Pushing past Paris: A first time in the city of love

by | Culture

A Dallas creative couple goes beyond that tower, arch and obelisk in search of something else entirely …

by JASON REIMER

photographs by JASON REIMER and KRISTEN BUTLER

video by JASON REIMER

There is always a first time — and this was mine. It was also long overdue, considering that more than a decade ago I visited France but was outvoted by my companions for a day trip to Paris. For my wife, Kristen, it’s just been too long since she’s been back. Over the next two weeks, we dissolve into this city for which iconic seems too small a word. We arrive with no time for jet lag at our hotel just off the Champs-Élysées on the morning of Kristen’s birthday. We drop our bags at the front desk while we wait for our room to be ready and wander around the block, where we are immediately struck with awe by the tower that is every visitor’s sworn duty to walk by at least once. We’re still electrified by sleep deprivation, and that only serves to enhance the natural beauty of Paris. All senses are overwhelmed at once. After a lunch at Café Constant, we surrender to a nap at our hotel before heading to a celebratory birthday dinner at Le Stresa.

We strategically plan our second day for Versailles, so we can get an appropriate feel for delusion. Versailles is the epitome of decadence and the catalyst for the beheading of the aristocracy, leaving behind a thick residue of distrust for politics among the French. It’s also the most absurdly beautiful place for a bike ride and picnic. We spend the train ride back to Paris laughing about the idea of Marie Antoinette asking peasants at Hameau de la Reine, her quaint faux village behind her lavish private palace, Petit Trianon, to paint pigs to match her dress on any given day, effectively creating the first Disneyland in history.

The next days are a blur of sightseeing before digging in below the surface. Our first real find is the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, which winds up being our favorite museum. Painter Walton Ford’s work, on view through February 14, is initially what attracts us, but the meticulously curated museum is a multistory treasure trove of curiosities, including a taxidermy gallery where an automated albino boar trophy — a work by artist Nicolas Darrot — yells at you in animalese. At one of our subway stops that night, we arrive above-ground only to be swept into a vegan music festival, where thousands of people fill the streets for a free concert. We hang on the opposite side of the park with a handful of hippie Rastas who have set up a giant sound system that blasts dub reggae and pulls in passersby to dance.

With the first leg of the trip behind us, we move north to Hôtel Particulier Montmartre, a former Hermès family home embedded near the top of the hill where Sacré-Coeur sits. (Next door, behind a large metal gate, is a private club where locals gather to play pétanque and get blindingly drunk.) Each of the rooms has been redesigned by Morgane Rousseau and is stuffed with art, enhancing the feeling you’re staying at a wealthy friend’s country home instead of a hotel. Each day begins with some loose agenda, only to be abandoned halfway through as cafe culture overtakes any sense of diligence. This is when we decide to rent a Vespa. The efficiency more than makes up for the danger, as we can see so much more of the city that we’ve been missing by traveling in the subway. Our newfound freedom also makes Kristen’s hunt for pharmaceutical-grade beauty products that are difficult to find in the States a reality. Texted orders for tubes of Pommade Fletagex, Biafine and Alfalux Baume Lèvres start coming in from friends at home. We’re barely halfway through the visit and these, combined with our record-store finds, will make our carry-ons bloated for the flight home.

One evening, our return to the hotel is badly timed as the Café Marcel that has become our daily haunt is already closed, along with most of the restaurants within walking distance. The concierge says local Le Basilic will stay open for us, so we head down one the many long staircases that wind through Montmartre. Le Basilic is clearly doing us a favor to take us at all. After a loud group of Americans close out and leave, our waiter joins us for a late dinner and lets down the character he seems exhausted to play for most guests. He speaks freely about French politics and the French’s true feelings about Americans, who, contrary to popular opinion, he says they like. He then shares his dream of riding a Harley through the American southwest desert to the California coast.

Tips from natives at each stop push us closer to something that feels intrinsically local. It’s on one of these fact-finding missions that we stop in Dante & Maria, a store owned by jewelry designer Agnès Sinelle. She directs us to what will become one of our favorite finds of the trip. She mentions an unmarked doorway around the corner that leads into an alley, and eventually to a large building with a neon pink arrow pointing at the entrance. It’s a massive complex of art galleries, two different tiki bars and an upstairs thrift mart of North African clothes. Nicknamed the Ghetto Museum, Le Comptoir Général, she assures us, is something even most Parisians don’t know about. The moment we step inside, a sense of triumph washes over us, as no one speaks English. We know we’re on the right track. This neighborhood along the Canal Saint-Martin ends up being our most frequented. That evening, we eat a controversial meal at Le Verre Volé, as we blindly order the special — and hand-strangled duck arrives. After some guilty waffling, we decide it seems like an added insult not to eat the poor creature, so we brace ourselves with more wine and do our best to be polite guests. The next morning, we return to the area to go to an unmarked, minimalist juice bar we’d spotted the night before. Like so many things in Paris, when you’re doing it right, you feel as if you’ve wandered into a secret.

Part of our trip is timed to coincide with Paris fashion week and as it kicks in, you can feel the city bulge — and roll its eyes at the same time. Just beyond the Palais-Royale in the 1st arrondissement, where much of the festivities are taking place, nothing seems to trump the importance of going about your daily business. But inside the storm, the fashion-week groupies hold most of our attention. Dozens of beautifully clad nobodies saunter through the crowd, stealing their paparazzi moment from photographers before slinking off as the real guests arrive and hog all the attention. We meet up with Paris-based Texan Robin Meason, who runs the fashion PR company Ritual Projects, and tag along with her to her shows. She’s launching this season’s Nehera collection and a few other upstarts at off-the-beaten-path locales. She admits to us at one of the after-parties that, if she has it her way, she’ll never return to the States. It’s not hard to understand why.

After a few days of shows and parties, the anxiety of how to end our trip has become a topic of serious debate; our search is becoming increasingly frantic. At one point, we even stop at a taco stand, Candelaria, which would seem perfectly at home in Oak Cliff where we live, making it a perfect precursor for our exit. On our final evening, we return to Clamato, one of the first restaurants we loved — or more specifically, to its maple-almond tart. We leave dinner feeling more than a little weepy and decide to take one last drive the length of the city, winding up next to the large golden replica of the Statue of Liberty’s torch that has become a memorial to Princess Diana. Kristen was a student abroad in England when an accident in the Pont de l’Alma tunnel fatally injured Princess Di. She has always wanted to see the torch, near the tunnel’s northern end. After a somber moment, we take one last glance at the square, crowded with tourists from across the globe, then head back to pack.

A week after our return, the hangover of Paris still with us, a small group of terrorists stunned the world when they attacked the neighborhoods we’d just been wandering. We got in touch with the friends we’d made. Eventually, life returned to normal — as much as it could.

JASON REIMER is a Dallas-based independent filmmaker, writer and composer and co-founder of the Texas Theatre. He wrote and directed the FD short film, Figurehead, in 2015.