The morning after the Colmar trip, I woke in my room on the 4th floor of the fabulous Paris apartment, threw open my balcony doors and immediately slammed the suckers shut again. Why was it so frigging cold out there?
Turned out a cold front had moved in and was slowly marching across Europe, bringing rain and an expected high in Paris of only 8C. Good thing I had packed for Reykjavik.
I was looking forward to a cooking class later that morning in the home of Chef Marthe Brohan. Her apartment is in the 15th Arrondissement, about an hour and a half walk from where I was staying. A long way, yes, but I’ve always felt that the only way to really see a city is to walk and getting lost is part of the adventure.
After donning two sweaters, raincoat and scarf, I grabbed my telescoping, ultra-light travel umbrella and headed out the door. A little rain was not going to stop me. Wind, on the other hand, was another matter entirely.
Two blocks into the walk, I knew my umbrella was not built for sudden strong gusts. Any second it was going to turn inside out and leave me scrambling in the pouring rain to right it again. The practical solution? Wait out the storm over coffee and pain au chocolate, and if one cup turned into two or three, book an Uber.
I ducked into the nearest café and stopped dead in the doorway, taking in the leather chairs, roaring fireplace, oriental rugs and the huge rhino head mounted on the wall. Had I walked into an old-world men’s club? Was that front door really a time portal? More importantly, would I need an escort?
The look on my face must have spoken volumes, in English, because a waitress quickly assured me that the Rhino was a fake, the flames in the fireplace were real and I could sit anywhere. Unfortunate decorating choices aside, the café turned out to be as delightful as the storm was insistent. Two coffees,and one Uber later, I arrived in time for the cooking class.
When travelling solo, there is no faster way to feel truly alone than schlepping along with a group of people on a museum tour or neighbourhood walk. You aren’t part of anyone’s posse and they’re all trying to hear the guide so the best you can do is keep up when the guide moves on because no one will be aware if you fall behind. Filling your days with large group events will have you missing home before you know it. For me, finding opportunities to sit down and share food with others was the perfect antidote, and that cooking class was not only a way to fill that need, but a way to start seeing behind those imposing Paris doors.
Chef Marthe welcomed three of us into her home that morning. The first, a woman around my age from Florida who had left her husband to figure out Paris on his own for a few hours. The second, a man in his 70’s who hailed from somewhere else in the States but had been living in China for six months and was now travelling solo through Europe, And then there was me, the lone Canadian, hoping desperately that neither of my cooking companions were Trumpers. Biting my tongue till it bled would make for a very long three hours.
I breathed a sigh of relief when both, with no prompting from anyone I swear, announced that they were not MAGA supporters. This kind of revelation became the norm as the trip progressed which I found fascinating, but that is a topic for a completely different post.
Our lunch menu included an asparagus starter, cod for the main and crème caramel for dessert. The three of us made a good team, measuring and whipping, chopping and stirring while gradually getting to know each other and picking up insights into the art of French cooking. Lunch was served with wine at Marthe’s dining room table, where she also gave us tips on where to find the best bread and macarons, (other than hers, of course) the best chocolate and cheese as well as restaurants that a French chef could confidently endorse.
That’s another thing I love about going behind the private doors of a city. Every host I encountered was happy to share their favourite places to shop and eat in their neighbourhoods. That kind of information made each neighbourhood a little more real and a lot more accessible, sending me on very specific missions to see for myself if those macarons or that market were indeed the best.
When we left, we all hugged, wished each other well in our travels and headed off in different directions with no emails exchanged or promises to keep in touch made. Camaraderie without expectations. How perfect is that?
Continuing on the Experiences theme, that evening I attended a private cabaret performance in the home of Sylvain Phillipe, a singer/dancer who had just retired from a career in Paris cabarets. Ever a performer, Sylvain turned the studio attached to his apartment into a cabaret venue for small groups. One half of the studio was stage and dressing room, the other half a kitchen where he prepared a casual pre-show dinner for the evening’s guests — a couple from the States, a mother/daughter duo from B.C. and me.
