The modern world has killed travel, or has at least given it a painful injury.
Perhaps you’ve always wanted to go to Paris. It’s on your bucket list, and, not that it matters, but until Morgan Freeman explained what the phrase means did you know you were supposed to have one?
So you go to Paris. Maybe you go to the Louvre and admire the many masterpieces there. The art is overwhelming, but there’s nothing about being in the Louvre that helps you understand what Paris is about. You’re experiencing a museum, not the essence of the city.
You take some photos of Notre Dame, until you realize you’re probably the 405,672,972nd person to take the exact same photos from the exact same spots. You add a selfie, which is, at least, unique: All the other selfies taken from the exact same spot have different faces in the foreground.
Still no essence of Paris, although there’s no question, seeing Notre Dame in all its grandeur isn’t something even the best photo can capture. In that respect it’s close kin to the Grand Canyon, which, if you haven’t seen it in person, at dawn, should be on your bucket list because really, all you can do when you look out over its expanse is to say, “Oh.” And then, “Oh.”
You shop for something special to bring home as a keepsake. In every store along the Champs-Elysees you discover the curse of globalization: Their merchandise is no different from what you can find here in Minnesota at the Mall of America, and probably at the shopping mall nearest your home.
My wife and I will be joining my parents in Paris over the holiday. While we haven’t been to Paris often enough to be blasé, we’ve been there enough times to discover a few secrets.
One is that simply walking around is a marvelous way to get a sense of the place. We’ll be bringing our hiking shoes, along with dressier footwear for nights out.
A second is that, in many of the churches and cathedrals, there are concerts. Our last time there we heard Paul Rouger with a string quintet in Sainte-Chapelle. There was nothing about the concert that was less than extraordinary, and that it was there, and sounded like that, was in its own way the essence of Paris.
Then there was Chez Agnes (pronounced “an-YAY”).
For every restaurant in the Michelin Guide, there are another dozen where the food is outstanding. Our last time in Paris we were hungry well before Parisians tend to start thinking about dinner. So we left our hotel and wandered. Chez Agnes beckoned — who were we to turn away?
We entered an unprepossessing room that might have been able to seat 32 people at a time, along with a stove, oven, refrigerator and freezer.
And Agnes, with pots, pans, and English that was, if possible, worse than my French.
Those in France who have experienced my French would tell you that no, it really isn’t possible, but Agnes came close. And yet, as we were the only souls in the place that early, we managed a conversation in between the aperitifs she pushed upon us and the several courses of truly brilliant food she served us.
We heard about her dog who had recently passed on. We heard about the time Rick Steves paid her a call. We talked about life, the universe, and whatever came to mind … I don’t recall any of the specifics but do recall the three of us enjoying each other’s company as if we’d been friends for decades.
Agnes was, in a word, a character. She was also, in another word, an artiste — the food she served us was in every respect the equal of meals we ate in far tonier and more expensive venues.
And, if you’ll permit me two more words, Agnes was good people.
When we finished our repasts, we learned we hadn’t actually finished them, because Agnes placed our desserts in front of us. To be clear, we hadn’t ordered dessert because we had no confidence we’d have any place to put it. But there it was, and there was only one thing to do.
We ordered espresso. Sharon asked for hers avec crème.
“NON!” Agnes shouted, aghast. “Pourquoi?” we asked, nonplussed.
“Because,” she explained (in French and I hope you appreciate me for translating), “if you have cream in your coffee or espresso after 9 pm or so, it will ruin your digestion.”
“And also,” she continued, “if you do, everyone will know you’re tourists!”
Voila! We had discovered the essence of Paris.
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That’s all for 2014. I’m taking the rest of the year off. Have a marvelous holiday season, whatever holiday or holidays you celebrate. I recommend holidays … there isn’t one of them that isn’t worth at least a grin no matter what your background is.
See you in 2015.
Loved this column! My only time in Paris was two or three days in 1955 or 56 when I was a Coast Guard cadet. Had little money so toured on foot and on the metro, saw one variety show. Never got a meal like yours with Agnes!
My husband sent this to me and I wondered why until I read to the end. We had almost the exact same experience except it was in Italy in a small city, Arezzo — just change the name of the proprietor to Giovanni and he speaking Italian and we singing Broadway songs since that was our common English 🙂 That was in 1997 … thanks for sharing! Peace, health and happiness for the New Year.w
Have a safe and fun trip!
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