Published: March 2010
By Kate Betts
How does it feel to return to a place you once called home—and find it utterly transformed? <strong>Kate Betts</strong> charts the changes—and the constants—of one of the world's most stylish cities.
Looking east from the Pont de Tolbiac in the 13th Arrondissement you wouldn't know you were in Paris. As far as the eye can see, there are cranes and glass towers punctuating the rabbit warrens of old working-class neighborhoods. Below, a soundless METEOR train glides by as a girl in high-tech headphones speed-walks past the four glass towers of the Bibliothèque Nationale, towardthe Rue Louise-Weiss, Paris's new arts center. Dressed in gladiator sandals, black wraparound sunglasses, and pleated micromini, she looks like a replicant out of Blade Runner. This is not the familiar tableau of old Paris, perfectly preserved in snapshots by Robert Doisneau. That view, of the luminous white dome of Sacré Coeur, the iconic Eiffel Tower, and the grand spires of Notre Dame, is 180 degrees to the west. This is the picture of new Paris.
Everyone has his or her own private set of Paris postcards. Mine is a series of snapshots of the city I saw in my twenties. I lived there for five years and started my professional life as a fashion reporter, chronicling the movements of the couturiers housed along the Faubourg-St.-Honoré. I had a room with a French family in St.-Germain. I got to know a bunch of precocious French girls who came from very good families but spoke like truck drivers and chain-smoked Philip Morris Lights. Domitille, Bibiane, Priscille: each exuded that irresistible nonchalance that is the essence of French style. They were effortlessly brilliant chefs, buying their organic vegetables at the market on the Boulevard Raspail. Every year they fled the city for the month of August, holing up in whitewashed houses on the Île de Ré. They wore creased dark denim jeans from A.P.C. On Saturdays they would throw rumpled trench coats over fishnet stockings and dance the night away at a boîte called Castel's. When they got married and became mothers, they put their babies in tiny Shetland sweaters from a funny little shop on Rue Madame, and stashed away their beat-up Hermès Birkin bags the minute American women began carrying them in a garish shade of orange ostrich. Opting, instead, for some soft canvas cargo bag they found at an army-navy store.
Later, as a New York-based fashion editor, I made quarterly pilgrimages to the collections every year for a decade, and Paris became my home away from home. As a writer and editor for Vogue and then editor in chief of Harper's Bazaar, I depended on Paris as a muse, for inspiration. It was an almost Pavlovian reflex: I would catch a whiff of black tobacco and briny Camembert cheese and suddenly I would have ideas for magazine articles. An emerald Christian Lacroix couture dress could inspire a whole page of green products. Two rangy girls sauntering down the Faubourg-St.-Honoré in long bell-bottoms and Françoise Hardy fringes would transform a spring fashion report. But things change—people more than cities, certainly. I dropped out of the fashion business. Instead of bistro menus and supermodels, I trained my eye on preschool applications and model airplanes. The history I shared with Paris began to fade like an old photograph.
When I went back last May, with my husband and son in tow, it had been a few years since I'd seen Paris. Staring out the window on a bleary, sleep-deprived cab ride in from the airport, I suddenly felt a rush of anticipation and dread as we crossed the Périphérique into central Paris. Would I have the same Pavlovian reaction? Would the prospect of a totally changed city still inspire me? I wanted to discover a Paris I had never seen before and yet I hoped, at the same time, to find everything as I'd left it.
We dumped our bags at Hôtel Le Ste.-Beuve, a charming place we chose for its proximity to the Luxembourg Gardens. My husband and son set off for the puppet shows, excited to discover the Sunday spectacle I'd religiously attended with my goddaughter years before when I would visit. I ventured south in the direction of St.-Germain, retracing my favorite walk down Rue Madame and across the Place St.-Sulpice, to meet my old friend Bibiane. Save for a sleek new Yves Saint Laurent boutique, not much had changed physically in the neighborhood. The same waiters at the Café Croix Rouge, where I used to steal away from the fashion fray for a Poilâne sandwich, were still rushing around pouring ballons of Beaujolais for a crowd that would soon decamp to St.-Tropez and other points south. Students from the Sciences Po still loitered outside Le Basil smoking putrid Gauloises cigarettes. And Bibiane still had her gorgeous 18th-century apartment with double-height ceilings and a wrought-iron balcony overlooking Rue de Grenelle. On the surface, she had not changed much: she still wore that chic indifference like a favorite old couture jacket and she still knew how to make a delicious meal out of three eggs, some leftover cheese, and a piece of bread. There were subtle differences, though. She'd quit smoking and now had to tolerate the nasty habit in her two eldest kids. She wore sneakers instead of high heels. She talked about America in less reverent tones.
