Paris perambulations

The worst French onion soup I ever had was in France.

It happened last week at a cozy bistro in Paris’ hip Le Marais district, a minor hiccup, though major faux pas, amid a constellation of remarkable meals I savored during my most recent travel escapade — eight days in Paris, the greatest city on the planet. 

I love onion soup, French style, but I never have it. Where do you get an authentic bowl? Well, try France. And so I did. Yet something went wrong. No, lots went wrong. The oily brown broth tasted OK — sweet, savory beef stock — but the onions themselves were pitifully scarce and, much worse, it was topped with small, stale, store-bought croutons and a grisly pile of clearly processed shredded cheese from a ziplock bag, cheese that was not Gruyere or Parmesan or melted.

I’ve had better onion soup in New Jersey. This was a disgrace. Only once, maybe twice, have I ever sent a dish back. I didn’t mutter a complaint about the soup. I didn’t want to shame anyone. Partly that’s because I also ordered escargot and it was pretty delicious — hot, plump mollusks drenched in garlic and olive oil. This was, of course, my purposely clichéd French meal. It had to be done, despite being a half fail.  

Saddest onion soup in the world

But I don’t travel for the greatest bowl of onion soup (or do I?). I do it for the explosive newness, to be pried out of my home-addled head and relocated to the novel and exotic, to live, learn, experience. To find joy, or even fear. To escape the self and kick open doors. To move, move, move. To seek, discover. To be astonished. 

Instead of my usual Paris haunt the Latin Quarter, I stayed in the aforementioned Le Marais on the Right Bank, a village of winding cobblestone streets, haute boutiques, LGBTQ cool, cafes, bars and trend-setting ambiance. It’s kind of fantastic. 

As usual I walked miles around the city till my toes blistered. Transportation-wise, I eschewed the Metro and instead hailed Ubers and taxis. After years of scrappy, lo-fi travel, I felt I deserved the convenience and ease of environmentally devastating vehicles. I’ll call it what it was: shameful, privileged laziness. It was a marvelously stupid decision that cost me hours in choking traffic and hundreds of precious dollars. I get all sad just thinking about it.

But the destinations, after I popped from the cars with a chirpy “Merci beaucoup!,” almost always assuaged the grief and guilt. There were of course essential standbys — the Louvre, D’Orsay, the legendary Shakespeare & Co. bookshop, the bone-encrusted Catacombs — but I added new spots to my well-trod Paris itinerary. 

Louvre

Like the avant-garde exhibition space Palais de Tokyo, where an impenetrable show by German artist Anne Imhof baffled and bored; and vaunted bistro L’Amis Jean, where I ate the most delectable rabbit and country vegetables and reveled in the festive atmosphere; and the dreamy Georgia O’Keefe retrospective at Centre Pompidou; and the itty-bitty restaurant-bakery Mokonuts, one of the hottest and hardest to get seats in town. 

Run by an endearing if understandably frenetic couple — with no employees, they’re the chefs, waitstaff and hosts — Mokonuts is low-key gourmet all the way. I had raw scallops that made me smile so involuntarily, co-owner/pastry chef/showrunner Moko Hirayama burst out laughing. (The main plate, pink-fleshed pigeon, was equally amazing.)  

Mokonuts is where I chatted with a middle-aged American couple about food and travel. They asked if I’d ever been to Lisbon, Portugal, and I said yes, I visited many, many years ago. (I’m of Portuguese descent, but that’s neither here nor there.) I found Lisbon to be like a giant, beautiful seaside village, suffused with languid, old-world charm. I relished it, but it didn’t leave teeth marks.

The couple perked up and replied that things have changed and they go there often for its food, people and invigorating bustle. Lisbon, I’ve since read, has become one of the most visited cities in Europe. My fellow travelers went on about it and inspired me to take a deeper look. The crazy result: I’m heading to Lisbon and Porto in mid-January. Expect a blog about sausage.

Musee D’Orsay

For the very first time in my many trips to Paris I did not see a classic American movie at one of the city’s numerous revival cinemas; no films (“An Affair to Remember” — pass) grabbed my interest, sadly. Yet I did take a short amble through my good friend Père Lachaise Cemetery, freckled as it was with fall leaves and dappled with autumn shadows. I sought out the relatively new grave of French actress Anna Karina, wife and muse of Jean-Luc Godard, with no luck. The place is massive. In fact I saw no celebrity plots — no Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison or Edith Piaf — on this visit. Yet I still found a baroque beauty in death. 

