How many Americans, at some point in their lives, dream of living in Paris? Few actually make the move, but for those who do, the reality is seldom like the storybook tale they envision. As an American who has lived in Paris for over five years now, I can tell you that the good and the bad have blended together like warm milk and bitter coffee in a classic Parisienne cafe crème: one just won’t do without the other.
My neighborhood is the Marais. Yes, it’s a cliché, the Marais — otherwise known as the sixth borough of New York City or, in Los Angeles, “just east of Fairfax.” What you might not know about the Marais is that this little world of grand hotels particuliers was built in the 17th century so nobles could be near the king’s court at the Place des Vosges. Today, however, it is a kaleidoscope of different demographic pieces fitting together to create a unique living experience — a demimondaine a la beau monde, if you will. There is the gay Marais, the American Marais, the Jewish Marais, the Haut Marais (upper part in the Third Arrondissement), and of course, the classic Marais of the glossy guide books.
Estimates vary, but the most widely cited figure is that as many as 250,000 Americans live in and around Paris. Without a doubt, many of these ex-pats live in or around the Marais. Here are five things about my neighborhood that you should experience, whether you are an American ex-pat, a tourist, or native Frenchman.
At the top of our list is the boutique patisserie Berko, which specializes in an impressive array of cupcakes (yep, we got your cupcakes and you got our macarons. Félicitations! ), cheesecakes, and other delights. Select a half dozen pour emporter [to-go], and then walk down Rue des Francs-Bourgeois and have an impromptu picnic in Place des Vosges. You might even catch a free concert while there; classical performers often set up in the arched porticoes of the beautiful palaces of the Place des Vosges. (As an aside, we love this shop so much we named our dog Berko, who by the way swore he was going to quit smoking two months ago. Berko.com, – 23 Rue Rambuteau, 75004)
If you’re in the mood for an authentic French bistro, I can think of none more relaxing and friendly than the wonderful Café Crème in the Haut Marais — just across from the luxuriant park in front of the town hall (mairie) for the Third Arrondissement. There is a daily special (get there early for lunch), and the sidewalk seating is abundant. It’s off the beaten path and frequented primarily by locals in the neighborhood. (4 RueDupetit-Thouars — 75003)
Nearby is the newly opened and much-buzzed-about hideaway Candelaria. From the front it looks like a tiny, blindingly bright taqueria (excellent freshly made tacos, by the way), but push open the secret unmarked door to a great cocktail lounge where all of the young, local cool cats congregate into the wee hours of the morning. Yes, “c’est tres Manhattan, non?“, but hey, it’s what the French and their American friends are enjoying at the moment. ( Candelaria – 52 Rue de Saintoinge, 75003)
4. L’imprévu Café
If something a bit more relaxed and cozy is more your scene, the non-touristy local cafe bar called L’imprevu should be just your thing. It embodies the Marais perfectly: Owned by two Americans, but frequented mainly by locals, it is very gay-friendly and has a warm eclectic ambiance and a great place to chat about what you just saw at Le Centre Pompidou, which is just a stone’s throw away. (L’imprevu.com – 9 Rue Quincampoix)
5. Metal Pointu
Finally, we move on to a bit of shopping. It is often difficult to find something that is both unique to Paris; yet not made in China. Metal Pointu crafts their own jewelry in the boutique itself, and it’s moderately priced (a cocktail ring, or a pair of earrings, or a necklace will set you back around fifty or sixty euros). It also comes wrapped in that precious French way: in a tiny ribboned sack. It’s the perfect souvenir for you, or someone you love. (MetalPointu.com – 19 rue des Francs-Bourgeois 75004)
So load up your iPod with some Françoise Hardy and Serge Gainsbourg, grab a Le Monde at the local kiosk, pop in a bar or cozy into a cafe — or just while away the day kicking around Paris’s best cliché.