Julie Venette had heard it all: the news reports of angry French citizens rocking Paris with antiwar protests, the story of an American tourist who waited an hour for service in a fancy bistro, even rumors of Parisians spitting at U.S. visitors.
Still, a week after the start of the Iraq war, she and her three daughters bit their lips, packed their bags and hopped a flight from their home in Denver across the Atlantic. "It was our dream vacation," she says. "We had planned it for months."
Now the foursome is standing in the courtyard of the Louvre, recounting the highlights of their week in Paris. They had their first taste of escargot, sauteed in pesto sauce. There was the day they spent scavenging boutiques for the heavenly scents and vibrant colors they can't find back home. Yesterday was the outing to Versailles, a trip that was meant to be a couple of hours but lasted all day. And today, a half-day tour of the dazzling collections of Dutch, Flemish and French masters at the Louvre.
But it's the Parisians themselves who have left the biggest impression. Service everywhere, they report, has been extraordinary. "Everyone is so wonderful and helpful," Venette says. "They even tolerate my broken French."
The subject of Iraq has come up precisely once. "A woman in a bookstore said, 'Good luck with your war,' " recalls Laurisa Bascom, Venette's youngest daughter. "I told her thanks, but that it wasn't my war."
Along the Champs Elysees, the most stunning of Paris's many grand boulevards, a young woman with a backpack is admiring the architecture. She's Keely Ireland, 31, a pharmacist from Baltimore. "To be frank, I found that there are certain advantages to being in Paris during this period," she says.
She means the bargains. With tourism down -- between 20 and 37 percent, according to the city's tourism office -- prices are being slashed. Airfares are running as low as $371 round trip from Washington on Easter weekend, for example -- a trip that usually costs about $650 this time of year. At the three-star American Opera Hotel, rates were $97 a night, a third less than usual. "This is about as affordable as Paris is going to get," Ireland says.
Another plus: Crowds at the major attractions are delightfully thin. Ireland says she got into the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre in a matter of minutes. In peak season, the wait at either can take hours.
Across the street, Buzz Hale, from Reno, and Carl Taylor, of Fort Lauderdale, are sipping coffee at the Vesuvio Cafe. They also report receiving top service in restaurants and at their hotel. But both are chagrined that the French government opposes the war. "If we hadn't been here for them during World War II," says Taylor, "they'd all be speaking German now."
* The Mouffetard, 5th arrondissement.
It's a sunny spring morning when Brad Newfields walks from the Metro station at Cardinal Lemoine back several generations into the French capital's gilded past. A crowd of visitors from the United States eagerly follows. They are 25 in all, including a lawyer from Arlington, a personal trainer from Portsmouth, N.H, and an airline executive from Portland, Ore.
This is a walking tour of Ernest Hemingway's Paris, organized by Paris Walks. For $10 apiece, Newfields takes them through the Mouffetard, a quarter of cafes, historic stone buildings and stands sagging with fresh fruits and cheeses, offering a glimpse into the colorful arts scene centered there in the 1920s.
The group stops at 39 Rue Descartes, where Hemingway rented a fourth-floor room between 1921 and 1925, and 71 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, where the novelist lived during his early twenties with his first wife, Hadley.
"Paris was always worth it to me," Newfields quotes from "A Moveable Feast," Hemingway's ode to the French capital. "You always received back from it what you brought to it."
Only near the end of the tour does a member of the group venture a question about life for Americans living in Paris now.
"The current situation has really changed very little for us," says Newfields, a Californian who has lived here for four years. "We keep giving as much as we can to it, and getting a lot back."
* Ile de la Cite, 4th arrondissement.
At 2 p.m., the square in front of Notre Dame is scattered with tourists gazing skyward at the cathedral's freshly sandblasted facade of snarling gargoyles. Normally there's a line of visitors snaking halfway across the plaza.
"We are astonished that there are less tourists," says Jojo Bok, who sells pens, statuettes and hats from her souvenir cart parked outside the church doors. "You have to continue to visit countries. We all have to make a living."
Among the small groups, snippets of Slavic languages and Spanish far outnumber English. Where are the Americans?
