Rick Steves’ Europe: A double date with Paris
There’s a spot in Paris where I like to share my macarons. Pulling the ribbon on the tiny box — gilded with tradition and a flair for good living — and sharing them here is the perfect start for a double date with my favorite travel partner and my favorite city.
Nibbling together our pastel macarons — rose, lavender, peach, and pistachio — we dangle our legs over the tip of the island that splits the Seine River and the city — one bank on the left, the other on the right. Behind us towers Notre Dame — its rebuilding after a tragic fire is a testimony to the city’s embrace of its heritage. And ahead of us are bridges, celebrating kings and emperors with medallions — also gilded — glinting in the morning sun.
Paris is a city for walking, hand in hand, with just the right travel partner. And it’s a city for being in the moment. In a tiny park on that same island, we get sensual: We listen like a poet…as pétanque balls crack against each other and old-timers cackle. We see like an artist. Finding a pond with water lilies and children pushing tiny boats with sticks…we share a Monet moment.
Celebrating the chance to become temporary Parisians, we vow to be cultural chameleons, to blend in…to join in. We relish the differences (like poodles actually sitting on chairs in cafés). We find comfort in the similarities (like children working on their social skills in the sandbox at the Place des Vosges).
We mimic the relaxed sidewalk dance of couples, old as our parents and still in love — with each other and the city they’ve called home all their lives. At a market street, we’re reminded how the city, while grand, is really a collection of neighborhoods. We give strawberries in the market the sniff test like locals do. We covet the countless goat cheeses spilling from the fromagerie onto sidewalk racks. We watch, happily ignored, as chance meetings of friends are followed by the sweet little popping sound of two air kisses just beyond each cheek — or four if it’s been a long time.
Even though we’re not really hungry, two rattan chairs and a rickety table at the corner bistro are just too inviting to ignore. Settling in, we celebrate the unfamiliar — thankful that we really do like snails...if they come with enough garlic. With the curiously appetizing sound of the knife slicing the crusty baguette, we know another woven basket piled with crunchy bread is on the way…the better to soak up every bit of that buttery sauce. As we enjoy a glass of wine, we ponder the countless love affairs that can be blamed on Paris, pretending to turn down past Parisian romantics — from Frédéric Chopin to Edith Piaf to Ernest Hemingway — for each other. With tandem anticipation, we cock our ears to enjoy the mouthwatering sound of the little spoon cracking through the crème brûlée. And then, we nibble it slowly.
A dainty bird lights on the adjacent chair, taking a sweet break from her daily chores. She cocks her little head at us and blinks — as if reminding us of our mantra in Paris: There’s more to life than increasing its speed. As we experience new things, we pause…we reflect…settling ever deeper into our wicker chairs, we sip a pastis, that anise-flavored liqueur that demands you just sit and let the experience breathe…so Parisian.
Climbing the steps of Montmartre, we grab a perch at the top. From here, we survey the city as it sprawls before us. France, like every country, has a soul…and a combination of the art, the history, the people, and their struggles creates that soul. We ponder how, for generations, it’s been the fringe of Parisian society who’ve enjoyed this perch — the bohemians of each age. We celebrate the edginess.
There’s a kind of communion here, on the romantic steps of Montmartre. As we snuggle, strangers around us cuddle too. They may be of a different generation, a different nationality, speak a different language...but there’s a oneness. It’s a kind of intimacy — surrounded by strangers also on a double date with Paris — that makes this shared travel experience even richer.
Looking out over the grandest city in Europe, the sun sets, and the “City of Light” starts to turn itself on. District by district, neighborhoods are illuminated, the monuments slowly glowing brighter in their floodlighting. And then, at the top of the hour, the Eiffel Tower — like a constellation in the Parisian sky — twinkles. It’s Paris — a city we love and a city for love.
Putting our phones away, thankful we have nothing scheduled but time together, we’ve created a memory we will forever share. It’s a moment when we connect — with the past, with the culture, and with each other.
(Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This column revisits some of Rick's favorite places over the past two decades. You can email Rick at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.)
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