August in Paris

I was browsing The Atlantic website the other day and came across this article by Rachel Donadio celebrating the month of August as a wonderful time to be in Paris. “Of all the cities I’ve lived in,” she writes, “August is best in Paris.” Donadio celebrates the quiet streets, the lost tourists, and the niche radio and television stories about feminism, Blaise Pascal, or the decline of French Socialist Party. Melancholy, Donadio reflects on the month that has just ended: “Traffic thins; shops close, sometimes for the entire month; restaurants shut; there are seats to be found on the metro; and in the evening, stragglers (not everyone can afford to go away) emerge from their stuffy, un-air-conditioned apartments and gather along the banks of the Seine.”

She is, in my opinion, completely wrong to celebrate August in Paris. Having just come through my first summer in the city as a Greek hero might make it through the land of the dead, I can assuredly declare that August is in fact the worst time of year to be in Paris.

Donadio makes light of shops closing, including her bakery, but in fact this should be a serious concern. In the 10e arrondissement, our existence—revolving as it does around food—started to seem grim at the end of July. First to go was our cheese shop. As the weeks went by the tables and shelves in the shop had progressively emptied out. On the last day they were open, as I bought scraps of whatever was left, I asked the cheese monger what we were going to do while they were closed. “Eat less calories,” he said. It was a joke but he wasn’t smiling. He was just eager to go on holiday.

Next to go was the Italian deli, then the covered market where we get fish and vegetables. The famous boulangerie at the end of our street shut down for a month—an entire MONTH—in August. Every day I texted G. as I walked to the metro to tell her how many dejected tourists were standing on the sidewalk, scratching their heads and trying to decipher the scrawled note in the window. Then the boulangerie with the good baguette closed. Then the new bakery with the seedy bread and the donuts, which had literally opened two weeks before, also closed for two weeks. Even the bakery with the lovely seasonal cakes and pastries, which is a little further off near the Marais and which I sometimes walk to on Sundays, went on vacation. They didn’t even bother putting a note up on their door.

I remember a Wednesday morning in mid-August when I walked around the neighbourhood, going from street to street, struggling to find a place where I could buy bread. I ended up at a small, subpar place near République, and we had to make do with their dry croissant and weightless loaf. Yes, even in Paris, there is such a thing as a subpar boulangerie.

August 15 is a holiday in France, and as it fell on a Thursday this year most of those who weren’t already on vacation took a day or two off to make a long weekend of it. In French they call it faire le pont—bridging. The city emptied out. At work, for the few of us who were around, almost all the lunch places were closed. Even the lunch delivery company was off that Friday.

And I haven’t mentioned anything about the heat (Parisian apartments don’t have ai conditioning)—but perhaps that’s a story for another time.

Sure, there are some things to appreciate about August in Paris. It’s true that the streets are quieter, and the metro isn’t as crowded. You grow to have a special fondness for the shops and restaurants that do stay open, like the boucherie near my workplace that took all of July off instead of August. The Tunisian man and his son who have a vegetable stall around the corner from our apartment stayed open through August, as did the Mexican taco place across the street and our favourite takeout restaurant, Petit Cambodge. Although our caviste did go away on holiday for two weeks in August, she found someone to work at the shop in her place. So at least we could drink well, even if we couldn’t always eat as well as usual. It makes you question your priorities.

And now la rentrée is in full swing; this period marks the end of our first year living in Paris. We moved into our apartment exactly a ago and started discovering the neighbourhood, trying out cafés and bakeries, walking along the canal to go to the Bastille market for the first time, testing out habits and routines that would last us through the winter. When we arrived in Paris at the very end of August 2018 to find a lively 10e arrondissement, I hadn’t suspected that the city was just coming back to life after a month-long sleep.

The end of our first year in Paris, yes, but also the beginning of our second. We’ve been eating a lot of cheese.

Rue Saint-Martin: A Promenade

I’m not the first to say it: Paris is a walker’s city, or rather an ambler’s city. The streets urge you to go out for promenades, to make it from place to place on foot, to wander about. There are some risks, though. For one, everything seems closer that it is on the map. Then there’s the city’s famous street configuration, all branching stars and obliquely crossings. If you’re not careful, you can easily think you’re going in the right direction on a given street and end up far from where you were going.

One of my favourite walks in Paris is, thankfully, along a street that runs straight down–from the 10th to the 3rd arrondissement, from Gare de l’Est all the way down to the Seine, or just about. It’s a neat way to easily get from the neighbourhood we live in to the Marais, which has nice shops, bars, and restaurants–and heaps of atmosphere. I love walking down the length of the street because you feel the textures of the different neighbourhoods change as you walk through them.

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Your promenade begins on rue du Faubourg Saint-Martin, which is lively and full of local colour just below the imposing façade of Gare de l’Est: fast-food joints, African restaurants, bric-à-brac stores, and Afro hair salons. Rue du Chateau d’Eau and its fancier shops, wine stores, cafés, and lovely market runs perpendicular. When you reach the imposing Porte Saint-Martin, which is really more of an arch than a gate, at the boulevard, the street because rue Saint-Martin, and already you know that you’re in a slightly posher neighbourhood, especially as you pass the imposing facade of the Musée des Arts et Métiers and the elegant Square Émile-Chautemps. On the same block are the intriguing offices of the French Prestidigitator’s Association, which unfortunately always looks closed.

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Past rue Réaumur, pay attention to the blackened façade of the Paroisse Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs, a gothic church dating back to the 15th century, with its crumbling statues. A couple of blocks later is a nice third wave coffee shop called Partisan, and now you can be certain you’re in the 3rd: the buildings are nicer and well-kept, people are dressed in fancy clothes, and the shops are getting more expensive and niche–notice the Corsican épicerie and the Auvergne deli. Another couple of blocks down you’ll run into a shop specializing in rum, and just around the corner is its sister store, which sells hundreds of different kinds of gin.

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But keep going, you haven’t seen everything yet. If you’re hungry, the next block has lots of restaurants, including a delicious Chinese noodle place called 3 fois plus de piments, although you may have to get in line at peak hours. Once you do get in, you choose your heat level: 0 to 5 (1 is enough to make my eyebrows sweat). As you keep walking down, the street becomes mostly pedestrian and when the buildings open up, lo and behold, the Centre Pompidou is on your left. Take a moment to gaze at its stunning, divisive architecture. The rooftop restaurant, all metal and curvy structures, is a nice place for a drink and a rare vista over the city.

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From there, you have to pick what you want to do next. Turn right at the river and continue along the Seine all the way to the Louvre and the Tuileries, or else cross over to Île de la Cité and, from there, across again into the 5th arrondissements. Or turn right to delve into the Marais proper. Crooked, charming rue des Rosiers, with its jewish bakeries and extraordinary falafel shops, is only five minutes away…