Ah, Paris in April. Who can resist the call?
I can’t. Almost every year since we met there in 1948, my husband, Evan, and I would make a pilgrimage back to the place where we started our life together. A number of fortuitous happenings led us to each other. I was on my first trip to Europe and had fallen in love with the city. In fact, I so hated to leave that a few days before I was to set sail, I mistakenly (?) left my purse on a bench in the Tuileries Garden. My traveler’s checks, my passport, my return passage home—all had vanished.
To me it was clearly an omen: I was fated to stay. Which I did for three and a half years, keeping afloat by devious means, such as finding refuge through a young friend in the apartment of his aunt, Princess Caetani, who was conveniently living in Rome. The painter Balthus (unknown to me then) was also sheltered there. And then my friend and I had the gall—with Balthus’s consent—to turn the spacious apartment, with its old-fashioned, well-appointed kitchen, into what one might call a restaurant. We figured that if we fed others a few times a week for a reasonable fee, we could feed ourselves, and board as well as bed would be taken care of. For a chef we recruited a dashing French journalist I’d met, a good cook who loved introducing ignorant Americans to the glories of French food. But that venture was brought to a halt after the princess got wind of the goings-on in her apartment, and I had to return to a shabby little hotel on the Left Bank.
Desperately looking for a job, I had the name of Evan Jones, the editor of Weekend magazine, at the bottom of a list of prospects (all the rest had rejected me), but I couldn’t find the magazine’s whereabouts. Then one evening I returned to my hotel, which had one telephone on the ground floor, and I heard an American woman shouting into the receiver “Weekend? Is this Weekend magazine?” When she had finished, I quickly retrieved the phone before she could hang up and reached Mr. Jones, who agreed to see me. The next day I had a job as his assistant.
At our first lunch together over boudin blanc, I realized that we shared an unabashed pleasure in food, and the next three years we spent together in Paris fed that passion—shopping for fresh produce in noisy, open street markets, learning from the butcher’s wife the secret of good pommes frites, coaxing the poissonnière to tell us how to cook an unfamiliar species of fish, or having the fromager show us when a soft cheese was just à point (ready to eat). And we loved preparing simple but multicourse French dinners, often cooking over just a couple of burners in a tiny apartment we’d rented, washing everything down with a 10- or 11-degree red wine—or a 12-degree if we were feeling flush—that had been siphoned off the barrel the neighborhood grocer always had in his shop.
After returning to the States I was hired by Alfred Knopf as an editor. By chance in 1960 a huge manuscript on French cooking landed on my desk, written by an unknown American woman and her two equally unknown French cohorts. I devoured it, convinced that it was the first book to really explain the whys and wherefores of French cooking and to translate to the American home kitchen the techniques that made the difference between a soigné dish and a pedestrian effort. So I persuaded the Knopfs to let me take on what we titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that changed forever the American attitude toward food and made Julia Child a household name.
Soon I started pursuing other writers who would do for unfamiliar cuisines what Julia had done for French cooking. Evan was writing about American food and the mysteries of cheese and the art of breadmaking, which took us to new and distant lands in search of material. But almost every year we were drawn back to Paris. The only thing we missed, having to stay in hotels as we did, was a place to cook. Somehow it wasn’t the same if we couldn’t recapture the pleasure of food shopping and making those French meals.
Then in the mid-eighties enticing listings of short-term apartment rentals in Paris started to appear in The New York Review of Books and a few booking agencies sprang up. Now, of course, the Internet has opened a whole new world, and I can scan a variety of offerings complete with photos as I dream of sipping café au lait on the little balcony overlooking the Rue Cler market or of cooking dinner in that kitchen I can spot through the archway of the cozy living room, where there is a wrought iron–and–glass table just waiting to be set for dinner. An image of the latter was attached to a listing for a one-bedroom off the Place Saint-Germain-des-Prés that I was particularly drawn to when browsing for a place to stay this past spring. The fact that it was located in the very heart of the area I first came to know and love as a 24-year-old also swayed me.
In April 2008 I was to be alone again. Since Evan died 12 years ago, I have made many return trips, usually with a friend or a relative. But now I welcomed being on my own. I wanted a quiet space in which to work, to spend time with my stepgranddaughter and her family, who live there, and to visit old friends.
