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Undiscovered Paris: Je T'Aime

Eika Aoshima Tourists and Parisians enjoy an outdoor cafe.

Photo: Eika Aoshima

I was born and raised in Paris, and yet it is only now, as a visitor, that I can wander the city of my childhood at will. "What were you doing there?" asks my sister, who has lived in Paris all her life. She is visibly annoyed whenever I tell her about exploring some little-known corner of the city. In her Parisian book of etiquette, idle curiosity is a sign of social anxiety.

Irritating as it may be to some Parisians, the flow of tourists is as much a part of the city's urban texture as is the river that traverses it. Like the Seine, this stream of visitors is channeled through the neighborhoods on the river's Left and Right Banks. Few sightseers venture beyond this area, with all its museums, monuments, and shops. But the daring explorer who escapes this gilded cage is never sorry. The minute he walks into a café-tabac and asks, "Où est le Métro Bolivar, s'il vous plaît?" he has made the city his own.

If you are in an adventurous mood, go east. Enclaves in this part of Paris—the 10th, 11th, 12th, 13th, 19th, and 20th Arrondissements—have retained some of their rural character and are now colonized by young bourgeois in search of the bohemian lifestyle. Although eager sightseers are never far behind these stylish real estate pioneers, you can still find unspoiled areas that are quietly sensational—non- médiatisé, or "not publicized," as the French like to say.

To discover them, you may have to get lost. Follow a resident into a courtyard (saying a polite "Après vous, Madame" as you hold the gate for her), to see what's around the corner. Rather than making a beeline to the most happening addresses in this suddenly chic eastern crescent (you've heard of the Rue Oberkampf, haven't you?), take a more roundabout approach. Because you cannot actually plan to get lost, the following destinations are great starting points. They include some of my favorite hidden haunts, boutiques, sights, bistros, and landmarks on the east side of my hometown.

Zigzagging in the 10th
I sometimes start my peregrinations by nosing around the wholesale district at the eastern end of the Rue de Paradis. A paradise indeed, if you are as fascinated as I am by the French-country porcelain called faïence. Almost all the stores—some specializing in fancy crystal, others in sturdy crockery—are open to the public. The most welcoming is La Tisanière Porcelaine, an intimate shop jammed with teetering piles of dishes and a wide range of charming 18th-century reproductions, some originally designed for Marie Antoinette.

Around the corner, on Rue d'Hauteville, the 18th century is alive and well at the Hôtel de Bourrienne, a small palace open by appointment only. Behind its ordinary façade, the mansion retains its original (and thus slightly musty) Empire décor. You'll be able to imagine what it was like to be Napoleon's wife, as Josephine did indeed sleep here in one of the delicately ornate bedrooms.

Another destination in the 10th is that great old railroad station, the Gare de L'Est. After a stop in the main waiting room to pay homage to a monumental Norman Rockwell—style painting of young World War I soldiers embarking for the front, I too head east. Taking a shortcut across Square Villemin, I reach the graceful bend of the Canal St.-Martin, on the tree-lined Quai de Valmy. The breathtaking sight of the vaulted footbridges over the placid water usually incites me to stop at L'Atmosphère, a bistro on Rue Lucien-Sampaix. I lean on the wooden bar, order a glass of Pinot Noir, and watch corpulent barges negotiate the locks that regulate their gradual descent toward the Seine.

Moving as slowly as the water itself, I work my way downstream to Antoine et Lili, a colorful "village" on the Quai de Valmy made up of a boutique, a florist, and a restaurant. These form a poetic world thanks to a mix of ethnic, kitsch, and naïve objets. The menu changes daily, depending on "le feeling" of the chef, but a spicy "feuilleté Ali Baba" is likely to supplant the traditional croque-monsieur.

Across the canal, at the end of Avenue Richerand, stands an enticing pavilion in the same style as Place Dauphine. Without asking permission, I pass through its portal into what looks like a bastion. Beyond the first courtyard is the majestic and peaceful quadrangle of the Hôpital St.-Louis, one of the oldest hospitals in Paris. The spacious garden is surrounded by cheerful brick-and-stone façades, their steep slate roofs accented by classic dormer windows. In this leafy sanctum, forgotten by busy Parisians, one can taste a silence four centuries old.

Trend-Spotting in the 11th
Overrun but still worth the detour, the Rue Oberkampf, in the 11th Arrondissement, is the gateway to one of Paris's most talked-about neighborhoods. But don't expect picturesque sights: here, people-watching is the main event. The street is a catwalk for Parisians doing their utmost to be "très looké." During a recent lunch at Café Charbon, I was so distracted by the couple at the next table that I had trouble concentrating on the menu. (Too bad I understand French; I might have been spared the details of their amorous afternoon.)

I prefer the quieter Robinet Mélangeur, a small bistro on Boulevard de Ménilmontant. This shaded esplanade off Rue Oberkampf is fast becoming as hot as Boulevard St.-Germain was in its existentialist heyday. The new generation of Sartres and de Beauvoirs are called anars, for "anarchists," and despite their facial hair and nose rings, they still look incredibly chic.

The Robinet, with its bright red walls, hearty plats du jour, and housemade tarts, is a well-kept secret for loyal 11th Arrondissement gourmands. My favorite seat is a banquette by the window, from which I can observe the 20th Arrondissement, across the boulevard. Throngs of people press flesh at the Montagnard and the Brasserie Le Soleil, popular cafés with impromptu terraces made up of mismatched tables and chairs set out on the sunny sidewalk.

The "it" destinations for the branché set: the Place de la Bastille and the busy Rue du Faubourg St.-Antoine, along with the maze of small streets east of them, Rue de Lappe and Rue de Charonne in particular. Droves of chic Parisians migrate to the noisy La Fabrique or the bustling Chez Paul. A cherished haunt of mine is Pause Café Bastille, one of the most popular places to see and be seen east of the Café de Flore—or so I was told after a friend and I happened upon it one afternoon. Within minutes, the little watering hole had worked its magic on us. We felt so mellow watching a bevy of slender customers nonchalantly chatting on tiny cell phones that when a light rain started, we didn't bother to leave the terrace for a drier spot. Eventually my friend opened an umbrella and insisted I take a picture for her folks back home in West Virginia. And indeed, sitting there among the locals with her rumpled raincoat, wet hair, and devilish smile, she looked as deliciously French as anyone I had ever met.


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