At the top of the stairs a fat hairy ginger cat lies sprawled on its side, head propped up in the manner of a particularly lazy, disdainful Sphinx, surveying his domain: train tracks heading off towards Lyon and Marseille, the murmur of conversations, the clatter of shoes under the metal beams.

I’m perched on a banquette and my feet hover several inches off the ground. The table is vast, generous; the linen thick and crisp. Our suitcases have been whisked off to the cloakroom and we huddle, dwarfed by the arches and gilding and statues of sirens fainting.  At tables nearby the maître d’hôtel is in a constant frenzy of steak tartare: some eggs whisked in a bowl, first, then a dash of condiments, and baskets of golden fries spinning around the room. He is small and neat, alert, genuinely concerned for our comfort.

What do we talk about? The light from the chandeliers hits our glasses of wine and traces delicate lace collars on the tablecloths. We read out loud from the little brochure detailing the place’s history. On the walls we recognise Orange, the banks of the Seine mirroring Venice for the 1901 exposition, an alpine lake. We weigh the merits of butter salted, and not, before wreaking havoc with the salt grinder.

We eat in happy, drunken complicity. We take our time and mop up the rich juices with crusty bread – like peasants, my friend says. There’s fish, mine on a bed of spinach and preserved lemon, and then a fig and raspberry tart. Outside, a lone palm tree curves against the sky – so delicately blue – and the sparkling roofs of Paris. It is impossible, I know, to freeze the moment, to stay there in that grand dream of a place, in that perfect Saturday afternoon.

With a few minutes to spare we walk down the steps towards the waiting TGVs and Transiliens.  We say good bye at the edge of the tracks, and everything, it feels, is brushed with sunlight.

Where: Le Train Bleu, Gare de Lyon, above the old section of the train station.

I’m on my way back to Scotland for a few days. I was starved this morning and bought a bacon roll in desperation at King’s Cross – a thing dry and brittle like the desert.

I couldn’t help thinking about the best quick breakfast to have in Paris, at this celebrated bakery near the Canal St Martin. It’s a wonderfully pretty place, that smells of yeast, warm bread and butter even on Sundays when it is closed. They’re famous for their Pain des Amis (friendly bread? bread for friends?), large loaves cut up and perfect for sharing. But it’s the fresh croissants, crisp, buttery and salty, and petits pains filled with things like goat cheese and honeyed apples that I can’t resist.

\

There are benches by the canal for picnicking, and when you’re done wiping the crumbs off yourself you can go visit the many outlet shops in the area for a Maje or Les Petites bargain. Bliss.

Where: Du Pain et des Idées, 34 rue Yves Toudic 75010 Paris (Métro Jacques Bonsergent)

Opening hours: Monday to Friday 6.45 am to 8 pm

Tip: It’s worth going in January for their very good galette des rois


View Larger Map

 

There’s an old cherry tree in the Jardin des Plantes, stubby and gnarly like an old woman with its branches reaching all the way down to the ground. For a few weeks it blooms in the Spring. If I were 16 again I would skip class to go there and kiss boys and have not a care in the world.

 

“There’s an exhibition of neon at La Maison Rouge,” said my sister between two mouthfuls of chocolate cake.

This is how I found myself wandering through several rooms full of brightly lit sticks after a long, bracing walk along the Canal St Martin.* Coinciding with the 100th anniversary of the invention of neon lighting, the exhibition features over 100 pieces from the 1940s to the present day. Here, a Camerounian hair shirt hangs limply in a halo of pink light. Turn a corner and you’ll find a broken up poem in a glass cabinet. In another room stands a chamber of red lights, receding away into nothingness.

Is it the odd layout or the (un)savoury fumes emanating from the pop-up Rose Bakery stand? For a medium that is so colourful and brash, the exhibition falls unfortunately flat, with a certain whiff of art school mixed-media brief about it. The standout piece was ‘Untitled’ by Jason Rhoades, a joyful and exuberant installation of neon words describing the female sex. Collected at the artist’s studio in LA during parties called “Black Pussy Soirée Cabaret Macramé”, the words are strung up on cables and electrical devices hanging from the ceiling.

