Want to find the hidden joys of one of Europe’s most iconic destinations? T+L shows you how.
Visit “The Big Neighborhood”
T+L's Guide to Secret Paris
Visit “The Big Neighborhood”
Time for an American bakery metaphor: imagine the cinnamon bun–shaped map of Paris. Now slice a large wedge from the top section. You’ll end up cutting the Ninth, 10th, 17th, 18th, and 19th Arrondissements, or what Sébastien Guénard, the chef at the fêted Abbesses bistro Miroir, calls “le grand quartier.” In the short time since I’ve moved to the area, I’ve watched the steady onslaught of gentrification (Hello, Kiehl’s; thanks for popping up, Comme des Garçons pocket shop). The same is true for Pigalle and Notre-Dame-de-Lorette, just to the south; Batignolles, to the west (the rest of the 17th was already pretty haute-bourgeois); the Canal St.-Martin, in the 10th; Belleville, in the 19th and 20th; and other areas in the 19th that surround the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. I’ll add the Oberkampf piece of the 11th to the east, too; though it’s not geographically in le grand quartier, it shares the same earthy spirit.
There are few major tourist landmarks in these areas, except the Palais Garnier opera house and the Butte-Montmartre, a hectic scene whose kitschy church of Sacré-Coeur and pseudo-artists I avoid like a tropical disease. If you’re afraid you might miss Paris’s traditional beauty wandering outward a bit from the attraction-heavy center, know that while Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s grand boulevards and soaring town houses have become the de facto look of Paris, his 1860’s overhaul homogenized a lot of the city’s architecture. In fact, the areas he left alone (Montmartre’s dollhouse scale and picturesque steps; the Marais’ medieval warrens) are more apt reminders of the Paris of long ago.
As with so many “outer” neighborhoods that are now “in,” the traditional working-class immigrant population of the northeast has been di
I was only supposed to stay for two months. It was early 2006, my father had just passed away, and I was courting massive burnout. When a saintly friend offered me a free room in his three-bedroom apartment in St.-Germain-des-Prés, I booked my ticket. Okay, I thought. Get away, learn a little French, smell the rosé, and come back fresh. But Paris had other plans for me. The way the apricot light at sunset bounced off its pale façades; the slower pace of life; the disdain for hysterical consumerism and the workaholism it requires; the tragic, fascinating history and the civic pride that comes with having survived it; the neighborhood markets, the organic markets, even the supermarkets, filled with readily available terroir: before my sojourn was up, I was hooked. When I discovered that I could buy an apartment for about half of what I’d spend back in Brooklyn, the choice was practically made for me.
As grateful as I was for the free digs, St.-Germain is a better neighborhood for finding a luxury handbag than a couple of lemons and a six-pack of Kronenbourg. But the perch I settled on, in Montmartre’s little village of Abbesses, is fit for my kind of living: relaxed, friendly, and pleasantly cacophonous. It’s been almost five years and several swings of currency later, and with every passing day, my roots grow deeper. Despite the bureaucracy (which is even worse than people say), the occasional explosions of nastiness (Parisian manners are either baroque or shockingly bad), and the weird in-between-ness of expat life, it would take a government intervention to get me to leave.
In the time from being a visitor to setting up house, I’ve learned that the Paris I live in is a much lovelier place than the one I had ever known before. The city’s deeply grooved tourist tracks—St.-Germain, the First, the Latin Quarter, the Champs-Élysées—have much worth seeing, but compared with the life I live in the 18th Arrondissement, they feel slick and prefab, like a gift set of experiences shoved brusquely through a revolving door. In spite of being the world’s most visited urban center, and the proliferation of Subway sandwich shops, the occasional Starbucks, and all those homegrown luxury companies gone multinational, the city is fueled by mom-and-pop businesses that allow it to maintain a profoundly, sometimes anarchically, idiosyncratic character. During an interview I did with the British actress Jane Birkin recently, she joked that France is a nation of soloists, incapable of forming an orchestra, and this is especially true in the capital city, which houses 10 million of the country’s boisterously unique, queue-jumping citoyens. The expressiveness, eccentricity, and drama on display here are rivaled only by New York City at its most vibrant. It’s in the farther-flung corners, the parts of the city less manicured for the consumption of outsiders, where you find the earthiness that mellows that bad temper, and where you more clearly see what makes Paris one of the most authentically charming places on earth.