The moment I disembark at Charles DeGaulle Airport in Paris, something starts to happen. It’s an odd sensation, kind of like that moment when the Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne I’ve been knocking back begins tickling the backside of my eyeballs. At first it’s barely perceptible. Then it begins to bubble up as I watch the people in the airport, on the bus to Place d’Étoile, on the walk to the apartment we rent on Rue Balzac. But it doesn’t hit its effervescent climax until The One and I are sitting in a bistro tucked away somewhere on the Left Bank, watching Parisian life flit by.
I call it That Paris Effect (TPE). Some ill-informed doctors would call it psychosis. As I eye incredibly dressed, impeccably poised Parisians–you can easily tell tourists from locals come July–I begin a mental morphing process. Walking along the rues, boulevards, and quais that first day, I sense my posture improving, my spine elongating, and–pop!–I lose my dowager hump.
By the time we’ve hit the Luxembourg Gardens, I’ve dropped 50 pounds, followed by 50 more at the Place de la Concorde. My thighs, once as large as Parisian chimneys, become as thin as drain pipes; this coincides with an instinctual need to buy a gray sharkskin suit with stovepipe pants and the pointiest shoes I can squeeze my size 13 feet into. (Although for some reason my feet never shrink.)
By le quatrième heure, the transformation is complete. My spoken French–which, when I’m stateside, is a cobbled-together mess of nothing but present tense verbs, the propositions “de” and “à,” and the phrase “pas de problème“–turns fluent. Chic saleswomen in Saint Germain des Prés wearing Dior and Christian Louboutin marvel at my accent–actually my lack of one–when they discover I’m American. This situation will last only a few more weeks, I think, before the French government gets the intercontinental memo that I’m in the country and bestows upon me the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres medal plus French citizenship.
The only snag: I can’t look at myself in mirrors, shop windows, chrome fenders, or The One’s sunglasses. Otherwise my true size intrudes, the fantasy crumples, and I’m just another gros Américain. Oh, reality, thy sword is sharp.
Once in utter denial of my clomping American frame, I move leopard-like through the city, cheeks sucked in, eyes half-lidded, on my face an am-I-not-incroyable? look. And it’s only then that I can enjoy all the comestibles a Parisian eats–bloody steaks, bushels of pommes frites, foie gras (yup, I still lap it up), croissants, tartelettes, and chocolates–and never, ever gain a pound. For real Frenchmen don’t get fat. Ever. That’s the best benefit of TPE.
And that’s when The One and I attack our hit list. The first place we always descend upon is the Rue Poncelet market. It’s a short stretch of street lined with fruit and vegetable stores, cheese and fish mongers, chocolate shops that sell only items that are bio (read: organic), charcuterie and rotisserie storefronts, butchers, bistros, patisseries, and just about everything else you could possibly want. We stock up on groceries (about 100 euros for four meals), one of which we had the pleasure of sharing with the charming Jamie Schler as our guest.
Also on our list was a 9 p.m. reservation at Bistro Paul Bert, a tradition for birthdays and anniversaries these past three years. The manager, a tall, strikingly handsome man who just exuded indigenous TPE (which is far stronger that the summoned kind), chided us for being not even 15 minutes late. Unaware of what lurked beneath my oafish American exterior, I shot back my own brew of TPE, and he actually backed off and apologized.
The flat-out old-school bistro was still very good, but not as spectacular as on our anniversary last year. Local friends had advised us in recent weeks to avoid the place during the height of tourist season. We should have listened.
Paul, a chain of rather good patisserie-boulangeries, is our fallback for gourmandises and chocolate tarts (which we eat for breakfast, a French faux pas) and for that I have no shame. It’s close, they know us, and they never tire of our questions. But Alisa Morov of Sweet Pea Baking in Paris challenged me on Twitter to visit Gérard Mulot, a superb patisserie in the 7th arrondissement. (Eat at a marvelous pastry shop as a challenge? Please.) I had heard of his place, but never had a chance to delight in his delights, so his tartelette de chocolat noir was in my crosshairs. The One and I have re-added going to his shop to our bucket lists–it was that sensational.
La Dorie gave us a short list of must-eats, all of which were impossible to get into. Le Pantruche, a tiny place near Pigalle, was one spot she and her husband, Michael, visited twice in but a few days–high praise from the Priestess of the Prés. After calling from the States for two weeks and getting an answering machine with a message in the most machine-gun-fast French I’ve ever heard, we simply showed up for dinner one night. The waiter, Edward, who clearly has a crush on La Dorie (he lit up when I mentioned her) didn’t emit even the merest Geiger-counter hint of TPE, so I toned mine way down. He was gracious and patient as I fumbled with my iPhone and The One with his Blackberry to secure a lunch reservation.
The next day we sauntered in only a few minutes late, and Edward excused himself from a table and shook my hand and clapped The One on the back. (He may do that to all his guests, but if he does, I don’t want to know. I felt special.) The meal was deceptively simple, with clean flavors and beautiful presentation. We had a vichyssoise with a dollop of brandade (a creamy, lovely mess of salt cod and mashed potato). For my plat, I had roast chicken over shredded vegetables and pickled Savoy cabbage. The One had a gorgeous fan of seared veal atop a puree of pea and potato. He stunned me by getting the Grand Mariner soufflé–with a small pitcher of salted caramel sauce, thank you very much–instead of his usual fix of anything chocolate. I ordered the chocolate gelato sitting in a puddle of chilled and thick mint crème anglaise. In the Game of Thrones, Dessert Edition, I won this battle.
The rest of our dining was spent either gathered around the tiny coffee table in our living room eating our Rue Poncelet booty or grabbing a quick bite on the go at some not-worth-mentioning brasseries. (Okay, St. Regis on Île Saint-Louis.) Apparently, TPE made me less hungry because I actually–please make sure you’re seated or holding on to a heavy stationary object like a fire hydrant or door frame–skipped two meals. I KNOW! I thought the same thing.
I closed out our week in Paris with a must-do, must-eat, must-gawk Sugar Walk led by Bryan Pirolli and hosted by La Cuisine Paris. Bryan led us through the Marais district, stopping at more than a dozen sweet spots, of which I availed myself most heartily. One surprise I was moved to discover: Comme à Lisbonne. This tiny sliver of a shop serves only pastéis de nata–those amazing custard tarts from Confeitaria de Belém–that are so exciting, they’re considered a sexual aid in Lisbon. And I can safely say, after having eaten these tiny wonders in five countries, these are the best outside of Belém. Period. Go. Now.
It seems as if TPE isn’t limited to me. Renee was surprised by her husband, E, who gave her a trip somewhere in the world to celebrate her birthday–and only when she saw the airport gate blinking PARIS CHARLES DE GAULLE did she find out where he was taking her. Four days later, The One and I were boarding the same flight for the 22nd anniversary of my 30th birthday. So Renee and E came to our apartment for drinks before dinner one evening, and she was gorgeous. Slim, petite, with cheekbones one could mistake for plums, Renee is often mistaken for a Parisienne, even without TPE. But that night she was TPE². She had on her pair of Cinderella shoes–so chic, so elegant, so French. I felt my own illusion wobble a bit.
But I knocked back another glass of Nicolas Feuillatte and asked, “Would you like to see the view from the balcony?” Nothing like a sunset over the roofs of Paris to steady the psyche.