Queef. Sushi Taco. Sagging bacon cones. Worth the price of admission alone.

If the bright lights get too much you can retreat to the comfort of the video projection area, and watch neon tubes falling one by one from the ceiling of a sordid empty room. Soothing.

*If this sounds delightfully Amélie-esque, let me redress your impression, reader. It is arguably the most shit-strewn stretch in Paris, and that is saying something. As an added bonus we were also followed by street cleaners intent on pressure hosing said doo-doos in our general direction. Non merci.

When: 17th February – 20th May 2012

Where: La Maison Rouge, 10 Boulevard de le Bastille, 75012 Paris

Opening hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 11 am to 7pm, late-night Thursday until 9pm

 

The ourangutan sits slumped at the walnut dining table. It’s obviously been a bad night. There are broken plates everywhere, stuff spilling out from the slack-hinged cabinet against the wall. The geese – they’re fucking huge, the sort of thing that could peck your eyes out just by looking at you – are still partying hard. No one knows who invited them. The camels are so high they’re eating the house plants, and the lapdogs have fashioned robes out of some cashmere scarves. There’s talk of karaoke.

Drug-fuelled hallucination? Perhaps. This was the scene in one of the windows at the newish Hermès Rive Gauche store near the Lutétia. I love me a good Hermès window. I think that if I were horrendously rich I would want to live like this, in a riot of thick woolen carpets, taxidermy and leather saddles. I’d move from room to room swaddled in silks and cashmere, rinse my teeth in Champagne, and get minions to strew dead leaves and black pearls the size of my fist on my path. I would be, in fact, Leila Menchari, the designer who has been doing Hermès’ windows since 1977.

In my unspent youth I worked at Hermès, in the flagship store on the Faubourg St Honoré. Several times a year the blinds would be drawn, the windows shielded from the prying eyes of the public. “She’s here”, we’d whisper, and there was an unspoken rule that She should not be disturbed. Apparently when Leila came she would lie in the window displays, behind the closed blinds, reclining languorously with a glass of champagne in one hand. She would say:

Je cherche ma muse.

I’m looking for my muse.

This newer store is really quite lovely, a bright open space moulded by large yurt-like structures, set against the mosaic walls of the swimming pool it used to be.

There’s a florist so you’re greeted by the sweet smell of fresh flowers when you enter, a café (completely empty when I went, cakes looked delicious from afar) and a book section that featured this gem:

Bestiaire du Gange, a ridiculously beautiful bestiary screenprinted by hand in India on thick grainy paper. More pictures here and here. I wants it. I needs it. I lusts for it, still, 10 days later. It will be mine. Oh yes. It will be mine.

Where: Hermès Rive Gauche, 17 rue de Sèvres, Paris 6ème. Métro Sèvres-Babylone

Tip: The Hermès stores are a little bit intimidating from the outside, but  the staff is always unwaveringly friendly. If sweaty American tourists in shorts with bumbags full of crumpled euros can shop there, anyone can.

It is not a good idea to walk into a cake shop when you are hungry, tired, and grumpy. Emma and I had walked half way round Paris secret filming for Facegoop. It was cold, it was windy, and we needed pastry.

We flopped into the empty Sadaharu Aoki eat-in shop, in the strangely desolate no man’s land of Port Royal. We smiled at the Japanese… what were they really? Waitresses? Salesladies? Fearsome cake guardians? They did not smile back. We hesitated. We looked at neat biscuits in clear cellophane wrappers. We admired the framed live moss on the walls.

Eventually the waitresses deigned to acknowledge our presence, and this was our reward: a classic millefeuille and the Cassis Chocolat, a sort of fruity opéra with a crunchy hazelnut chocolate layer.

