That Paris Effect

Eiffel Tower

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.

The One at Place de L'Étoile
The One admiring the Arc de Triomphe at Place de L’Étoile

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.)

Luxembourg Gardens
The Luxembourg Palace at the Luxembourg Gardens

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.

Mini Quiche Lorraine
Mini quiche Lorraine from the Rue Poncelet market

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.

Poncelet Market Fare
Tarts of all kinds, Coeur de Boeuf tomatoes, and Comté cheese

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.

Paul Bert Menu
Paul Bert’s menu

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.

Tartelette de Chocolate Noir
A tartelette de chocolate noir from Paul

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.

Tartelette de Chocolate Noir from Gerard Mulot
A tartelette de chocolate noir from Gérard Mulot–the clear winner

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.

Roast Chicken from Le Pantruche
Roast chicken on top of shredded vegetables and pickled Savoy cabbage at Le Pantruche

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.

Chocolate Gelato in a Mint Crème Anglaise
Chocolate gelato in a mint crème anglaise at Le Pantruche

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.

Treats from Paris Sugar Walk
Monstrously good sweets from La Cuisine Paris’s Sugar Walk

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.

Paris Roofs
The view from our balcony

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.

David Leite's signature



    1. Darling! Thank you. I thought of you when we arrived in Avignon on Sunday. The Mistral was blowing, and I shouting, “Dorothy! Dorothy!” The French thought I was mad.

  1. This post made me long for Paris. My husband and I traveled there almost two years ago for our honeymoon and I feel like I left part of my heart there. Your story was funny, delicious, touching, and simply lovely. You are inspiring to a novice writer like myself.

    I also can’t believe those are all iPhone pictures! They’re wonderful….time to upgrade my iPhone to the one with the better camera!

    1. Heather, first, happy second anniversary. And thanks for the kind words. I just got back to NYC, and I suddenly have an impulse to walk the cobblestone streets of Paris. Ah, well–next year.

      And, yes, do check out of the iPhone4S–but I’ve heard the next version will be even better.

  2. Beautifully written article and great pictures. I very much appreciate both your recipes and writings. Brings me back to the whirlwind three days my wife and I spent in Paris last summer. We’re already saving for our return in two years. Which brings me to my question. The view off of your balcony very much reminds me of the short Wes Anderson film Hotel Chevalier. Please tell me, what was that picture taken from?

    1. Thank you, AndrewP. I hope you get to Paris in two years, and if you do, make sure to drop me a note. That particular balcony is on Rue Balzac, two blocks off of the Champs-Élysées, looking northwest.

  3. I want to just add my thoughts in response to Susan and Stu’s comments (if I may). I remember many many years ago my French husband ran into a small shop in Paris (I waited for him outside) to ask information of the salesperson – he may have been looking for a specific book – and he came back outside and said to me “If a French salesperson is ever rude to you, don’t think for one minute it is because you are American. They are rude to the French as well.” In all the years I have lived in France, I have come up against rude, judgemental French people and kind, helpful and friendly French people. I have come to understand much about their psyche and truly being American or anything else has little to do with how you are treated. I agree with Stu that there are very strict, albeit tacit, rules that should be followed and just making the effort is appreciated. I think anyone anywhere appreciates a visitor to his/her country who makes an effort to understand the hows and whys of the way things work. And having lived in Paris I too have gotten fed up with tourists simply because I have wanted to get from point A to point B (getting to work on time) and have been blocked by hoards of gawking tourists. And about TPE – the longer I live here, the less I feel it. Oh, I love Paris now more and more each time I visit (as a tourist now!) but I now see the French for what they are: real people, flaws and foibles and all, and I am no longer intimidated. So David, you just have to come back more often!

    1. Jamie, my question is: Has that changed? You said the episode with your husband happened many, many years ago. I found things are different now.

      But as you, David Lebovitz, the folks at La Cuisine Paris, Mardi Michels, Dorie Greenspan, and just about everyone else I spoke with who lives full or part-time in Paris says, Paris has the good, the bad, and the ugly–just like any place. And, at least for now, I’m not sure I want to go back so often that I experience the latter two. That’s part of the wonderful things about travel: You go somewhere, you leave the world and problems you know behind, and you can be selective in your experience.

      Underneath it all, I love, love, love the idea of a national character. We American DO do things differently than, say, the French or the British. And I love that difference. I enjoy digging into a burger with my hands, while the proper young Parisienne with her dog at her feet cuts into it with a knife and fork. I hope she would think affectionately, “How American, how bold!” as I think, “How French, how elegant” with equal respect and affection.

      1. I really don’t think anything has changed in the French character in 25 years. I always had the feeling the French love Americans (even as their feelings towards the US have fluctuated). But as I said, their character is their character no matter who is standing in front of them. And yes, everyone and every city (even from French city to French city) has their character and I do think that part of the Parisian character is influenced by the quantity of visitors. It’s funny, but now whenever I get back to NYC I fall in love with it and the people and would give anything to move back – even though I left it 25 years ago with a bad taste in my mouth. Yes, being only an occasional visitor does allow us the luxury of seeing only the beautiful and wonderful. Or we hope so.

  4. Susan said, she has been”…intimidated by Paris because of the alleged judgmental attitude toward Americans by Parisians”. This is because Americans believe that all things should be done as they are done in America, even when they travel to another country with its own culture and way of doing things. The American tourist does not learn that there is a certain decorum expected when you enter a shop, you greet the owner with a pleasantry. You say, “thank you” in French when you exit a store or shop. Bread plates are not served at restaurants. You break bread at a table and let the crumbs fall where they may. Butter is not served. Ice is not served. Your check at a restaurant is never brought until you ask for it. There will not be a judgmental attitude toward you if you learn some courtesy words and learn to order simple things in French like a coffee with or without cream. Wine, red or white. Study up before you go. It will enrich your experience greatly.

    1. Stu, I think it’s more than that, though. It also depends upon where you’re traveling from and what you know. If you’re not familiar with city life or travel in general, Paris can seem overwhelming and intimidating. It’s similar to the reason I don’t go to formal events in my industry–I feel so intimated by these big names and fancily dressed folk that I cower in the corner or spend a lot of time pretending to go out for a smoke.

      I suspect it’s the Americans who aren’t intimated who contribute to the stereotype of the big, brusk, inconsiderate tourist.

      And brushing up on the country you’re traveling to is a very fine suggestion. And that works in reverse. When I was a waiter at Windows on the World I used to hate when Europeans would sit at my tables for hours and hours, eat very little, and leave no tip. Some Saturdays I would walk out with $50 in my pocket, when a regular Saturday would net me $150 to $200.

      So there’s much to learn on all sides!

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