When the taxi driver dropped me off at what he thought was close to my destination and I started wandering the narrow, congested backstreets lugging a heavy suitcase, I began to have doubts about whether the apartment on the Rue Gozlin existed. Then I turned a corner and a voice cried out “Judith!” in an unmistakable French accent. And there was Marc André, the gentleman with whom I had been e-mailing as I plotted this venture. A lucky thing, too, that he turned up—and was a large, strong-looking man—because as we entered the dark hall of no. 7, I realized there was no elevator, and I was to be on the third floor (the fourth, actually, since the French don’t count the ground floor as the first). I had simply forgotten to ask about an ascenseur. But Marc darted nimbly up with all my luggage, and I followed cautiously behind.
As I turned the key and opened the door, I had the feeling of walking into an Anne Tyler novel. I was entering an imagined world: Madame Jones in her Saint-Germain domain. I couldn’t wait to settle into my new identity and hardly listened as Marc explained how to turn on the stove and the microwave. So we agreed that I would call him the next day to sign contracts and make final payments.
But the next day was a series of mishaps. Evidently I had put the telephone to bed upside down and it was dead by morning. So I trudged down the ancient stairs to the public telephone on the place. But no, it didn’t take coins. Trust the Parisians, who love the automated life, to make the public phone dependent on a card that you buy at the post office or newsstands.
Moreover, although I felt guilty for not being able to call Marc, I was uneasy about seeing him. I was supposed to give him the security deposit and the rent in full, but I was having trouble getting those euros (dollars are scorned these days). Citibank, which I’d assumed would do the exchange for me and write a check, was nowhere to be found. If I tried to get cash from an ATM, I was limited to 800 euros a day, which meant it would take a week to amass the necessary amount.
It was one of those cold, rainy April days, and I felt the first order of business was to find some food so I could cook myself a nice dinner. That always makes me feel at home. But I scoured the streets in the drizzle and found no grocery, boulangerie, or other small food shop in what had become a very tourist-oriented neighborhood. Then I realized, no wonder: Right across from me was the Grande Epicerie, the super-French supermarket in the Bon Marché department store. Inside, the fresh produce and array of charcuterie looked splendid. But it was the takeout display stretching half a block that dominated the scene—shelves full of dishes like boeuf bourguignon and blanquette de veau all ready to pop into the microwave. So this was French home-cooking today.
But I was determined to cook. After hauling several plastic bags plus a bottle of wine up the four flights, I started to prepare my dinner—a milk-fed veal chop, some slim green beans, and some new potatoes. And then I faced the so-called induction stovetop, brand name Sauter. It consisted of a black glasslike surface with four circles indicating where the specially designed pots should go, each with a panel of indecipherable codes. When Marc had tapped one of these, a red light went on immediately, and as he nudged the number upward with his finger to 12 (the rolling-boil point), everything had looked so simple. But Sauter didn’t seem to like my touch and wouldn’t jump. I tapped, I nudged, I massaged, and then in frustration I banged. Finally I tried another panel and managed to move the numbers up ever so slowly to 12. Quickly I slapped a pot of water on top, but when I went to set the table it turned itself off and I had to start all over again. I did finally manage to make a palatable dinner, but I felt that Sauter was in charge, not me. I’ve been told since (even by David Bouley) that these stovetops are clean, safe, and efficient, and they are installed in many Paris apartments these days. But how could one make an omelet, where quick control (your control) of the heat is essential? Or roast a pepper over the flame when there is no flame? Or reduce a pan sauce before it vanishes? How could the French, of all people, have submitted?
After all these minor disasters I decided to have a peaceful cup of coffee at the nearby Deux Magots café and watch the last of the gray light fade behind the august church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Restored, I returned to the Rue Gozlin and confidently punched in my code to open the heavy entrance door, only to find that I could not manage to turn the key in the lock of the inner door that confronted me, nor could I extract the key to try again. I had forgotten two cardinal rules: one, that French door keys turn to the left, not the right, and two, that to retrieve the key it might need to be set at the horizontal, not the perpendicular. Meanwhile I struggled a good half hour, with the minuterie light going off every 60 seconds and plunging me into darkness until I could find the button and press it again. I decided to try ringing the tenants’ buzzers until someone answered. Sure enough, on the third try a young man responded, trotted down the stairs, buzzed me in, and effortlessly flicked my key out of the lock. When I asked him what the secret was, he just gave me a Gallic shrug.