That French-American divide was one I knew too well. During my years in Paris, I'd made every effort to be accepted by the French. I learned the slang, using words like bringue and choper instead of fête or prendre. I followed the rigid manners of keeping your hands on the table during meals, and adopted the correct dress code of black tights and high heels. I took weekly invitations to Sunday lunch—the tabernacle of French family life—as signs of success. Yet no matter how I tried, I would always be the American who worked too hard, spoke too loudly, and spent too freely.
So nothing about the tension arising between Americans and the French surprised me on our visit to Paris. Friends had told me of newscasters surreptitiously smirking when they announced the capture ofnew American POW's. Americans had taken to calling the French "Chiraqis." A few days prior to our arrival, our hotel sent a poignant letter of apology by e-mail. "Dear American Friends," it read, "the truth is we, the French people, like American folks. Beyond our pride of being French, we greatly admire American people."
In a taxi on my way back to the hotel from Bibiane's place, I encountered my first brush with anti-Americanism. "Fashion has not been the same in this city since that guy came around with his 1970's look and his bell-bottom pants," the unusually affable driver said when I told him I had worked in the fashion business. Which impostor could he mean? Karl Lagerfeld, who had certainly generated years of Gallic vitriol when, as a German, he took over the house of Chanel? Could he mean Alexander McQueen, the trash-talking son of a Cockney taxi driver who was practically chased out of the hidebound house of Givenchy? As we full-throttled it down the ancient cow path known as Rue des Saints-Pères, the subject of the driver's ire came to me: Was it Tom Ford, who took over YSL? "Ah, yes!" he said, punching his fist in the air as if I'd just scored the winning goal of the World Cup finals. Ah, yes! An American had ruined French fashion.
Things got worse at McDonald's the next day. (For the record, my son had refused countless offers of haricots verts and Camembert and so we were desperate.) I was minding my own business, ordering Chicken McNuggets and reaching for a napkin next to the register when the serveuse behind the counter suddenly slapped my hand. "You have to ask," she hissed. My husband was shocked. I calmly explained that without this kind of behavior, without the caustic undercurrent of hostility and indifference, Paris would not be Paris. It would be Disneyland.
When I told the Israeli-born Lanvin designer Alber Elbaz my story the next day over lunch, he laughed. "Of course, it's Paris, and it took me two years of living here to accept that," he said. "If it weren't that way, it wouldn't be France and we wouldn't want to be here, would we?" Elbaz described how he had fought French customs at every turn, determined to live as he had in New York—in a loft in a trendy, ungentrified neighborhood, dinners at a different restaurant every night. Eventually he gave up and found himself a bourgeois apartment off the Place des Victoires and ordered steak for lunch every other day at the stuffy bar in the Hôtel de Crillon, around the corner from his office.
Even the best rule-breakers eventually succumb to the Parisian way of life. Over dinner in the upstairs room at Caviar Kaspia, a froufrou favorite of the fashion crowd, Marc Jacobs, the transplanted Louis Vuitton designer who was once a fixture on the New York club scene, cheerily told me how he, too, had embraced bourgeois Paris with gusto. "I never go out at night anymore. I walk Alfred, my dog, on the Champ de Mars, and I go to my neighborhood bakery where everyone knows me," he said. "I like to stay close to home."
