Joni Mitchell once sang about wandering the Champs Elysees and “going cafe to cabaret” in that “unfettered and alive” way. But not I. My approach to that grand boulevard, and most of Paris’s landmarks, is better described by Dionne Warwick: I walk on by. Quickly.
What’s my rush? Why don’t I stop and smell the roses — or at least ogle the stained glass? It’s not that I’m uninterested in art, architecture, theater, music or other cultural touchstones of a place as rich as the City of Light. Far from it. But my primary interest commands too much of my attention, and I’m trying to pack it all in.
I skip most of the must-sees because I’m headed for the must-eats.
I know Notre Dame primarily as that imposing structure that rises into the sky on the way across the river to my favorite bakery on the Rue de Rennes — the one with the perfect financiers, those gold-brick-shaped almond cakes that I’ll take over a madeleine any day of the week, Proust be damned. Pompidou’s modern art museum may hold works by the likes of Dali and Kandinsky and Warhol and Calder, but I mostly think of it as eye candy for my walk to the best falafel shop in the city.
One Paris oversight is so egregious that I hesitate even to admit it. But here goes: Every time I’ve visited, I’ve been too busy making my way from macaron shop to farmers market, from wine bar to rotisserie, that I’ve never actually made it all the way into — get ready for this — the Louvre. The Louvre!
It seems so ridiculous, but the fact is, whenever I’ve had the choice between lining up to see the Mona Lisa and lining up to bite into a kouign-amann, a fabulous pastry from Brittany that tastes like the love child of a croissant and a sticky bun, well, you know what wins out.
A flurry of foods
It’s the same everywhere I travel, to one degree or another. Over five days in London, you’d think that I could clear an evening for a West End play or two — but not when I want to eat as much Indian food as time will allow. A single theatrical experience might mean one fewer High Street curry house, an equation that just doesn’t work for me.
On one visit there many years ago, I came up for air from my chicken tikka masala and rogan josh to visit Covent Garden, but you can probably guess that my destination wasn’t the Royal Opera House, magnificently restored and certainly one of the city’s most glorious attractions. No, it was little Neal’s Yard Dairy for a sampling of exquisite raw-milk cheddar — and Wensleydale, Stilton, Shropshire and other UK cheeses of a quality I had never before experienced.