The Eiffel Tower
As I nestled into my seat on the Air France flight to Paris, the word elegance came to mind and never left it during a six-day trip that was one of the finest adventures of my life thus far. I don’t fly business class often so when the stewardess handed me the printed dinner menu and I saw that the airline’s sommelier had handpicked wines to accompany the meals—from champagne and Languedoc Blanc to Bourgogne Rouge and Bordeaux Rouge—I thought to myself, “Thirty-thousand feet isn’t heaven but it’s seeming pretty darned close!” It wasn’t just that I was seated in the front of the aircraft that made it an elegant experience. I have been in business class on other carriers and had yet to be served Camembert and Brie on a beautiful cheese leaf onboard an airplane! The tiny bottle of olive oil on my tray was shaped like the Eiffel Tower. I actually kept it as a souvenir because I’m a total sap for such finely considered aesthetic details. The steak, served with horseradish-spiked potatoes, was pink and tender, and the crunchy asparagus tasted earthy as if it had just been plucked from the ground. This was only the first physical manifestation of the truism “the French really know how to live.” [
From the stately beauty of its neoclassic architecture to its shockingly clean and chic arched metro stops clad in white subway tile, the city lived up to its sophisticated reputation. So did the experiences that unfolded during my time there. Sometimes it was the grand gestures that stood out, but often it was the subtleties of an experience that made an impression. I was traveling with my friend Patty Otis Abel, who began her every-six-hour-pink-champagne rule our first evening there. We were ensconced in a settee at the beautiful Bar 228 at Le Meurice on the rue de Rivoli across from the Tuileries Garden. A crisp Sancere in my glass and Rosé Champagne in hers, we toasted our good fortune at having one of the most luxurious settings possible for our first drinks in Paris—being bathed in soft candlelight, nestled into sumptuous leather and treated like royalty by the bar’s manager William Oliveri was simply the cream.
The next afternoon—while strolling through the lobby of another storied property, the George V—we marveled at the floral arrangements created by the hotel’s artistic director Jeff Leatham, who orders 9,000 blooms each week from the Netherlands to make his fragrant creations for the public spaces. The attention to quality and freshness truly showed. That day, tall clear and jeweled-green glass vases were filled with white orchids and bisque-colored heather, the intermingling of which created an interplay of whispery, texturally-rich paleness against the intricately veined marble of their surroundings.
Another experience at the hotel came to symbolize the pinnacle of elegance, as it brought with it the realization that the French understand the art of making a meal into an event worth savoring. After our tour of the George V, we had the exquisite pleasure of feasting on Chef Éric Briffard’s tasting menu at Le Cinq (where we had watercress soup that was dreamier than I could ever have imagined). The variety of flavors and the ways in which they were combined during the meal had us wondering how the next dish could possibly top the ones that had come before, but they always did. We also dined at Le Relais Plaza in the Plaza Athénée, which was nostalgically beautiful with its interiors designed after the ocean liner Le Normandie.
Chef Phillippe Marc’s interpretations of Alain Ducasse’s lauded fare were served in sensual waves of tasteful abundance within the buoyant setting. To be honest, I had expected these meals in two of Paris’s “starred” restaurants to be among our finest experiences but whether we were eating dishes prepared by a Michelin-tapped gastronomic luminary or in a corner café sharing a ham and cheese sandwich on a crunchy baguette, we didn’t have an unmemorable meal.
During our only weekend there, for example, we decided to spend Sunday morning at the Place des Vosges, which had been one of Patty’s favorite haunts when she lived in Paris. We left our apartment at around eleven, stopping in to visit the Musée Carnavalet, which was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, France’s first woman to collect and publish her letters. This was a pilgrimage for me, as I’d read biographies of her and most of her letters, which were written during the reign of Louis XIV. The museum held a retrospective of French history during her time, and I loved seeing the artifacts and knowing I’d walked along the pavers where her elegant slippers had once trod. With a buoyed feeling of having touched history, I strolled beneath the expansive colonnades that surround the park at Place des Vosges.