My idea of home in Paris is a cracked leather banquette in an old family-owned bistro such as Aux Fins Gourmets on Boulevard St.-Germain, where the walls are yellow from so many years of tobacco smoke and where you can still get a simple salade mixte and steak frites without too much fuss. So I was intrigued by Alain Ducasse's buzzy new brasserie, Aux Lyonnais, a former 1890 stockbrokers' haunt he had taken back to its gastronomic roots. Here was old Paris meeting new with all the authentic accoutrements: a dish towel for a tablecloth, linen bags stuffed with sourdough bread, and kitchen bowls filled with cervelle de Canuts—a delicious concoction of white cheese, scallions, fresh herbs, and oil. Ducasse serves up food so traditional, even the French marvel: minute steak à la lyonnaise lands on the table in front of you still sizzling in the frying pan. Every night the place is packed with long-limbed French fashion editors and leathery society types gorging on huge helpings of bugnes, Lyons's sweet, chewy answer to the doughnut.
The talk of the town, though, was Joël Robuchon's three-week-old restaurant, L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Once branded the chef of the century, Robuchon had closed his famous restaurant Jamin in the 16th Arrondissement and disappeared for seven years from the Paris scene. Now his modest conceit on Rue Montalembert was whipping Left Bank intellos into a frenzy: no reservations, no tablecloths, no tables. Robuchon's idea was to serve delicious food casually at a barlike tapas or sushi counter. His cooking is not French or Spanish or Japanese (and it certainly isn't fusion). By creating his own culinary language and style without changing the ingredients, he has defied the cultural conventions that have clearly divided the French from the rest of the world. But his no-reservations policy was not sitting well with the French noblesse oblige; even Robuchon was getting his hand slapped.
"If you want to eat filet mignon at midnight or foie gras at 11 in the morning, then it's the place for you," said Florence Maeght, the owner of Le Rideau de Paris, a shop that sells wonderful reproductions of 18th-century fabrics from Lyons. "I've lived and worked in this neighborhood all my life," she laughed. "I've never seen people get so upset. He has caused a scandal, because nobody can get in. The French are up in arms!"
My first three attempts to secure one of the 37 seats at Robuchon's bar were aborted quickly by a polite woman in a long black Matrix-style apron. She peered around the glass door, told me the place was full, and then slammed the door and locked it. It was only 11:45, but at least 20 people were turned away in succession. Three Japanese women made a big show of arriving in a sleek black Mercedes 300SEL— the obligatory Mombasa bags in hand—then scampered away when the door was slammed in their faces. Even the valet parking, for eight euros, was rumored to be full.
On the fourth try I got in. It was the afternoon of a long weekend when everyone had left town early (including my family), and I sat down to an incredibly precise and delicious mille-feuille of vegetables—tomatoes and zucchini with mozzarella—that tasted as though they'd been nestled in a sunny garden in Provence. Plate after plate of tiny servings of crab salad and langoustine tempura, along with the intense attention of Robuchon's dedicated waiters (many have worked for him for more than two decades), dazzled me.
"The guy is a god," the French garmento on the stool next to me said as he pierced a soufflé of Chartreuse withpistachio ice cream. He had traveled all day from St.-Tropez just to sample Robuchon's latest food. It had taken him two days to get in, but it was worth it. "I hate the French, they're turncoats," he said. "I'm so embarrassed by our behavior during the war in Iraq. But when you see a guy like Robuchon, you have to admit that the French have a gift for genius in some areas."
Robuchon's iconoclasm was inspiring. We'd made the rounds of the old haunts—the Luxembourg Gardens, the favorite bistros, the nostalgic walk across the Pont des Arts. So, on a rainy Saturday my husband and I strapped our four-year-old son into a stroller (much to the disapproval of passers-by) and rushed out to explore the Paris we didn't know. We dined on soggy ravioli at La Suite, a trendy place where each room resembles a different kind of hotel suite, the ceiling over the bar opens up to the sky, and regulars include Mick Jagger, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Robert De Niro. We checked out Kong, the new Philippe Starck-designed restaurant on top of the Kenzo store near the Pont Neuf. We sampled crusty organic zucchini with ricotta and basil at R'Aliment, an organic "resto relax" popular with the gallery crowd, on Rue Charlot. Then we strolled through the Passage de Retz, once a toy factory but now home to a sampling of galleries.