After sleeping off my humiliations, I awoke to a brighter, somewhat warmer April day and celebrated with a brisk walk to a boulangerie near the Jardin du Luxembourg reputed to have the best croissants in Paris. The first taste of a breakfast croissant had always seemed to Evan and me a rite of passage; we weren’t really home again until we’d enjoyed that first buttery, flaky bite.
On my way back to the Rue Gozlin, my eye was caught by a large poster with bright swatches of green, yellow, orange, and blue—Vlaminck’s startling impression of the French countryside on exhibit at the Musée du Luxembourg. So after a most amicable meeting with Marc, during which we settled our finances (and I learned he was both a puppeteer and a harpist), I headed back to that particularly appealing small museum and spent the afternoon with Vlaminck’s canvases.
Another poster beckoned from the iron fence of the Eglise Saint-Germain-des-Prés courtyard, announcing a concert there of Vivaldi, Mozart, and Handel that very night. I arrived early, but the entrance was already packed. Fortunately, being alone, I was pointed toward a single seat up front, and I felt almost a part of the orchestra and the 70 or so singers. When the opening movements of Vivaldi’s Magnificat poured forth, the church was filled with a special richness of sound that seemed to come from ancient stones and soaring arches. I left the church dazed—and grateful to be once again in Paris, where such riches abound in almost every quarter of the city.
Those ancient stones also reminded me of what had happened the year before on my annual pilgrimage. On my last day in the city, I stopped by the Saint-Séverin church to take in its loveliness. Coming from the bright sunshine into a dark cavernous space threw me and I didn’t see a large stone step. The next thing I knew, bone hit stone, and I cried out at the sharp pain in my hip. Quickly several people stopped to give me a hand, but then a woman who said she was a nurse from near Boston took charge and told me not to move. In no time she had summoned the priest, who called an ambulance, and I was whisked off amid smiling faces and blessings to the nearby Hôpital Cochin. There I was efficiently cared for—two large pins skillfully inserted into the cracked hip bone—and I spent a week in a quiet room, learning, as soon as I could, to walk with two canes.
It was a total immersion in French life. Meals were introduced with a quite elaborate menu, making them sound better than they really were, and no one frowned when I poured a glass of wine from a bottle a friend had brought. On the seventh day I confessed to the surgeon that I wanted one last good meal before I flew home. He understood perfectly and released me a day early.
Still I felt somewhat apprehensive about my return trip a year later. Maybe that accident was telling me that it was time for this 84-year-old to stay home and tend to her knitting.
Such anxiety quickly vanished as Madame Jones settled into her new life on the Rue Gozlin. I soon realized that the adventure had given me a new confidence, and I felt safer for it. During the next two weeks I went food shopping and cooked with my young great-grandchildren. I walked endlessly through familiar old streets and had a delicious picnic in the Jardin du Luxembourg on the first real spring day, when everyone was sprawled on the grass to drink in the sun. Best of all was the surprise delight of having Marc take me to his puppet theater in a park near the Eiffel Tower on a Saturday afternoon when it was packed with children, who threw themselves into the action, laughing, booing, applauding.
Sauter and I seemed to be getting along better, too, and it let me sauté a daurade that was truly soigné à la Julia. But I made a point of eating out at several restaurants in my vicinity, both to get a taste of bistro food again and to feel a part of French life. I like eavesdropping on the next table as I’m slowly consuming a whole artichoke, for instance, leaf by leaf, and I’ve always found that a woman dining alone, no matter how ancient, is treated with respect in France. I’m careful to go a little before eight, when there are still plenty of tables in the small restaurants, and I’m led mostly by my nose and the offerings on the menu posted outside. The first night I was drawn to a little traditionnel place off the Rue de Seine because it featured mussels escargot-style, and as I scooped up the plump mussels dripping in garlicky butter I tucked away another good idea to bring home.
For my last day I decided to treat myself to a more elegant solo dining experience at Joël Robuchon’s L’Atelier on the Rue de Montalembert. I like his concept of serving fine French food tapas-style at a bar surrounding the kitchen so one can watch the preparation and then slowly savor a number of petits plats one by one. Although at first the black and red decor seemed dark and severe, I found it soothing as I watched the intense young sous-chefs in their matching black shirts with red piping performing their ballet of cutting, sautéing, tossing, blending, and meticulously arranging the perfect little plates. My first one was sea urchins in an intense, frothy broth; the second, marrow bones, for which I have a weakness, was so architecturally arranged that I did not know quite how to attack them until a server came to my rescue and suggested I just pick them up; the third, sweetbreads (another weakness), which arrived on a big white plate looking like a rabbit with laurel-leaf ears about to spring. A chocolate galette topped with chestnut mousse was irresistible, as was a glass of Burgundy Chardonnay. What a splendid way to spend a last day in Paris.