Finally, two sets of Californian sisters are spotted resting on a stone bench. Terry Funke (Roseville), Carol Pavlina (Brookdale), Tammy Salwasser and Nancy Blodgett (both Sunnyvale) arrived this morning, still bleary-eyed but cheery, committed to staying awake and eager to fulfill a vow to visit Paris made last year when Salwasser fell ill.
"Since the war, we've been gauging every day whether we felt safe," says Salwasser. "My husband really wanted me to cancel."
"Because of the media, we were led to believe there would be trouble," says Blodgett.
"I was told that restaurant owners would tell American customers to go away," says Pavlina. "Heard it from the flight attendant."
The group has plotted a strategy to guarantee a smooth Parisian sojourn.
"We all talked before the trip and we decided we'd be polite and courteous and patient [with the French]," explains Salwasser. "We came here to experience a foreign culture, not America. I think people here can separate between my nationality versus my government."
And off they go into the rare Paris azure day, a quartet of sunny Americans ready to take on the City of Light.
* Boulevard Saint Germain, 6th arrondissement.
Trouble is around the corner. Trouble, or a street party -- depending on your point of view.
Several blocks away, hundreds of high school students have shut down Boulevard Saint Germain and are heading west against traffic toward Place de la Concorde, the historic endpoint of many a demonstration.
It is the same square where Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette met the sharp endpoint of a guillotine blade. These days, the U.S. Embassy and the ambassador's residence face the Place, surrounded by metal fences and patrolling soldiers.
"War in Iraq -- illegal!" the students chant in response to a bullhorn's prompting. "George Bush -- assassin!"
One banner declares, "Against Saddam, For the Iraqis, Stop the 'Busherie' " -- the last word a pun on the French word for "butchery."
The students march purposefully but peacefully, pausing to pose for photographers and TV cameras. Others dance to pop music thundering from speakers towed by trucks. Meanwhile, stoic waiters from the venerable Cafe de Flore stand in their black pants and aprons, arms crossed. A mix of French hipsters and American literary wannabes crowd the sidewalk tables, gawking at the passing parade.
"It seemed more like a party than a protest," says Craig Kohler, sitting outside Les Deux Magots and measuring up the crowd against protests back in San Francisco. "This is nothing compared to that one. I'm more worried to be at home."
Armored trucks and helmeted, shield-wielding national police officers, some carrying tear gas launchers, take up the rear as late-arriving student groups struggle to catch up. Barricades prevent the students from spreading into the side streets.
The police are followed by green-suited city sanitation workers. They sweep the streets clean with hoses and leaf blowers, as if trying to erase all memory of the demonstration.
* Eiffel Tower, 7th arrondissement.
Under the chocolate brown, seemingly featherweight iron lattice of the Eiffel Tower, beggars ask for spare change. Immigrant vendors hawk key chains and postcards, then scatter when the police arrive. Nearby, couples and schoolkids sunbathe on the grass of the Champ de Mars.
Brice Keown has been to Paris before. So has Paul, his dad. They both visited in November 2001.
"I learned how to say, in French, 'Just because we're American doesn't mean we voted for Bush,' " Brice offers as a way of explaining if he's encountered any problems. "I made sure I had the right verb conjugation." They are from Vancouver, Wash., a suburb of Portland, Ore., although Brice is now on spring break from Carleton College in Minnesota.
"The French are very open to chatting about the situation," says Paul. "It's easier here in France to have a discussion or disagreement and not be considered anti-patriotic."
Their main concern has not been about personal safety but whether their trip is appropriate as American soldiers die in Iraq. "Being on holiday while the country is at war gives me a sense of disquiet," Paul reflects. "Is it the right thing to do? Does it trivialize what the soldiers are doing?"
Ultimately, father and son agree that, perhaps, by coming to France they would be pleasing both Bush and the soldiers, who would want American life to carry on.
"It's more important then ever to come," Paul says. "To make connections and bridge cultures."
* Rue Princesse, 6th arrondissement.
"I work in a sector where I would feel any anti-Americanism -- I teach English in a French university -- and I have felt nothing," says Kathleen Spivack, a Boston-area poet who spends several months each year in Paris as a professor of literature and writing. "On the contrary, I feel that French people are aware of multiple points of views. They want to talk about it."
In town this spring, she has also been helping out at the Village Voice, an English-language bookstore that after two decades has become a meeting place for literary-minded expatriates and Parisians who love Anglophone writers.
