Want to find the hidden joys of one of Europe’s most iconic destinations? T+L shows you how.
Please Stay on the Grass
T+L's Guide to Secret Paris
Please Stay on the Grass
If you’re a toddler, the Jardin de Luxembourg, in the Sixth, with its padded-ground play space and rental toy boats, is ideal. To me, the sight of all that gravel and roped-off lawns is torture. I guess my southern California upbringing begs for a park where you can actually sit on the grass wherever you please. For its location, its relative peace, and its 61 acres of shaggy, totally open greenery, the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont is bohemian Paris’s favorite picnic spot. And on the weekends, thanks to the in-park wine-and-snack bar Rosa Bonheur, it’s a major scene. If you’re in search of an only-in-Paris experience, head to the Pavillon du Chemin de Fer, inside the park’s southern border, well before dark, and make sure to get on the right side of the barricades the house erects around 7 p.m., when the party begins. Once the stanchions go up, those unlucky enough to be on the other side must wait in a brutally long line to get onto the patio (or catapult themselves over the barricades, as several girls in American Apparel rompers pulled off the last time I was there). Under colored Christmas lights, a hip crowd—a mix of fashion, advertising, and art types—drinks enough rosé and eats enough saucisson to give a nutritionist fits.
Occupying a different spot on the socioeconomic spectrum is the majestic Parc Monceau, which lies between the 17th and the top of the Eighth in the fancy Ternes district. Every time I pass by the park’s grand, gold-tipped, 19th-century gates, I am struck by the desire to walk barefoot. Planted in the English style, the abundant flowers and trees feel a bit wilder than in your typically manicured French gard
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.