As the taxi taking me to the airport sped across the bridge at Ile Saint-Louis and I watched the gray clouds scuttling over the City of Light, I was already thinking about next April. How about that little studio apartment with the balcony—the one overlooking the bustling Rue Cler market?
An Appartement of One’s Own: Paris Rentals
Part of the fun of renting an apartment in Paris,” says Judith Jones, “is get-ting to discover the neighborhood.” And real-life residences can be just as chic as five-star hotels. What follows is a highly selective guide to places worth renting.
Jones’s rental on the Rue Gozlin. One bedroom, one bath, kitchen, quiet location off the place. Fourth floor without elevator. $1,420 a week. Contact by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A modern townhouse in a former stable, renovated by interior designer Agnès Comar. Original Jean Prouvé and Charlotte Perriand furniture. Three bedrooms, two baths, courtyard, home theater, professional kitchen. $21,300 a week. Contact Cédric Reversade at 44-207/788-7815 or go to cedricreversade.com.
Place Des Etats-Unis
Space conceptualized by interior designer Laurent Buttazzoni, completed in 2006. Three bedrooms, three baths, professional kitchen, balcony views of the Eiffel Tower. Fifth floor with elevator. $17,000 a week; cedricreversade.com
Once home to the mistress of King Charles IX, recently renovated by interior designer Jacques Grange. Three bedrooms, three baths, full kitchen with La Cornue stove. Views of the Place des Vosges. Second floor with elevator. From $16,000 a week. Contact by phone at 866-437-2623 or go to parisluxuryrentals.com.
Fully renovated, with 18th-century Russian inlaid desks and ancient Roman mosaics. On a private, gated street. Two bedrooms, two baths, eat-in kitchen. Eiffel Tower views. Fifth floor with elevator. From $7,400 a week; parisluxuryrentals.com
Market Appeal: Shops and Restaurants
Over the years, certain places have taken on special meaning for Judith Jones as she has returned to them annually to do her shipping and dine with friends. She agreed to share a few addresses with one caveat: “I really feel that everyone should explore and find their own favorites.”
The Rue Cler and Rue Mouffetard Market Streets
“These are real neighborhood markets where you see whole families with strollers and shopping carts. There’s sometimes live music and always an air of festivity as the purveyors call out and coax you to buy their goods. As a French lady I knew long ago told me, always start at one end of the market and walk to the other so you can survey the stalls and make comparisons before buying anything.”
Fumoux Boulangerie et Patisserie
“For superior croissants au beurre. That you even have to specify ‘butter’ is horrible to me. But alas, even in Paris these days croissants are sometimes made à la margarine.” 48 Rue Madame; 33-1/42-22-14-57
“By now everybody knows about this famous kitchenware shop, but it is always worth a visit.” 18–20 Rue Coquillière; 33-1/42-36-53-13
“There are wonderful spots for tea in almost every neighborhood, but I think it’s worth finding a Mariage Frères shop to sample some remarkable teas.” mariagefreres.com for locations
“Once when I visited this extraordinary pâtisserie with the food writer Jeffrey Steingarten, we were invited to the basement to taste some new creations. What a treat.” 72 Rue Bonaparte; 33-1/43-54-47-77
“A restaurant near the Bourse, for genuine Lyonnaise cuisine.” 32 Rue St.-Marc; 33-1/42-96-65-04
“An unpretentious place in the Tenth for true food lovers.” 10 Rue de Belzunce; 33-1/44-53-06-20
L’Os A Moelle
“This restaurant’s name means ‘bone marrow,’ which I love.” 3 Rue Vasco-de-Gama; 33-1/45-57-27-27
Where the Smart Set Stays
Since 1972 The New York Review of Books has featured in its back pages listings for apartment rentals. In the eighties the section grew to include more international ads, among them many for places in Paris. Often catering to professors needing housing on their sabbaticals abroad, the petites annonces continue to include many .edu e-mail addresses and assurances about proximity to libraries and archives, even as some large firms have started placing ads there as well. nybooks.com/classifieds/rentals