In Paris, Living Large for Less
Sunday, May 8, 2005
The windows of Paris used to torment me. When I first arrived in the city three years ago as a Converse-wearing, ramen-eating student, I would wander around gaping at the boutiques and restaurants I could not afford. I was a classic leche-vitrine, that miserably appropriate term that literally translates as "window licker." For those who, like me, were born with tastes that far exceed their means, Paris can be a frustrating place.
Today, in the back streets of the Bastille, far from the trudging tourists of Saint-Michel, there is an American teacher sipping champagne and cracking a creme brulee. This young expatriate has achieved the ultimate coup in an increasingly expensive city, particularly for dollar-poor Americans: to live richly when decidedly not rich. I may not have shed the Converses, but I've exchanged ramen for foie gras and never looked back. Paris is filled with affordable decadence -- you just need to know where to find it.
My French friends have taught me the value of the petit plaisir -- that is, the tiny luxury that all French people allow themselves from time to time. Far from the excess of "buy-one-get-one-free" America, the principle of the petit plaisir is that we should treat ourselves to mini-extravagances once in a while. It's a philosophy currently in vogue with the dieting set, thanks to Mireille Guiliano's bestselling book, "French Women Don't Get Fat," a veritable celebration of butter, sugar and cream, albeit in moderation. The surprise revelation at hand: French women do eat, and richly. But they choose their pleasures wisely, and savor them.
Here are eight little luxuries to savor in Paris.
Hot Chocolate at Angelina's
One of my first experiences with the petit plaisir was a rendezvous with a Frenchman, who took me to the legendary Angelina's teahouse on Rue de Rivoli. The over-the-top extravagance of the place was slightly intimidating: waiters in tuxedoes, clinking crystal, Parisian matrons in mint-green Chanel and Hermes scarves. But my date, a graduate student whom I knew to exist almost wholly on falafel and spaghetti, winked and told me not to worry, that we were there for the hot chocolate.
And, for less than a cocktail or lunch at Wendy's, we had a lavish afternoon surrounded by Belle-Epoque mirrors and gilded moldings. This is not to undermine the hot chocolate itself, which appears in its own pitcher, with enough thick, decadent potion for at least three cups, finished off with dollops of homemade whipped cream from a silver pot. Angelina's cocoa is an excellent introduction to cheating your way into Parisian opulence. So sit back, sip your cocoa and don't be afraid to say firmly to your waiter: "Oui, ça sera tout." (Yes, that will be all.)
Angelina's Tearoom, 225 Rue de Rivoli, 8th arrondissement, 011-33-1-4260-8200. Metro: Tuileries. Coffee $5.15, hot chocolate $8.
Champagne at the Ritz
The Hemingway Bar is one of the most celebrated spots in Paris. It also happens to be one of the hardest to find. Part of the mystique is the fact that the bar lies slightly apart from the maze of glitz that is the Paris Ritz. After your taxi pulls up to the Place Vendome entrance, walk past the snooty doormen and continue straight through the endless lobbies and corridors until you seem to hit a wall. Turn left into a tiny nook; this is it. Once inside, the bar may surprise you by its size and low-key vibe. But the surprise will melt away when you see the fresh orchid perched on top of your champagne cocktail.
The best luxury spots are those that make you feel right at home. The Hemingway Bar wraps you in sumptuousness without the slightest feeling of unease. Don't forget to make a trip to the powder room, which ranks among the best in the world, with its octagonal, fun-house mirrors. I recommend that men pair the obligatory jacket and tie with jeans -- you may get the rock-star preferential treatment. Ladies, jeans are out for you, so glam it up: How often do you come to the Ritz?
The perfect way to nurse a Hemingway-induced hangover is an afternoon in the sun. A picnic is that oh-so-Parisian way to enjoy a beautiful day, and to avoid those expensive and crowded cafe terraces. But let's dpeart from the classic Luxembourg Gardens feast. Chances are, if you've been to Paris, you've done Luxembourg. Which is lovely, but you can't even sit on the grass! Despite its working-class, eastern Paris location, the Parc des Buttes Chaumont is a wonder of opulence with its manmade lakes, waterfalls and caves. Designed in the 1860s by Baron Haussmann to accommodate the developing craze for civilized outdoor activity, Buttes Chaumont is a meandering, fairy-tale-like park 10 minutes by Metro, taxi or bus from the center of Paris. And you can even sit on the grass, a rarity for Parisian parks. The Buttes Chaumont's fantasy aspect lends itself nicely to a good old-fashioned tea party, which is a good old-fashioned tea party, which is quite easy to supply at any local boulangerie or patisserie. Try some of the ubiquitous and adorable petits-fours (miniature cakes, macaroons, tarts and eclairs) -- at about 50 cents each, you can rationalize at least 10.
Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, bounded by Rue Botzaris, Rue Manin and Rue de Crimee, 19th arrondissement, Parc des Buttes-Chaumont.