We got to know each other while sipping wine and munching hors d’oeuvres, and learned more about our host over quiche and salad. Sylvain’s homemade cake would be served with champagne and macarons after the performance, so with glasses topped up, we settled into couches and chairs in front of the stage and the accompanist took his place at the piano.
Over the next few hours, Sylvain put on a one-man show that took us through the history of French music from the 1900’s to the present with performances by Maurice Chevalier, Charles Aznavour, Josephine Baker and Edith Piaf, to name but a few. Sometimes he transformed behind the curtain at the back of the stage, and sometimes he sat down at the vanity on stage to become the performer he was talking about.
He sang, he danced, and he brought French music and performers to life in a setting that was charming and intimate and completely different. When the show ended and the champagne cork popped, we all agreed that the evening had been a huge success! More hugs at the end and again we set off in different directions, although the couple from the States did insist on waiting with me until the Uber arrived because it was past midnight and the street dark. I was learning to be more fearless in my approach to life and the world, but was glad of the company, nonetheless. And yes, I prefer Uber when I travel because I know exactly how much the fare will be before I get into the car and I don’t have to figure out foreign currency on the fly when the ride is over.
Midnight champagne aside, I was up and at ’em early the next day. My time in the city was running out and I wasn’t about to waste precious hours sleeping. First stop, a crepe-making party hosted by a young man with no experience in cooking anything but crepes. The class was the polar opposite of the one with Marthe, and I had a wonderful time making sweet and savoury crepes with a family of four from Calgary while gaining insight into Breton culture and every day life for young people in Paris in 2019.
From there, I headed to the Marais, following a walk laid out by Corey Frye, a transplanted American who shares his love of all things Parisian through video tours on his site A French Frye in Paris. His material is private, available only to supporters known as The Frites. I am a proud Frite and if you’re thinking of visiting Paris any time soon, you need to join!
I was lucky enough to meet up with Corey that afternoon for the café chat at the end of his Saturday afternoon video tour. We sat down with coffee in front of his camera and chatted live with Frites all over North America. He asked me about travelling solo in Paris and my experience with Airbnb Experiences, all of which I was more than happy to share. It didn’t matter that the day was still drizzly and cold, the laughter alone kept us warm and happy. That chat was definitely a highlight of the trip. Thanks again, Corey!
From there I hiked over to the Centre Pompidou, the one museum I wanted to visit on this trip. There is much to see at the Pompidou, but my goal was the Modern Art and Contemporary Art collections on the fifth floor. There are over 9,000 pieces in the Modern and Contemporary collections, including works by Picasso, Matisse and Warhol but the ones that held me spellbound were a handful of paintings from the 1930’s. Paintings that were intended to meet, and I’m quoting here, the ‘educational role of art in a Fascist Society, described as an instrument of spiritual government.’
Paintings that were, and again I’m quoting: ‘devoid of bourgeois intellectualism and rooted in ancestral tradition. The values conveyed – religion, rurality, family and social order – were considered a virtue by the (Nazi) regime.’
The similarities to what we’re seeing all over the world today are undeniable. The rise of religion, the glorification of an idyllic past, the fear of the other as a threat to social order. History is repeating itself. Do humans never learn?
The effect was chilling, and I left the Pompidou a little more somber than when I’d entered. But the rain had stopped, so I walked down to the river, hopped on the Batobus and put the problems of the world aside as I watched Paris drift by from a window seat.
That night I packed up and completed the online check-in for my morning flight to Prague. Tomorrow, I would meet Sandi at the airport there and we would continue on together. My solo adventure was ending, and I was looking forward to sharing the details with my travel buddy.
The burning question now is, would I take another solo trip?
In a Paris heartbeat!
The Prague/Budapest leg of the trip is over and I’m back home again. Loved both cities and would have liked more time in each. When I see you next, ask me about the Hungarian Iron Clap. It’s not what you think, I promise. 😊