by Stacia Friedman
I admit it. I had grown numb to reports of daily violence. The school shootings. Children caught in the crossfire of North Philly drug wars. Even the recent plane bombing in the Sinai. These senseless murders happen with such frequency, the evening news might be a loop tape. But when the entire city of Paris was terrorized, something inside me broke open.
I know Paris. Its distinct neighborhoods, its outdoor creperies, its beguiling aromas, its Metro. I have been going there since 1967, pulled back each time by the desire to discover yet another dimension of the most beautiful city in the world. Is that a cliché? Probably. But that doesn’t make it any less true.
Paris architecture, its majestic boulevards and the charm of its narrow cobblestone streets have been likened to Philadelphia. Especially the Ben Franklin Parkway. But what’s missing here is the reverence for a perfectly baked baguette, a scarf knotted just so and a culture that requires — demands — saying “Bonjour” before asking a shop owner if they have an item in your size.
My childhood images of Paris were formed partly by Hollywood movies (“Funny Face” and “Gigi”) and partly by the shrill recital of verbs by my French teacher at Lower Merion High. Even with the help of a tutor, I was a C student and came away from high school with only one French sentence committed to memory. “He wants to follow a road that leads to glory.”
I was told my pronunciation was quite good, but when I finally arrived in Paris, my one sentence was of no help in getting through the day. I recall entering a restaurant, studying the menu and bravely ordering some kind of beef, potatoes, a beverage and dessert. When the waitress brought me a burger, French fries, a Coke and apple pie, I was sure she was mocking me. But who knows? Perhaps that’s what I ordered.
Over the years, my visits to Paris have reframed my attitude about the capital of France. Rather than follow the suggestions of guidebooks, I get tips from friends who live there, both ex-pats and Parisians. As a result, I’ve learned that Paris, much like Philly, is comprised of many neighborhoods, each with its own unique character. Passy, in the 16th arrondisement, is the Gladwyne of Paris, where neurosurgeons, lawyers and their manicured wives reside in luxury.
This is where a former Bala Cynwyd native (who married a French golf pro) took me to a Sephora, years before the popular beauty purveyor came to the U.S. I snatched up as many products as I could fit in my luggage, not realizing Sephora would soon be at every Philly shopping mall.
Israeli friends told me to go to the Marais, the former Jewish quarter, on Sundays for the best falafel in Paris. The Marais is the Gayborhood of Paris, filled with cafes, boutiques and nightclubs. This is where you might see a bearded Hasid on one side of the street and a pink-haired punk rocker on the other. It’s also where languages come to mingle. You might hear Hebrew, French, Arabic, Italian and German at the same café.
I once spent an entire week investigating the 7th Arrondisement in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. My focus? Rue Cler, one of the high-end street markets in Paris. Think 9th Street on steroids. This is where discriminating Parisian hostesses come to sniff the best cheeses, pinch the finest peaches and eyeball the freshest fish. I stayed in a little hotel on the same block as the food stalls and lined up every morning with locals for croissant and coffee at the corner bakery.
You know how you simply can’t get a decent cheesesteak or hoagie outside of Philly? Same goes for Parisian breads and pastries outside of France. Sure, they have croissants at every Starbucks and in the freezer case at Acme. But, it’s like comparing airplane food in economy class to fine dining at Vetri. Some say it’s because of the water in Paris. Some say it’s because of the air.
Or the farm fresh French butter. I say it’s because of the Parisian insistence on quality. A Parisian woman would rather pay $400 for one well-made wool skirt than have a closet full of cheap clothes. They apply the same attitude to food. And romance.
In America, we live to work. To attain wealth, power and security. In Paris, they live to celebrate the human spirit. The first question we ask here is, “What do you do?” In Paris, they ask, “What do you think about…?” During these troubling days, I am thinking about the darkness that has befallen the City of Light and what can be done to turn the lights back on again.
Mt. Airy resident Stacia Friedman is an author, satirist and lover of the finer things in life. Like Paris.