5 Things Paris Taught Me About Travel
A rainy afternoon in Montmartre.
I'm in Paris this week, and I've been looking forward to bringing you some tips and fresh ideas from the streets of the city. But as I sat down to think about what to share with you, I found my thoughts going in a bit different direction than I expected.
Here are five lessons I've been learning in the past five years of travel, and especially from Paris.
Last night's omelet. First rule of travel: Find a partner/spouse/friend who can whip out an omelet this good, and you'll always be satisfied with your supper.
Paris has been a touchstone of inspiration for Americans for hundreds of years; Hemingway and Julia Child and the 50,000 expats living here now have created a romantic narrative of Paris that draws millions of travelers, looking, perhaps, for an experience of something they feel they lack at home.
But when you don't live here, Paris is just one more place that isn't home, and in that it's a stand-in for every other city that is teaching me how to travel, how to eat well when I do — and what travel will never do for me.
These five reflections say more about me than they do about Paris; you can probably read my own insecurities and romanticism right between the lines. Overhearing Americans talk about how to not to "stand out in Paris," makes me think, however, that these insecurities are widely shared.
I tend to over-think everything, worry about each detail, and get caught up in my own little hamster wheel of anxiety. I can emerge from travel so stressed with just getting from point A to point B that I have no idea whether I enjoyed myself. Can you relate?
Don't put too much pressure on yourself. There is no perfect trip.
Or, if you want to be more spiritual about it, the perfect trip is the one you're on. When spending money on travel and eating out, there's a pressure both internal and external to do your research and suck the sweetest, most concentrated marrow possible out of your experience. Pack it in, see it all, do it all. Paris and other great cities quickly put this travel perfectionism to shame, as they offer more to do, see, and eat, than you could possibly experience in a lifetime.
Getting a tiny sip of a city is all that most travel will give you, and being content with that is important, I've found, to a joyful trip.
That doesn't mean that I don't obsessively research bakeries and restaurants, parks and museums. But there's always going to be a lot that I missed, and some way in which I feel my limited tourist status acutely. That's OK.
Crumbs on the counter. Now this place is starting to feel like home!
Not every meal needs to be sublime, and having a mediocre one shouldn't be a shaming experience.
Do you ever feel like eating in a new city is an armchair sport? If you hang out on helpful yet intense boards like Chowhound and Tripadvisor you might get that sense, as travelers swap restaurant itineraries and wonder whether they've wasted any meal slot of the day on a less-than-worthy contender. I often sense a deep insecurity and even embarrassment running below the surface in these quests for restaurant wall-to-wall scheduling. We don't want to feel ashamed or embarrassed about having a mediocre meal when we should have been having a sublime one.
But researching restaurants can be so wearying, and sometimes I just want an easy solution — even if it's room service or lukewarm soup in a cafe. It's OK. Not every meal has to be memorable; it's tough to keep up that kind of pace.
It's right to honor and support people who are good at their craft. (And to pay well for it.)
While on the one hand I feel it's weird to fetishize the food when we travel, don't underestimate it either; pay attention to the small things that are different from your normal daily experience.
For instance, it's a matter of cliche as to how much France supports their artisans and artists. There are two amazingly good boulangeries on the street where I am staying, both with bread better than most I've had in the States. Why? Because the craft is honored, supported, and celebrated. A new friend was telling me yesterday how long and involved the boulangerie certification process is for a baker; you have to qualify, and without a certificate and bread baked on the premises you can't call your shop a boulangerie. When a boulangerie owner goes on vacation, this must be coordinated with the government, who verifies that there is another open bakery that will serve the neighborhood's need for bread. Of course, it also raises the prices; bread and nearly all food is more expensive in Paris.
These practical ways in which food is taken seriously here adds some teeth to the romantic and sometimes vague ways we are trying to raise the profile of well-made food in American culture, and as a food writer I find these cultural differences interesting and worth paying attention to.
But as a traveler, I find myself sometimes surprised, sometimes embarrassed, sometimes annoyed by the different ways of a different culture — and all of these emotions are equally fine and important to experience during travel.
Most wine-producing countries keep the best stuff for themselves. Drink whatever you can afford — it's probably great.
Last night we had a bottle of wine that was ripe and rich, tasting like anise, herbs, and woodsmoke. It cost 8 euros in a wine shop around the corner. Really delicious wine is easy to find in Paris; again, there's a culture of enjoying wine (like bread). I try not to overthink the wine here. Asking the question, "What goes with our meal?" has earned shrugs in two different restaurants, as our host has said in response, "Well, what do you like to drink?"
In my experience, in Paris wine is for enjoyment, not for doing the "correct" thing. And it's easy to find cheap, good wine — like in Portugal, where we had astonishing wines for the equivalent of a few dollars, from wineries far too small to export their bottles. It's all drunk locally.
It's silly to try to pretend you're not a tourist. We're all turtles.
I've been thinking a lot about how we're all turtles — we carry whatever we have on our backs; there's no getting away from whatever and whoever we are. I've had two disappointments since coming to Paris, unrelated to travel, and both either too personal or too trivial to explain here. Being in Paris doesn't mitigate or cancel those out. A week in Paris with a view of the Eiffel Tower out one window and Sacré-Coeur the other, and a boulangerie downstairs, is a sweet treat that doesn't change the fact that I'm still just me, and there are pressures and stresses and difficulties that I'm struggling with in my own ways.
Likewise, when we visit a new city, the people there are just people — not actors on a stage set or humans with uniquely exotic and inscrutable lives that must be at least a touch more romantic than our own. I'm staying in a real living neighborhood, with people downstairs who will be annoyed if I walk around in the flat with shoes on, and men working in the adjacent building listening to loud and obnoxious French radio.
This is their home, not mine, and I'd be silly to pretend that I'm anything other than a girl from Ohio who is grateful for a chance to visit and enjoy the wonderful bread, cheese, and wine; and, in my own turn, to be annoyed at Paris's general disregard for other things I consider key to life and happiness, like air-conditioning.
We've not been very ambitious in our cooking — just rotisserie chicken and an omelet — but I think part of happy travel is knowing when to check ambition at the door.
Two nights ago we skipped out on all the restaurants recommended to us and ate rotisserie chicken and take-out Greek salad, with a bottle of Champagne the apartment rental agency had kindly left for us. The next night, my husband made me a gorgeous omelet after what had been a long and tiring day for us both, and we sat in our pajamas in front of an open window and drank that terrific red wine and relaxed as much as we could.
In those moments, this place felt quite a bit like home — not because we had figured out how to live like locals or scrape enough French together to buy butter in a dignified way (we hadn't), but because we were just being ourselves and enjoying each other in this really beautiful city.
It's always a challenge to just be myself, roll with the near constant embarrassments of being somewhere I don't speak the language, and to eat well and enjoy each moment for what it is. It's the lifelong lesson of travel, I suppose, and if we're all lucky we'll take a little more back with us each time we go.
(Images: Faith Durand)