"The French are very well-informed, more so than we are," Spivack goes on to say, after recommending to a customer a new antiwar anthology called "100 Poets Against the War." "They get more information on the protests here than in the States. My children call me up here in Paris to ask what's going on back home."
* Rue des Ecoles, 5th arrondissement.
"I wonder what they're being fed," says Connecticut native Craig Carlson, who has sensed a serious disconnect between Americans Stateside and those who live in Paris. "What's going on over there?"
Carlson is proprietor of the Latin Quarter's new roadside-style diner called Breakfast in America. With Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens on the stereo, a toaster on each table and Americana on the walls, his restaurant attracts a mixed clientele of curious French and homesick expats craving fried eggs, hash browns and a bottomless cup of joe.
"The French say, 'What is wrong with your President Bush?' whereas the Americans say 'What is wrong with the French?' -- not 'Chirac.' That's an important difference," says Carlson. "Here, American expats feel they are apologizing for their country."
"All this fear and paranoia is crazy," chimes in Kimberly Perette, a San Francisco Bay Area native serving as waitress until she finds work as an architect. "I refuse to be afraid. I'm going to go about my life."
"I think that many French think all Americans are violent and puritanical," offers Olivier Blond, a DJ for Radio France who has American friends and once took a two-month Greyhound tour of the States. "They've got this stereotype in their heads. You keep it. I really think that not all Americans want this war."
Carlson later describes how he tries to foster the spirit of American exchange and dialogue in his diner. "That's the part of America I wanted to bring over here, the openness. We're losing it."
* La Mere Agitee, 14th arrondissement.
After serving up a tasty homemade pate, a plate of chicken in a sauce of cream and calvados, and a warm puff pastry that truly melts in the mouth, Valerie Delahaye places the theme of the day smack in the middle of the table.
"Your president has gone crazy," the chef/owner of La Mere Agitee, an inviting Left Bank bistro, tells a visiting American. His war is ruining the world economy and destroying innocent lives, she adds. "I can't for the life of me understand what's motivating it."
Thus begins a lively back-and-forth across the small restaurant that continues for the rest of the evening. One Frenchman voices steadfast support for the war. Another demurs, saying war is never justified. The American explains that his countrymen back home are similarly divided.
Across the Left Bank, where the salon spirit of Jean Paul Sartre and Gertrude Stein still lingers, such evenings are commonplace, according to locals. Hearty food gives way to heated discussion. "Most of us have thought a lot about the war and will gladly share our views if asked," says Sylvie Deplats, a French government worker.
In this case, Delahaye ends the debate on an upbeat note: a round of cognac and a toast to good health in the Gulf and on both sides of the Atlantic.
* Plaza Athenee, 8th arrondissement.
It's just another Friday night at the Plaza Athenee bar, but the place is so packed it might as well be New Year's Eve. Two blondes sip the bar's signature raspberry royals and chat in a drawl cultivated somewhere south of Dallas. In the corner, a young couple is smooching so sincerely they must be on their honeymoon.
This is one of the "in" meeting places for hip Parisians and high-rolling travelers. P. Diddy always makes an appearance when he's in town, and sensational models stake out the stools all night during fashion season. War or no war, this is where you go to star-gaze. Tonight, we spot no bigwigs at first. But wait, is that Robert Duvall over there with two pretty young things?
Later, when the crowd spills over for a bite in the nearby Relais Plaza restaurant, general manager Francois Delahaye laments that his American clientele has fallen off by about 20 percent in the past few weeks. "And the truth is that we still admire Americans," he says.
As if on cue, a middle-aged couple walks in, clad in the Yankee uniform of Levi's and sneakers, requesting a table by the window. The lights brighten a bit, revealing the full Art Deco splendor of the place. The piano player bangs out a spirited rendition of "New York, New York." As the waiter spoons a bowl of creamy asparagus soup, it seems that nothing much has changed.
Ethan Gilsdorf is a freelance writer based in Paris.
Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.
Under the watchful eye of a French waiter, Americans Buzz Hale (left) and Carl Taylor take a break last week on Paris's Champs Elysees.Parisian students protest the war in Iraq last week, shutting down Boulevard Saint Germain in the process.