We rode the super-sleek, driverless METEOR subway (No. 14) east to the Bibliothèque Nationale, the area Parisian cool-hunters are calling the new Latin Quarter. At a café outside the MK2, a cinema complex designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, with 14 screens, three restaurants, and a lounge, young Parisian couples wearing iPods and sneakers were discussing the merits of the latest CD by Carla Bruni, the ex-model who once dated Jagger. We crossed the Pont de Tolbiac and poked around Rue Louise-Weiss, where gallery owners like Emmanuel Perrotin and Almine Rech attract a fashion-conscious crowd with their monthly vernissages. A neighboring bookshop named Images Modernes, owned by Bernard Picasso, caters to curious collectors flocking to what they refer to as Chelsea-sur-Seine.
At Balenciaga, on Avenue George V, we discovered a similar contemporary artistic spirit. Instead of hiring a traditional architect, the designer Nicolas Ghesquière had asked Alsatian artist Dominique Gonzales Foerster to transform the store into a kind of quasi-subterranean swimming pool—complete with an Yves Klein blue-painted underground passageway to the neighboring accessories boutique. Across town at Surface to Air, pouty punk rockers convened in turquoise miniskirts and matching leg warmers. And traditional perfume shops and pharmacies seemed to pale in comparison with places like Iunx on Rue de l'Université, where salesgirls in long black aprons dispense fresh, distinctive fragrances such as mint tea, zucchini flower, and a blend of linen, wheat, and wild rice. Or the Parfumerie Générale, off the Champs-Élysées, where Victoire de Taillac sells hard-to-find organic beauty products from the United States and Britain.
On my last day in Paris, I stopped by Loulou de la Falaise's shop in the heart of the Seventh Arrondissement. Here was a fashion muse if ever there was one, inspiring Saint Laurent for more than 30 years and creating his iconic accessories. The kaleidoscopic colors on the walls and the display cases filled with exotic beaded necklaces reminded me of the days when I used to sneak backstage at Saint Laurent's shows. Crouching in a corner with the photographer Roxanne Lowit, we would watch Loulou's every move and, mostly, what she wore—animal-print silk blouses, Russian Cossack jackets, brightly colored peasant skirts. Something about her style—their style—seemed so effortless and yet so unachievable. They represented old Paris, the part of the city that doesn't change even as the world around it does. Yet despite their bourgeois rigidity, the French have an uncanny ability to move with the times. And when Tom Ford took over the house of Saint Laurent, Loulou set about her own course of reinvention, creating a line of chic handbags, tartan kilts, and dramatic costume jewelry. Even the way her colorful boutique fit right into the cluster of traditional shops on Rue de Bourgogne seemed effortless.
I walked back to the hotel via my favorite route: up Rue Madame. The long afternoon light was casting a shadow across the street. Another generation of noisy kids with bulky satchels and freshly scrubbed faces pressed past me on their way to the gardens, just as they had 17 years before. Along the way I clocked my former shopping haunts. Jamin Puech was still selling its hippie macramé handbags, now sprinkled with old coins. In the window at Le Pont Traverse there was a first edition of Oscar Wilde for sale. Oona L'Ourse, the store where my Parisian pals used to buy those tiny Shetland sweaters for their babies, was still there, too. I ducked in to see if there was anything new—perhaps something for my son. It was a comforting place, but it felt claustrophobic. I didn't even bother to buy one of the adorable sweaters.
Back at the hotel I called Bibiane to say good-bye. She sounded agitated and distracted. She had just learned that she and her family were being evicted from their apartment on Rue de Grenelle, where they had lived for 20 years. I felt a pang of sadness; it was my first apartment in Paris, too. But Bibiane put a brave face on it.
"At first I was so pissed off," she said in her best truck driver slang. "I thought, Merde. Now I've come to accept it; in fact, I look at it as a good thing. Change is good."
At that moment, in that city, it seemed she was right.
