I tasted my first croissant in Paris at the age of 14 and it truly blew my mind. While practising our French, my classmates and I also ate braised rabbit (they told us it was chicken), Cognac-laced pâté, hot crepes on the streets of Montmartre. After too many espressos one night, I went to the teachers' room with the shakes at 2 a.m., and they poured me another new flavour - half a bathroom glass of Grand Marnier - and sent me off to bed.
I've been to Paris several times since, and in that interval, croissants and pâté have become mediocre and common here at home. Paris is still beautiful, but it is no longer easy to make the food discoveries I did that first time. Where to find authentic experiences now? The correct way to blow several hundred bucks on a restaurant meal in Paris seems like a secret - intimidating, risky, opaque. I only know what isn't authentic: eating bistro standards at Brasserie Lipp and Café de Flor with the other tourists and feeling like the waiters are silently laughing at you.
And then, as my husband, Michael, and I planned a recent visit, I had an idea: What if we were to rent an apartment? We would get more space, spend less and, most exciting, be able to shop and cook like real Parisians. Could anything be more romantic?
We found an elegant-yet-worn 18th-century building in the 7th arrondissement. Behind its oversized blue door was a chic little flat with lots of windows, modern furniture and ancient wood floors. Best of all, it had an empty fridge we had no choice but to fill.
When you wake up in Paris, what do you crave? Coffee so dark and full its surface is almost oily, real croissants redolent with the flavour of French butter, maybe some Mirabelle plum jam. This is what we ate at our tiny dining table, looking over the neighbourhood rooftops, every morning.
Then we were out the door on a series of foraging expeditions. First stop: the legendary patisserie Ladurée, in the heart of Saint-Germain where the tiny cakes, or macaron, are laid out like jewels. The Frenchwoman behind the counter is stern - you are in Paris now and sweets are serious business - so don't giggle or dawdle. We choose cassis, mango, mocha and salted caramel and leave arm in arm, clutching our little box of treasure. It isn't far to La Grande Epicerie, the spectacular food floor at Le Bon Marché department store.
There is a station for everything - pastry, wine, coffee and tea, meat, seafood and fish, cheese, specialty eggs, fruit and vegetables - all top quality and very French. We run around a little crazily buying beautiful steaks, herb-speckled salami, a couple of bottles of red wine, briny olives, runny cheeses and candied clementines.
The next round of provision gathering takes us into the heart of the 1st arrondissement. For fuel, we stop at Angelina's, where we make a meal of their famous hot chocolate, thick enough to stand a spoon in, and frites. From there we walk over to E. Dehillerin, where there is nothing to eat but everything you could possibly want to cook with - knives, sauté pans, copper pots, whisks, pastry brushes, and the most charming clerks to help you. Michael is waiting so I buy just a few tart pans and a fabulous silicon Madeleine pan before we head home, stopping on the way to buy real pâté, a baguette and ingredients for a crisp salad. We don't deserve dessert, but I bake a pan of lemon madeleines anyway.
After visiting a few museums and galleries (ho-hum), the fridge starts to look a little bare, so we restock with a trip to the virtuous boulevard Raspail farmers market, back in the 6th. We gather all the just-made dairy products, fruits and vegetables we can carry. On the way back, we stop at Poilane, reputed to be the best bakery in Paris, for half a loaf of their trademark sourdough and marvellous open-faced tartines at the tiny lunch counter they run next door. By the time we get home, it's dark outside. Still stuffed from lunch, we get into bed early with bowls of fresh raspberries swimming in thick, fresh cream.
For the last dinner of the trip, we stroll over to a butcher shop a few blocks from our flat. I'm so excited to see they have La Bresse chickens that I don't even pause when they tell me the price - a whopping 22 euros ($29). The huge lobe of foie gras Michael chooses seems like a bargain by comparison. We pick up a French burgundy and some green beans and head home, giddy with our purchases. I hurry upstairs to start dinner while Michael investigates a mild commotion down the street. A few minutes later, he bursts into the apartment with a dozen fresh oysters, just shucked by two guys working out of a truck.
I don't know what you'd pay for the meal we had that night if you went to a restaurant, but I'm pretty sure the experience would not be on the menu.
Sleep like a Parisian
Finding an apartment in Paris is much easier than you think. Type "Paris apartment rental" into Google and you will find dozens of companies with flats to let. We used Ville et Village ( www.villeetvillage.com) and paid around $2,400 for the week. We could have spent much more (check out Paris Luxe - parisluxeapt.com) or a lot less (Vacation Rentals By Owner - www.vrbo.com - has many budget options). In general, you want to make sure you like the area, and that you spend to the top of your budget - there's nothing worse than going to all the trouble of booking a vacation overseas only to find that your accommodations are miserable.
You can also check out these providers of long-term accommodations, recommended by Mélanie Paul-Hus, media relations for Atout France (the France Tourism Development Agency):
Interhome ( www.bookinterhome.ca)
Adagio ( www.adagio-City.com)
Citadines ( www.citadines.com)
Ensemble Travel ( www.ensembletravel.com)
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