As always seems to happen, I strolled by Notre Dame several times. The gothic vision oddly emerges out of nowhere almost anywhere you go. It demands your attention.

She is tragically transformed after the April 2019 blaze that tore her soul out and broke the world’s collective heart. Only the indelible, indomitable facade is fully visible, as the rest of the cathedral is girdled by a fortress of construction walls, webbed in scaffolding and towered over by spindly cranes. Depressingly visible are exposed wood planks on the flying buttresses and gaping maws in the charred rooftop. 

The surrounding wall panels are emblazoned with photos and explanatory text describing the fire’s destruction and exactly what type of surgical procedures the ancient lady is now undergoing. It’s informative, and classy. People still come to gaze in awe, and the cathedral’s gargoyles still perch in the heavens, smirking, telegraphing in their way that everything will be all right. 

A sacred place. Even for heathens.

I last visited Notre-Dame just over three years ago, in fall 2015. When in Paris, I invariably duck into the grand Gothic cathedral several times, because it’s there, because it’s beautiful, because its draw is irresistible. It is Paris splendor epitomized.

I’ve been to Paris on five occasions, which means I’ve been to Notre-Dame at least 15 times. It never gets old. Rather, each visit rewards with something new and startling. Sometimes I just hang out on the plaza in front of Our Lady — the sprawling Place Jean-Paul II Square — sipping coffee, people-watching, marveling at the twin bell-tower facade and those maniacal, sniggering gargoyles perched way up high. 

A Catholic apostate and mid-level opponent of organized religion, I don’t worship in Notre-Dame, which went up in flames yesterday, mostly surviving the catastrophic blaze that had the world aghast. (Maybe there is a God.)

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Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames Monday in Paris

I don’t go for the holy experience, but the wholly experience — a soothing spiritual state of serenity and rumination, reflection and introspection, inspired by the vaulting, dimly lit sanctuary’s artwork, architecture, luminescent stained-glass and twinkling constellations of prayer candles. And that’s just the interior. 

Agnostic natives are with me, according to a piece in today’s NY Times: “France is one of the least religious countries in Europe. Urbane, intellectual Parisians often dismiss religion as archaic and unenlightened.”

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Notre-Dame facade, fall 2015

But like other transporting religious structures around the world — from the Jama Masjid mosque in Delhi to the Wat Arun Buddhist temple in Bangkok — Notre-Dame is staggering to even this peevish secular humanist, with its gilded grandeur and gravity-defying architecture that toils so magnificently to transcend crude corporeality and reach for the heavens. In all her glory, Our Lady, I think, tickles the firmament.

(This goes for scores of religious sanctums I’ve traveled long and far to be dazzled by: the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St. Peter’s in Rome, Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and on and on. All instill dizzy awe, even if I’m not always buying what they’re peddling.) 

Even without the slightest religious propensity, I bewail the damage to Notre-Dame. Like most, I was sickened watching flames devour the cathedral, my old friend, on the news. More is there than a quaint, history-encrusted, 850-year-old church. It is the ineffable, the mystical, the irrefutably sacred.

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Standing tall, fall 2015.

The cathedral, with a wingspan from Joan of Arc to Victor Hugo to Disney, “is universal, Western, religious, literary and cultural, and that’s what makes it different from any other object,” says a French analyst in the Times. “It’s the whole spectrum from the trivial to the transcendent, the sacred to the profane.”

In other words, it is stubbornly irreplaceable. Its survival, by a hairbreadth, an act of God, divine intervention, is something I am loath to believe in: a naked miracle.

Whatever saved it, I think it was more the skill, action plans and water hoses of the Parisian fire fighters than, say, the conquest of virtue vs. evil. But it doesn’t matter. Notre-Dame didn’t collapse or burn to cinders. It is, they declare, structurally sound. No lives were lost. And for that, all of us should sigh a collective amen.

But do note, those devilish gargoyles survived the flames, and they are still sneering.

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