This thing was just for kicks. I’d remember its name if it hadn’t temporarily blinded me with a pure sugar hit, but there were definitely  raspberries, wild strawberries and pistachio cream involved.

I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the cakes, which were slightly bland and no match for the exquisite box of petits fours we’d demolished sampled on another trip, but which only seems to be around for Christmas.

The boutique is still worth the détour, if only to cackle mercilessly at the neat hapless French husbands looking desperately for the signature green “masha”  pastries, a haunted expression in their eyes.

Where: 56 Boulevard Port Royal, Paris

Websitehttp://www.sadaharuaoki.com

Tip: The seasonal collections look beautiful, but the classic salted caramel tart and sesame éclair are the real winners.

My BMF* is getting married this week end. In Paris. It’s going to be a very civilised affair: the groom will wear a standard suit (“maybe no tie”), the blushing bride will sport a seven month bump, and from what I can tell the very extensive programme of activities will mainly consist of a quick dash to the mairie followed by a lot of champagne.

Vive la République!

Now that I’m living in London, it’s an excellent excuse to try the Eurostar. Yes, I know, the thing has been going since 1994, but I have never professed to be on the cutting edge of, well, anything really.

Observations:

1. The logic that made me decide to stay for a week to take advantage of cheap mid week tickets is flawed. Ticket cost: £70. Daily cake allowance: £10.50. Cost to thighs: endless.

2. Train station hell is the new airport hell. Yes, St Pancras is very lovely with its lofty high ceilings and exposed bricks and champagne bar, but get to the gates and all hell breaks loose. British people and French people queuing. TOGETHER. If I knew anything about physics I would make some sort of witty analogy involving neutrons and hadron colliders and things that explode when they come into contact with one another. But I’m not, so I will just say DO NOT CUT IN FRONT OF ME IN THE LINE, PUTAIN DE BORDEL DE MERDE.

3. Crowded train travelling at high speed in a thin man made tube under millions of cubic meters of salty water. Why can I take liquids on the Eurostar and not on planes? Discuss.

4. Since when is £100 worth €101? It is the end of days, people. THE END OF DAYS.

5. The Pain Quotidien at St Pancras is the most crowded of the food and beverage outlets. We belgo-french sneer at your Wheterspoons and your fish burgers. Your crappy conveyer belt sushi, too.

6. Let us not talk of the train boarding experience. It is similar in feel to being packed in a metal tin next to your fishy friends in a pungent tomato provençale sauce, but with the bonus treat of being shouted at over the intercom in two languages. And loud annoying people talking on the phone about “incentivising bottom lines.” And french grannies moaning and tutting. Gaaaaaaah.

7. The countryside between London and the tunnel is bleak.

8. There is a disappointing moment when you realise you are already in the tunnel under the sea. There’s no announcement, no warning, no klaxon. Just 20 minutes of dark concrete walls, during which you have to admit to yourself you were hoping against hope for see through glass walls. Let me also direct your attention to the complete lack of wifi or electrical sockets. You suck, Eurostar engineers.

9. The countryside between the tunnel and Paris is bleak.

10. Gare du Nord. What the actual shit. Welcome, wealthy foreigners! We are a third world country. Please donate your local copper coins so we may invest in, oh I don’t know, signage/waiting areas/soap/customer service agents who speak to the customer rather than each other/ceilings/trains. At least the Vigipirate** level was sufficiently low that there were no machine gun toting death squads military milling about for that “Welcome to Kinshasa” feel.

Anyway, I am here and enjoying a diet of mostly animal fats, so I doubt there will be much bloggage for the foreseeable future. I may do a follow up post on the wonders of Paris (cheap public transport! streets paved with croissants pur beurre! philosophy magazines at the corner shop!) but don’t hold your breath.

* Best Male Friend, not Bad MoFo. Quoique.

**Vigipirate is France’s national security alert system, intended to prevent or react to terrorist threat. Because nothing makes you feel safer than, hmmm, a vigilant pirate. Arrrrrrrr.