Before Renting a Long-Term Apartment, Try Out Different Neighborhoods

Written by admin on September 3, 2009 – 1:52 pm -

Bonjour Paris is constantly receiving emails from people who are moving to Paris. One of the most frequently asked questions is where to rent an apartment. Such queries are from people who are relocating to Paris for six months or more and don’t simply want digs for a week or two. If that’s the case, renting in the “wrong” quartier isn’t fatal. Chalk it up to experience and a chance to explore a different part of the city.

But living here permanently—or at least for a longish time—is something else. Unlike Americans, the French tend to stay put and generally don’t move unless they’re really pressed for space or have either struck it rich—or are among the nouveaux poor.

Moving is such a pain that even Parisians dread it. Just navigating through the quagmire of utility companies’ documents, waiting for phone hook-ups, and registering and re-registering everything can give the most organized person a mega-headache. And the same applies if you’re just moving in for the first time. The result is that expats, like the French, tend to say put, which can make us insular.

Because of this phenomenon, I decided to test drive another neighborhood, and borrowed an apartment in the seventh arrondissement. Don’t get me wrong: it’s not as if I haven’t been to the 7eme countless times. But spending just three days in residence gave me an entirely different perspective.

I stayed in a Paris Perfect apartment on Avenue de La Bourdonnais. Its living room had a balcony with bird’s-eye view of the Eiffel Tower. Looking a bit further, I could see the Trocadero. I could also see the Champs de Mars and, to the left, the not-so-wonderful Tour Montparnasse.

After getting settled, I immediately hit the pavement and walked the familiar area, but discovered streets, places, and things I’d never seen before such as an incredible Art Nouveau building on Avenue Rapp, designed by Jules Lavirotte, plus (amazingly) free-standing houses that are either occupied by government officials or are private residences.

The shopping street, the Rue Cler, is one of the most renowned in Paris and attracts people from all over the city. A mixture of stores and restaurants, it tends to be busy as people go from stall to stall talking and buying from their favorite vendors.

I’d certainly been through the neighborhood many times, but it was usually when I was escorting visitors to the Eiffel Tower (which I no longer do) or visiting a close friend whose living –room window is about a hundred yards from the Great Parisian Erector Set. So, this was an opportunity to take my time, sit among residents at a local café that was filled with people trailing dogs and children and listen to them talk about vacations and dependents whether they be canine or their off-spring. But the veterinarian’s clinic remained open the entire month.

Walking along the Rue St. Dominique I fell into two of my favorite restaurants that happily were open. Christian Constant is one of my culinary heroes, whom I have known since he headed the kitchen at the Crillon Hotel. When he struck out on his own (and his many disciples opened their restaurants), he added a new dimension to the Parisian culinary scene. Feeling as if I were home again, one night I ate at Café Constant and another evening was spent at Les Cocottes.

Even though the majority of the clients were tourists and more English and Japanese was heard being spoken than French, the master chef and his wife Catherine have trained their staffs to go all out to cater to each and every client. The wait staff is professional, accommodating and speak English.

More importantly, they don’t have an attitude that they’ll never see these diners again and don’t need to care, unlike many restaurants in touristy areas like this which offer indifferent service and mediocre food at high prices to weary tourists who may not be restaurant savvy.

Dinner at Café Constant was first-rate. But the highlight of my eating in the area was Les Cocottes. It’s the perfect place to go even if you’re alone or with a friend (or more) since it’s bar seating with some high tables that accommodate four people.

The food—served primarily in cast iron Staub casseroles, which makes sense since that is what cocottes means—is very hot. But not so hot that I didn’t devour the entrée of the day, thick creamy lobster bisque with crab and moved right onto a fish that had been baked to perfection in its black casserole. My dining companion had a lamb dish, which he pronounced delicious.

It’s a sin to eat and not to eat the tarte au chocalat, one of Constant’s trademark desserts. It’s rich enough that two people can share it and not feel in the least bit cheated.

Because Les Cocottes doesn’t take reservations, be prepared to wait; don’t despair—the restaurant has excellent moderately priced wines, available by the carafe, and tapas—so you won’t starve and might meet some interesting people if you care to socialize.

My brief indoctrination to the seventh arrondissment made me realize that unless you start your day at the bakery (and invariably some are better than others and you can tell by the lines in front of them before they open at 7:00 a.m.) and end your day in the same neighborhood, you don’t really get a sense of it, including public transportation which in this part of town means buses more often than the Métro.