NEXT GREAT NEIGHBORHOOD
Rue Louise-Weiss (the 13th)
Artists, collectors, and fashionistas are flocking to the Chelsea-like Rue Louise-Weiss in the 13th Arrondissement for monthly openings. With the new No. 14 Métro (Bibliothèque), it's only a 20-minute ride from the Place de la Madeleine in central Paris.
ON THE SCENE Artists like Konstantin Kakanias, Karen Kilimnik, and Fraser Sharp; fashion designers Marc Jacobs and Nicolas Ghesquière. THE EPICENTER Bernard Picasso's bookstore, Images Modernes (No. 11; 33-1/45-70-74-20; www.imagesmodernes.com). GO NOW Fall shows are up at all 10 neighborhood galleries. Highlights include round abstract photographs by Mariko Mori at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin (Nos. 5 and 30; 33-1/42-16-79-79), through October 31, and black-and-white images of farmhouses and oddly beautiful women by Norwegian photographer Torbjørn Rødland at Air de Paris (No. 32; 33-1/44-23-02-77), through November 8. After gallery-hopping, head to the MK2 Bibliothèque (128/162 Ave. de France; www.mk2.com), in front of the Bibliothèque Nationale. The ultramodern complex has three restaurants, a lounge, and a 14-screen cinema.
WHERE TO STAY
There are several new or refurbished grand hotels in Paris, but the Left Bank hotels that the French like to call hôtels de charme are preferable for their proximity to the Luxembourg Gardens and nearby cafés. Sometimes "charm" translates into minuscule, so make sure you ask for a deluxe room.
Hôtel Le Ste.-Beuve Interiors here are crisp and comfortable courtesy of David Hicks, but the real attraction is the location. Ask for room No. 22 on the top floor. DOUBLES FROM $143. 9 RUE STE.-BEUVE, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/45-48-20-07; www.paris-hotel-charme.com
Hôtel Verneuil Though the hotel is tiny, you would be hard-pressed to find a better deal in central Paris, just steps from Café Flore. There's minimal com-puter access and few modern amenities, but the service is great: Joseph the night watch-man will serve you coffee and juice on the morning of an early departure. DOUBLES FROM $159. 8 RUE DE VERNEUIL, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/42-60-82-14; www.hotelverneuil.com
Hôtel Montalembert They call it the Ritz of the Left Bank, and with reason: rooms are pricey (though bigger than most), service is very good, and every room has wireless Internet access. The restaurant is the lunch place for Paris's book-publishing world. In warm weather, opt for drinks or dinner on the terrace. DOUBLES FROM $330. 3 RUE DE MONTALEMBERT, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/45-49-68-68; www.montalembert.com
WHERE TO EAT
L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon Go early and try your luck at the door. LUNCH OR DINNER FOR TWO $114. 5 RUE DE MONTALEMBERT, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/42-22-56-56
Aux Lyonnais DINNER FOR TWO $64. 32 RUE ST.-MARC, SECOND ARR.; 33-1/42-96-65-04
R'Aliment DINNER FOR TWO $107. 57 RUE CHARLOT, EIGHTH ARR.; 33-1/48-04-88-28
Lavinia A sleek three-story wine-shop carrying thousands of wines, including vintages dating back to 1900. The restaurant serves salads and wines by the glass. LUNCH FOR TWO $80. 3-5 BLVD. DE LA MADELEINE, FIRST ARR.; 33-1/42-97-20-27
La Suite Best for drinks. DINNER FOR TWO $182. 40 AVE. GEORGE V, EIGHTH ARR.; 33-1/53-57-49-49
WHERE TO SHOP
Surface to Air 46 RUE DE L'ARBRE SEC, FIRST ARR.; 33-1/49-27-04-54; www.surface2air.com
Yves Saint Laurent 6 PLACE ST.-SULPICE (WOMEN'S), SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/43-29-43-00
12 PLACE ST.-SULPICE (MEN'S), SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/43-26-84-40
Du Pareil au Même For inexpensive preppy Parisian kids' clothes and shoes. The boys' striped cotton pajamas are a perennial favorite at $14 a pair. 14 RUE ST.-PLACIDE, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/45-44-04-40; www.dupareilaumeme.com
