Friday, January 30, 2009
Finally I have found some flavored coffee to help cut the somewhat bitter taste of most of what I have been able to purchase in the local markets. I had brought two pounds with me, hazelnut and my regular Kentucky bourbon. I have been mixing these daily with Arabicas and Torrefie a la Italiennes and other sorts, but had depleted my inventory. And there were no flavored beans in the little grocery store on the Ile St-Louis. So I went looking.
My search took me to Le Bon Marche, the world’s oldest department store, and probably Paris’ most regal. This place is probably not a “must see” for every visitor, but it certainly is worth it if time allows. The main building sits on a little park where Rue de Sevres intersects the very busy Boulevard Raspail, several streets south of the Boulevard St-Germain in the 6th arrondissement. (As an aside, the location of anything in Paris includes the number of its district, or arrondissement; that tells you where it is). Le Bon Marche, begun in 1852, was subsequently modified by several name-brand designers, including Gustav Eiffel, he of the Tower. It has a big atrium in its center and the escalators criss-cross on one end in a really attractive design. And, by the way, I could ascend without having to walk, which was not my fate at Mr. Eiffel’s considerably taller beacon up the street. Everything in Paris is on sale—“Solde”, or clearance—particularly at the big stores such as this one. Except, of course, anything that I might want to buy. For example, coffee. It and all other condiments and edibles of every conceivable sort are housed in an adjacent building, the Grand Epicerie. A word about these terms: “bon marche” means “inexpensive”. I had looked up “cheap” several days earlier when shopping for a toaster on the other side of the river and had wanted to let the salesperson know my price range. “Grand epicerie” means “grocery store”. But you would be making a cataclysmic mistake if you determined that the Grand Epicerie at Le Bon Marche meant you were headed off to shop in a “cheap grocery store”. Nothing is cheap in this place. In fact it takes a big sack of euros to walk out with a little sack of foodstuffs. But it is a visual treat to see the gorgeous displays of jams and salmon and leeks and wine and . . . coffee. Flavored coffee. Cafe Aromatise. What a place. What a find. What a price!
Walking homeward, with my little aromatic packet, I stopped in the ubiquitous l’Occitane, a very nice shop which sells expensive soaps, hand creams and the like and has stores all across the city. My purchase was a wonderfully-scented candle, a mixture of orange and other fragrances, which I had gift-wrapped for later presentation. Along the Boulevard St-Germain I stopped for a glass of Bordeaux at Brasserie Lipp. From my window seat I could see across to the two much more well-known Left Bank haunts, Cafe de Flores and Les Deux Magots. But Brasserie Lipp has its own identity I found, and while Hemingway and Stein and Sartre and the group may have frequented the ones on the other side of the street, this is a pretty good little spot to settle in. By the way, one of the very best French traditions is that in any restaurant your waiter does not bring you a check—until you ask for it. That means you can linger over a glass of wine in the middle of the day, or after lunch or dinner, and not feel rushed to move out and make your space available for the next person. Once you realize this, you realize what a great habit this is. Every establishment should do it this way. So I made my glass go a very long way for a very long time, just people watching from my window perch.
Also across the street is the St-Germain-des-Pres, which competes with St-Julien-le-Pauvre for title of oldest church in Paris. But with its soaring tower forming a landmark on the Left Bank landscape, the church doesn’t compete with any other in terms of sheer majesty. It is quite a sight.
The National Radio Orchestra was performing Mahler’s Sixth Symphony tonight and I thought about trying for another last-minute 8 euro center aisle seat, but fearing I might have to pay the 80 euro asking price instead and remembering that I had heard the Chicago Symphony do this piece recently, I did not press my luck. Instead, I asked the neighborhood butcher to slice me a nice serving of veal center cut, and settled in for this Friday night.