A final thought: don’t think the 7eme is homogeneous. Living on the east side of the Champs de Mars, where I stayed, is totally different from living on the west side. The east side—a triangle formed roughly by the Champs, the École Militaire, and Les Invalides—is an ordinary, if increasingly pricey, Parisian neighborhood with shops and cafés on most ground floors and apartments above. On the other side of the park, the buildings, of the most imposing of the Haussmann style, are a bit frigid and commerce seems to know its place, which is not in those buildings. It is quieter there, but perhaps a lot less interesting—but surely a place worth scouting out on another occasion, just to be sure.

After staying in the 7eme, albeit briefly, I feel a sense of ownership and certainly a great deal more familiarity with the area. If I were moving to Paris again, I’d like to stay in different areas of the city before plunking down money for a permanent apartment. Your work location or your children’s schools may influence the decision. But the city’s transportation system is so good you may have a lot of options.

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Posted in Paris |

Have the French Become Less Food Conscious?

Written by admin on June 6, 2009 – 11:55 am -

A newly released book, Au Revoir to All That: Food, Wine, and the End of France by Michael Steinberger believes that chefs in other countries are taking center stage in the arena of cuisine. The American journalist and wine expert’s premise is that food in France is no longer what it used to be and it’s on a spiraling permanent decline. Can it be reversed before it’s too late? From personal experience, I think he may have a valid point but refuse to believe French food won’t continue to a contender for some of the best in the world.

How well I remember a trip throughout France in May 1968. It was an eating orgy where the itinerary was planned with a Michelin Red Guide in one hand and a map in the other. We drove 3,000 kilometers in the new car we’d picked up in Germany that would be shipped to the US. What we saved on the price of the car paid for our vacation. Plus we were getting 10 French francs to the dollar which was probably the best currency exchange rate-timing ever. In retrospect, rather than simply eating, why didn’t we buy property?

What an indelible impression that trip made. We drove from town to town to eat and to absorb the culture. We underestimated how long the driving would take on the two lane roads and how we would be forced to forego many of the sites that were highlighted in our green Michelin Guide. In reality, we were in France to eat and drove seven hours to eat at Paul Bocuse’s restaurant on the outskirts of Lyon. In spite of curtailing the urge to have our faces fall into our plates (and they kept coming), the meal was so memorable I still remember the menu.

It was a personal turning point when food and wine became an integral part of my life. I took cooking classes and spent hours with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Thank goodness there was a French Market in Washington, DC, where you could buy special cuts of beef, incredible produce and pay double what you’d have to in the supermarket up the street.

It used to be hard to get a bad meal in France but you can now. There’s no longer the same pride in cuisine as there was less than 25 years ago.  The glory, grandeur, starched white table clothes with food being served by waiters, who consider their work a profession and one of which to be proud, is on the wane.

Paris’s former New Yorker correspondent Adam Gopnik published an article in 1997 suggesting that French food had become “rigid, sentimental, dull and incredibly expensive.” Gopnik said, the “muse of cooking had moved on to New York, San Francisco, Sydney and London. In these cities, the restaurants exude a dynamism that was increasingly hard to find in Paris.”

In addition, the French were cooking less at home than ever before, and pre-packaged and processed food had made enormous inroads into daily life. The French still eat out a lot, but they don’t have the same type of disposable income.

In 1960, France had 200,000 cafés and now it has fewer than 40,000. Many of them were replaced by fast-food chains and McDonald’s where’s there’s high turnover and big profits. There are more than 1,000 McDonald’s and the chain has become France’s largest private-sector employer. And even though many people swore that McDonald’s would never succeed, France is the second most profitable market for it worldwide.

French vintners are also feeling the pain from increased global competition and perhaps more important, the French are currently drinking 50% of the wine they did in the 1960’s.

This isn’t to imply that you can’t get wonderful food in France. Stellar chefs such as Christian Constant trained some of the people, who have become Paris’s best chefs, when he headed to the kitchen at the Crillon Hotel, and can take credit for inaugurating a less expensive but more innovative type of cuisine found at many three-star restaurants. Sadly, some of them may have been floating on their past reputations and all of them are incredibly expensive.

Many of Constant’s disciples have gone on to create small restaurants with wonderful food but without lavish décor and ostentatious surroundings. Pascal Barbot, who struck out and opened L’Astrance was awarded a third Michelin star in 2007, when he was only 34. Barbot is the most revered of the group of young stars. And let’s hope the French government enables small restaurateurs to realize a profit during this difficult economy via taxation. 

Some feel the French have become complacent about their gastronomic heritage. I refuse to believe that and am optimistic this has been a temporary aberration plus people worldwide have become increasingly interested in good food and are more discerning than when France had a hold on gourmet cuisine.

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Posted in Around the World |