce, thick with chunks of Roma tomatoes, was intertwined with four ample lasagna noodles. Mozzarella shreds blended with the tofu were just the right touch to this already mouthwatering dish.
My carnivore husband requested the demi-canard en croute sel, or salty duck. The duck arrived in a darkly roasted bread crust, which we were told should not be eaten, as it is made with large amounts of salt. The crust seals in the juices of the duck as it bakes. A pile of vegetables are served on the side, augmented by the Hollandaise sauce, a pitcher of which is provided for every table. Dirk ordered a house white wine, which turned out to be a reasonably drinkable Sauvignon Blanc.
Lingering over our meal, we decided to order dessert. I opted for pear sorbet, which arrived with an appropriately tart, if somewhat predictable, blackberry sauce drizzled over it. Dirk went for the more adventurous apple strudel with mushrooms. I can vouch for the fact that the gently cooked, nutmeg-infused apples and the thinly-sliced cremini mushrooms were a perfect marriage within the flaky strudel crust.
Every trip to Paris is a culinary delight. I always find something new to love. We could not recommend our little studio apartment, with its yawning abyss toilet and barely there water pressure, in its present state. However, if the bathroom is upgraded, we will try the apartment again. Not until then, though. I still feel a little seasick.