The women dressed in security gear wait, perched at the top of the stairs. “Par ici” they say, one arm stiffly stretched outward, the other making a continuous circle, waving the ascending crowd to the left. We’ve never spent much time at Gare de Drancy, stopping briefly to onload and offload passengers as they make their way to the center of Paris. Today’s stop is considerably longer. The conductor speaks only in French, a language I understand very little of, and speak even less. We observe the disgruntled masses exiting the train and that’s our cue to do the same. Confused clusters of people wait just beyond the tracks. Then we notice police officers. Then it’s the tracks we notice, a lack of moving trains rendering them eerily quiet. We’re then urged to leave the station. Outside it’s pandemonium. Confusion reigns as folks intent on taking the train are now resorting to plan b, only it seems few had contemplated a plan b. We speak to police and, in broken english, learn there’s a bomb scare, a suspicious bag left at the station. They instruct us to take a bus to the T which will connect to the Paris Metro. Only one of those three things is familiar to us. There are no cabs. We have no Euros. No international plan on our phones, so Uber’s out. In ten years of traveling to Europe, it finally happens—we’re stranded. We read a map and figure out the bus line. We fight our way on when one arrives. Suddenly police cars swoop in and shut down the bridge we were about to cross. We wait. And wait. Our shoulders slump as we hear the bus engine shut down. Everybody off. We’re making our way to another set of police officers when a finger taps me on the shoulder. “Excuse me, are you Americans?” A New Hampshire native, also stranded, has found us as well as another girl trying to travel from Brussels to Paris. She’s our ticket as she has a phone and asks if we’d all like to split an Uber. We chit chat off to the side as the wait time for our Uber vacillates from three minutes to seven, to four, to eight. Once in, a wave of calm washes over. We’ll be getting to the city about three hours later than anticipated, but we’ll be getting there.
We wound up in South Pigalle, or SoPi, a couple of years ago quite by accident. This time, it was a conscious choice. It’s quietly tucked away in the 9th arrondissement, a fair distance from the crowds that clog the river neighborhoods. It’s quintessentially Paris, with boulangerie-lined streets and cafés teeming with patrons outside sipping cappuccinos. Grand Pigalle Hotel looks like an early draft of a location featured in a Wes Anderson film, complete with its name in a bold, sans serif font in the mosaic tile entryway. Inside, its dark facade gives way to muted pastel tones accented by flashes of bronze and gold. The worn leather and velour seating is warm and inviting. It’s small and quaint, which is to say, perfect. We down a welcome drink—an aperol spritz for my wife, a La Parisienne Lager for me—and we’re off.
As is our custom, La Grande Epicerie is stop one. We meander through the serpentine streets, stepping on freshly fallen leaves along the way, past the Opera House, then across Pont de la Concorde, the rotating light of the Eiffel Tower pointing us in a loose general direction. The time there is brief, just long enough for my wife to snag a few bags of the tasty, wafer-like biscuits she buys each time to be eaten later in the hotel room, yet another custom. It’s misty and cool outside. Rue de Sèvres is a watercolor representation of itself. A cab pulls up and we hop in. Lucky for us, our driver doesn’t speak a word of English. This should be fun. I butcher the pronunciation of a few streets, and with the aid of an offline map, we finally stop in front of Papillon. The meal is delicious and presented well, but as the first night wears on, the lack of sleep is beginning to catch up. That or the beaujolais and calvados are doing their job.
Day two is always easier. Rested, we bound just down the street to Buvette, a charming little bistro we’d read about. Plates are stacked high on the counters and the stools don’t match. The place exudes charm. I order a bacon and egg sandwich served not on bread, but on two waffles, complete with maple syrup. Insert “mind blown” emoji here. It’s so rich, so decadent and so delicious.
Making our way over to the Marais, we stare through windows of vintage book shops and happily take a less direct route—Paris is perfect for wandering aimlessly. After rifling through home goods at Merci, it’s time for food. So we do what anyone does in Paris—we head for tacos. Candelaria Taqueria is tiny, perched at the intersection of two streets. We wait at the bar for tacos and chips with salsa while our meal is prepped slightly more than arms-length away.
The salsa deserves a few more words as it was a unique, pickle-based condiment I’ve never encountered. Heaped high atop our chips were coarsely cut cucumbers and onion, lightly pickled with a few fresh herbs tossed in. It was equal parts surprising and delicious. There’s also a dollop of a soft, ricotta-like cheese with an airy, whipped texture. I like twists and risks with food and this one paid off, but I suspect my opinion is not universal. My wife speaks Spanish so she strikes up a conversation with the cook. His initial confusion is visible, but quickly shifts to joy as he responds in kind, perhaps happy to take a break from his usual French or English conversations. Our tacos arrive and are promptly devoured. The desire for a second round is strong.
After spending a couple of hours observing and thoroughly enjoying the Dior retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, we decide to tick a box we’ve long wanted to tick—having a cocktail at Bar Hemingway. After a nearly four year hiatus for renovations, the Ritz Paris is back. We waltz through the main entrance with all the glee of children on Christmas morning. Of course there’s a wait as the space is relatively small, but that’s easily remedied with a quick cocktail directly across the hall at The Ritz Bar. We down two and glide back across to our waiting table at Hemingway. Inside, the motif is decidedly last century. On the surface, the menu printed to look like a WWII-era newspaper may seem heavy-handed, but it works and we’re happy to go along with it, deciding which 30€ cocktail to order. Hey, it is the Ritz after all.
The drizzle becomes a steady rain as we duck into La Binouze to down a few beers, hoping to wait it out. Inside I chat up the staff, curious to figure out how it is that there are Hardywood bottles on the shelf. Richmond, VA found right here in the heart of Paris. Turns out the owner had become friendly with the Hardywood folks and before they knew it, a couple of kegs and some bottles arrived under the cover of night as the streets were still being hosed off. This doesn’t surprise me, it’s what I’ve come to expect of craft beer. Back at the hotel, a quick stop at the bar for a final Blanton’s sufficiently heavies the eyelids.
The remainder of the trip is spent doing exactly what we always seem to do, which is wander through Paris with a somewhat haphazard and loose approach to destinations. One of those is Barthélemy, a cheese shop in the 7th, run by its namesake Nicole Barthélemy for the past 50 years. Inside, the aroma is intense and aggressive. Mounds of white and off-white wheels and blocks stack nearly to the ceiling. We snag a couple varieties for later, and a few bite-size chunks for the walk, careful to not eat too much before dinner.
Le Mary Celeste is our final proper meal. It’s a cozy, no-fuss corner spot where the names and times of held reservations are scribbled in erasable ink on the tables. Once seated at the bar, oysters and cocktails find their way to us. One variety of oyster ends up being the most amazing we’ve had to date. Buttery, nutty with a soft, sweet finish. We talk about it the rest of the night. Sadly, I can’t remember it’s name, but that’s okay, I’ll just plan to go back over and over again until I discover it a second time.
Before departing for Charles de Gaulle, a coffee and some pastries do the trick. The rain-soaked leaves are shades of amber and khaki, they coat the streets. People in wellies with umbrellas scoop up baguettes for dinners later that evening. A small child splashes a puddle. It’s a normal, uneventful morning in Paris, but this is exactly what I love so much about the city. It seems every corner is like a painting, a Pissarro still life you’ve surely come across in some museum, where the Beaux-Arts buildings set the scene of a dream. Through the back window of our taxi Paris seems to fade and wash away, its details becoming more and more imperceptible, just like one of those paintings.