Oona L'Ourse Where the children in the Luxembourg Gardens get their Shetland sweaters and English Start Rite shoes. 72 RUE MADAME, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/42-84-11-94
Honoré The new Agnès B. of Paris. Hand-knit sweaters from Normandy and homemade teas by Com' Avan. 38 RUE MADAME, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/45-48-96-86
Le Rideau de Paris Florence Maeght (of Fondation Maeght in the south of France) sells quilts and curtains in reproduction 18th-century prints from Lyons. Custom-order anything. 32 RUE DU BAC, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/42-61-18-56; www.le-boutis.com
Simrane Indian cotton printed napkins, tablecloths, and accessories. 23 OR 25 RUE BONAPARTE, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/43-54-90-73 OR 33-1/46-33-98-71
Maria Luisa Fashion stylists flock to Maria Luisa Poumaillou for shopping guidance and sharply tailored pieces by, among others, Jean Paul Gaultier, Ann Demeulemeester, and Helmut Lang. 2 RUE CAMBON, FIRST ARR.; 33-1/47-03-48-08
Jamin Puech One-of-a-kind handbags at this Brazilian designer's original shop. 43 RUE MADAME, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/45-48-14-85
Le Pont Traverse Rare and used books. 62 RUE DE VAUGIRARD, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/45-48-06-48
Hervé Chapelier Brightly colored nylon bags of all sizes in which to carry everything home. 1 BIS RUE DU VIEUX-COLOMBIER, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/44-07-06-50
Ladurée The service is often sketchy, but it's worth the wait for the famous macaroons in 18 flavors. Also one of the last places in Paris to serve real Arabica coffee. 21 RUE BONAPARTE, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/44-07-64-87
Huilerie Artisanale J. Leblanc et Fils A petite shop stocked with delicious hand-pressed oils made from olives, pignoli, and pistachios. 6 RUE JACOB, SIXTH ARR.; 33-1/46-34-61-55
Café Croix Rouge For open-faced sandwiches on toasted Poilâne bread. PLACE DE LA CROIX ROUGE, SIXTH ARR.
Aux Fins Gourmet Bistro classics like steak frites and cassoulet. 213 BLVD. ST.-GERMAIN, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/42-22-06-57
Balenciaga Nicolas Ghesquière's recently renovated flagship has tailored pantsuits and knitwear; don't miss the amazing selection of handbags in the accessories boutique. 10 AVE. GEORGE V, EIGHTH ARR.; 33-1/47-20-21-11
Éditions des Parfums Frédéric Malle This is the place for unique fragrances by the masters of the trade. 37 RUE DE GRENELLE, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/42-22-77-22
Parfumerie Générale Victoire de Taillac's shop is packed with hard-to-find imported organic beauty products. 6 RUE ROBERT-ESTIENNE, EIGHTH ARR.; 33-1/43-59-10-62
Christophe Robin Models swear by the haircare products from one of the great colorists. 7 RUE MONT-THABOR, FIRST ARR.; 33-1/42-60-99-15
Iris The trendiest designer shoes: Marc Jacobs peek-toe pumps, Michel Perry bondage boots, and gladiator sandals by Pierre Hardy. 28 RUE DE GRENELLE, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/42-22-89-81
Bonton The creators of Bonpoint have given birth to this loftlike emporium specializing in vegetable-dyed cotton separates for newborns to 12-year-olds, and to the cute kids' barbershop next door. 82 RUE DE GRENELLE, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/44-39-09-20
Iunx Olivia Giacobetti stirs up the French fragrance scene with delicious scents, such as mint, linen, wheat, and honey. 48-50 RUE DE L'UNIVERSITÉ, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/45-44-50-14
Loulou de la Falaise The boutique of Yves Saint Laurent's former muse is filled with vibrant leather-trimmed handbags and equally bold baubles. 7 RUE DE BOURGOGNE, SEVENTH ARR.; 33-1/45-51-42-22; www.loulou-de-la-falaise.com