The moment turned magical when I heard the stains of one of my favorite Django Reinhardt numbers wafting across the plaza. We followed the sound to a trio of musicians named Borsalino and stood listening to their cocky renditions of the French jazz artist’s tunes. After stopping in at a few shops that caught our eye, we came across a brasserie with cheerful red café chairs and tables on the sidewalk. The energy was lively but intimate inside so we decided it would be the perfect spot for brunch. [
A colonnade at Place des Vosges
We ordered the prix fixe and were delighted when the waiter placed pale plum-colored kirs in front of us. Our courses began with a delicious lentil salad and a half bottle of wine. As we progressed through the fresh, flavorful fare, we lingered in the cloistered atmosphere—talking, laughing and, as it turned out, crying our way into the afternoon. No one reached for our plates before each of us had completed our courses, no one offered us the check before we asked for it and at no time did anyone make us feel as if they needed our table for another guest, though the restaurant was teeming with customers. This, I believe, is the hallmark of a civilized, cultivated culture.
Patty remarked as we were leaving: “You’ve just had a true Parisian Sunday afternoon!” The brasserie was La Place Royale; it was simple and elegant, and I was in love with every moment we spent there! I’m guessing you might be asking, “Why in the world would two women with Paris at their disposal be crying on a glorious Sunday afternoon?” We were remembering the person who had introduced us. My first next-door neighbor in New York City and Patty’s decades-long best friend was Steve Hogan. From the minute he met me, he said he had a friend I simply had to meet because he knew we would hit it off. Needless to say, we did. Patty and I knew we’d be thinking of him as we made our way through the adventures that Paris offered us, but we didn’t know just how present his essence would be.
The relization began as soon as our first day there. Fresh from the airport, we dropped our suitcases at our apartment in the 2nd and, literally, hit the ground running. Our first task was getting to the Centre Pompidou, which we decided to do on foot. We were on our way to see an exhibition by one of Paris’ hottest designers Patrick Jouin, who was meeting us there. I have no idea why, but about halfway there I blurted out that the song “Volare” was running through my mind. We laughed because not only is it not a French song, it is a pretty corny Italian one at that! As we frantically searched for the next street sign pointing our way to the Boo Boo, which seemed to appear and disappear in no orderly fashion that we could tell, Patty remarked that if Steve had been with us, he’d have known the etymology of the word Volare, the cultural significance of it and quite possibly why it had popped into my mind!
Bar 228 at Le Meurice (photo by Guillaume de Laubier)
That evening, while we were sipping our drinks in Bar 228, we were reminded of that moment when an ensemble of musicians gathered around the grand piano and suddenly began playing “Volare.” Patty and I froze in stunned silence as they sang the word Volare, then abruptly stopped and moved on to another song. It would have been so much less remarkable had they continued the song through its rhythmic end, but they didn’t. It was as if they simply changed their mind without further ado!
These seemingly small but powerful occurrences happened again and again while we were there. The thing is, I would never have thought of Steve in the context of elegance had I not written this, but it is fitting. Yes, he was always the first one to knock a drink over at any given get-together because he loved to talk with his hands, and his gestures were sweeping and expressive. He also had a loping gate that made me run to keep up with him when he was excited, which was most of the time. But there was something groundedly ethereal about him, if you’ll forgive me the made-up word and the oxymoron.
Flowers at Au Jardin de Mexico Fleuriste Decoraeur
During one of my first weeks as his next-door neighbor in New York, I heard a noise in the hallway. When I peered through the ocular eye tamped into my door, I saw him leading an elderly woman up the flight of stairs to our floor. When they reached our landing, he smiled at her and handed her a bouquet of flowers. She smiled back, saying thank you in an odd-sounding accent, as he led her into his apartment. He later told me she was a Russian linguistics coach. Of course, I thought. He was eternally learning a new language—could, in fact, master one in about a week. He was simply that brilliant. But it was the fact that he’d taken the time to buy this elderly woman flowers that touched me. Who does that for a language teacher? I never did.
As it turns out, he bought her a bouquet every week, explaining when I asked about it that he did so because she’d lost her husband not long before the two of them had met and she felt alone for the first time in her life. So I bring these memories of Paris to a close by celebrating that among the treasures I found in The City of Light are happy memories of Steve and a remarkable time with his best friend, whom I now count among my cadre of closest compatriots.
[I was comped airfare and some of the meals reviewed in this article during my trip to Paris, though the consideration received no special treatment in terms of coverage.]