It was to be my first serious trip as a solo traveler carrying little more than a few changes in underwear and a few books. I had just quit my first paying job and cashed in my nearly non-existent pension. Barely three years into a career and already unemployed by choice.
Traveling through Germany was easy. I drifted between friends and they passed me on to others. The beds were all comfortable and the meals solid.
But after nearly two months of easy traveling I was ready for a change.
The French dramatist Jean Anouilh (1910-1987) once said: “Everything ends this way in France – everything. Weddings, christenings, duels, burials, swindlings, diplomatic affairs – everything is a pretext for a good dinner”.
After two months of pork and potatoes I was ready for what France could throw my way. So I bought a train ticket on which it said: “Final destination: Gare de l’Est”.
Compared to most cities I’d been to since, Paris is different. And I am not talking romance here. On the surface, Parisians are not very friendly.
They charge much more if you want to have your beer at the sidewalk table. And they do not tell you that it is cheaper inside.
Try buying cheese. Besides the bewildering array of unknown artifacts that do not even resemble cheese, at least as I knew it, any attempt to guide their unsympathetic gaze with a pointed finger toward the object of your tentative desire will be ignored. Guaranteed.
I tried really hard during those first days to acquire at least some basic French phrases, and get my pronunciation right. I enlisted the help of friends and acquaintances, phrase books and language tapes (remember those?).
But I soon gave up. Like Mark Twain, I realized I was never going to make “those idiots understand their own language”.
So I just embraced it all. So what if I got the wrong cheese or paid a few bob more for my beer?
I eventually found my way to Shakespeare and Company bookstore, “a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore” near Place Saint-Michel and saw the messages left on the walls by famous writers of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
I saw people taking books from the shelves and reading them and upon leaving inserting a bookmark before putting them back. In fact, I never saw anyone buying a book. And if you like, you could sleep in the shop, it has thirteen beds.
And I ate.
Back then in the pre-Euro days, a backpacker on a tight budget could still eat well. Bistro’s and brasserie’s served regional classics such as pot-au-feu (root vegetables cooked with various types of meat), coq-au-vin (chicken cooked in red wine), boeuf bourguignon (beef cooked in red wine) and confit de canard (duck slow cooked in goose or duck fat).
The wine list at Sale e Pepe consisted of whatever bottle of wine the jovial Corsican owner slammed on your table and the chalkboard menu simply stated: pizza or pasta. Nothing more.
Or where else would you have to fetch your own wine from huge vats using a pitcher, and do so as often as you like. At Chez Nos Ancêtres Les Gaulois you can. And aside from your main, you can eat as much as you can from the huge plates of vegetables and charcuterie they served as pre-main courses.
Or have an entire restaurant dedicated to apples. Or one that specialises in absinthe.
When they asked the famous American bank robber William “Willie” Sutton why he robbed banks, he allegedly answered: “cause that’s where the money is”.
So, I am telling you, go to Paris, cause that’s where the food is.