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A taste of Paris
By Karen Carlson

"Paris makes you want to live forever." That's what my husband said as we walked the streets of the City of Lights. In Paris, you never want your time to end. It sweeps you up in its arms like a dancer and twirls you around, dizzying you with its lights, smells, sights and touch. In a moment, you feel you're a part of it, like a stranger who becomes your best friend. The historical splendor of the stones and steel is as welcoming as a soft bed.

Time in Paris will be dramatic, unforgettable and exhilarating. The stylish people, the dreamy food and the fragrant air blend together in what becomes your own uniquely perfect taste of Paris.  

Like all travels, our experience was different from the experiences of others who have visited longer, speak the language better and know more of its secrets. Hundreds of books can describe in detail the sites worth visiting. But in Paris, the experience is about you - and that's something you can't find in the travel books.

There's nothing like waking up in Paris. Savor the delectable bread, fresh butter, strong coffee, sweet fruit and scrumptious brioche for breakfast. Wear good walking shoes, pack a detailed map, grab a couple of euros for bus fare and you're out for the day.

The stately and serene city with a quiet elegance calls out to you to explore, drink in the culture and discover a gentler way of being.

With a relaxed, yet efficient pace, the center of the city is about living and reflecting, embracing who you are and letting it all just be. I didn't see glamour; I saw style, a joie de vivre unlike anywhere else. Spend a couple hours eating ice cream and drinking coffee at one of the ubiquitous outdoor cafes (Les Editeurs!), and watch Paris pass by.

In the height of summer, the sun doesn't set until 9:45 p.m. The sky was still a rich blue at 10:30 p.m. as many sat down to their evening meals.

It's as if Parisians manage to squeeze out every scrap of the day to live - even postponing the night to embrace the day. Rest is not as important as relaxing and enjoying yourself.

Paris radiates a tantalizing mix of old and new. But unlike our culture where age is ignored and destroyed, in Paris, age is revered, like respected elders. It's ever-changing yet stays the same. Antique museums and churches stand proudly amid dazzlingly new buildings such as the modern art museum Centre Pompidou, with its external stairs and Tour Montparnesse, a solitary skyscraper that towers above the skyline like a giant. People rode the Velib rental bicycles everywhere, even in the middle of traffic alongside the swift Smart Cars and motorcycles. Cell phone cameras snapped shots of the centuries-old Arc de Triomphe, Mona Lisa and the Champs-Elysees.

Our theme for traveling was given to us by a waiter's question when I ordered water: "Gaz ou sans gaz?" I didn't understand, so he repeated slowly in clear English, "Bubbles or no bubbles?" Time in Paris can indeed have bubbles or no bubbles. You can look at Paris, or you can see Paris.

Of course, Paris's famous treasures - the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame, and the Seine - are incapable of being ignored.

It can be a bit of a challenge to sift away the grainy sand of the novelty shops, polyester T-shirts, and the glowing, plastic statues of the Eiffel Tower to preserve and admire their majestic splendor. Certainly, no trip to Paris would be complete without admiring these jewels of the city.

But look past these obvious sites and see other, just as remarkable treasures hidden in plain sight: centuries-old restaurants, a medieval museum, a Holocaust Memorial buried in the earth behind Notre Dame, young lovers lounging in Jardin des Tuileries.

You can spend a fortune or not. You can enjoy a scrumptious lemon tart at the Brasserie Balzar, or stop in at a grocery and buy a loaf of bread, some fruit, a bottle of wine, and relax at one of the countless parks that punctuate Paris' streets like Morse code.

You can eat at a touristy bistro with great views of Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tour, or you can dine in a musty restaurant, where hearty stews are prepared in centuries-old kettles.

You'll be eating closely with others, much closer than we do in the states. It feels awkward at first, but then you'll meet charming locals like the retired navy officer we met at the The Crémerie-Restaurant Polidor, who wondered how we found such a local haunt.

You might sit next to a trio of friends speaking French on your left, and a couple on a first date speaking German on your right.

Indeed, people are close in Paris. The intimate, cozy streets lined with shops, booksellers, antique dealers and hundreds of brasseries speak to Europeans' knack for embracing small spaces. The people get close to each other, basking in the sun with their shoes off in a park on their lunch hour.

We stumbled upon Parisians playing "beach" volleyball on the lawn of the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) barefoot on tons of imported sand.

Certainly there's attitude - every place has its own. You can dismiss Paris and notice only the curt waiters, but you also can walk late at night and feel safe among the locals.

You can complain about the long lines and expensive tickets, or you can wander into an open-door church and breathe the rich smell of the antique wood and marvel at its spiritual grandeur.

Paris has gotten a bad rap lately. But we found none of the stereotypical mix of superiority and animosity. Parisians want you to enjoy their city.

You don't have to be fluent in French. Learn a few phrases, and most locals are willing to meet you halfway to bridge the language barrier.

The small rooms and small beds are dissimilar to U.S. hotels, evidence of Europeans' ease at living in small spaces. But Americans can easily find comfortable accommodations with modern bathrooms. You won't spend much time in the room anyway, as Paris beckons.

Pausing to rest one afternoon, I marveled at watching a rerun of "The Simpsons" - Homer doesn't sound any smarter speaking French.

When you leave, you're sure you'll come back to Paris' welcoming arms. But as the months and years pass, its fond memory grows poignant, like a lover lost. But you can still taste it.

Who knows if we'll return?

In any case, Paris will always be smiling at us, twinkling, with a wink for good measure.

 

Story published Friday, July 3, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 4 )

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