1. Easily the cheapest and tastiest breakfast in my neighborhood was found at the Gare du Lyon -- the immense train station that served as my local RER and Metro station. For about 6 euros, I could get an excellent cup of coffee with milk, a slab of buttered bread and a croissant (chocolate-filled, from time to time). Every other cafe nearby charged 8 euros for the exact same meal. So, being on a budget and with a sense of humor, I took myself to the train station every morning for a week until the woman at the cafe counter asked, somewhat confusedly, if I take the train every morning.
For the record, though the croissants of Paris are about as delicious as what croissants in Heaven must taste like, I was expecting it; but I'd forgotten about the simple delight of good French bread and good French butter. And when married together! Oh! La! La!
2. Having discovered that the French I speak, coming from my French family, is mostly too familiar and bawdy for polite company, I had a slightly harder time communicating than I had anticipated. Nothing grave, but I definitely pulled a blank face here or there, or said "oui" when the waiter asked how I wanted my steak cooked. Whenever that happened, invariably whatever French person I was talking to would smoothly and graciously transfer into good, accented English -- the show-offs -- with the attitude of "Oh, well, at least you tried." Now, being both obstinate and pig-headed, I would refuse to acknowledge any such English as was being spoken and would doggedly keep responding to questions and directions in French. The result was often two people communicating in two different languages that neither speak terribly well.
It was funny.
3. On those rare occasions when I did need to conduct a transaction in English, I would out of nowhere put on a French accent. Yes, that's right. I, American born and raised, whose accent is that flat nebulous California-Western American accent of TV stars and Valley girls, would suddenly and inexplicably have a difficult time pronouncing "th" and rolled my R's with Frankish panache to the confusion of whomever I spoke to. This happened three times.
4. I avoided the following: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre, and the Palace of Versailles. I don't like to sightsee (plus I've been to Paris a few times before and have already done that business). The most tourist-y thing I did was visit the Musee d'Orsay, that beautiful green and glass cathedral of Impressionist art that had once been a train station. Sure the voices were everywhere -- American, English, German, Dutch -- but at least I could slip on my earbuds, play every Bjork album my iPodholds, and wander around the galleries as slowly as I wished. Which I did, for about seven hours. It was amazing. Taking in the sheer architecture of the place while listening to "I'm a fountain of bluh-ud, in the shape of a giiiiiiirl" is a sublime experience.
5. Instead of the tourist stuff, I spent my mornings at the Gare du Lyon (for breakfast) and then in a particular part of Paris that I wanted to explore (meaning walk through and get lost in, often tripping over the cobblestones); my afternoons in a park (sunbathing in the Luxembourg, for example); my evenings in the cinema; my nights at cafes, where I tried to read books without getting eye-balled by the waiters. (Eventually one of them told me that it's bad for the stomach to read and eat at the same time.)
6. Whenever I heard American voices, I turned in the opposite direction. This became a rule. Most of my trip was spent wandering around the backstreets of Paris anyway, so if I happened to be in St-Germain-des-Pres, my head in an Existentialist fog, and I heard an American voice talking about "the dux maggots" on my left, I would have to -- no exceptions -- make a right turn down whatever street I happened to be passing. I got lost a lot.
(It wasn't that I was being a snob. I just wanted to be around French people. This is difficult to do in Paris.)
7. My desire to be near French people had become so intense that one day at the end of my week, I actually did board a train and traveled as far away from the capital as my budget would allow, which meant Orleans. I spent my Orleans day staring at the Loire river, walking to the edge of town and bottling some clean French earth for my grandmother, and combing the immense Gothic cathedral of that city.
At 7 PM I went into a local restaurant inquiring about dinner. The proprieters were distraught. I was too early for dinner, which didn't commence until 8 PM.
That's OK, I said. I'll just have a Perrier.
No, you must eat if you are hungry, said the proprietress. After some consultation between monsieur et madame, it was decided that they would prepare me a croque monsieur and a green salad for supper. That was the best they could do, they said. I accepted their offer gladly (who doesn't love a croque monsieur?).
At the end of my meal, the proprietress asked me why I was eating so early (by that point it was 7:45 PM). I explained that I had to catch my train back to Paris at 8:30 PM. She shook her head and lamented the poorly planned French rail system, which runs trains during the dinner hour. How can one expect to live?
8. That brings me to an observation, rather than a weird thing. One of the things I love about France, and one of the things I've inherited from my French family, is the need for and rhythm of life's simple pleasures. Especially when it comes to food -- meals are sacred -- but really just the general way people live. Work hard, sure, but then take a two-hour lunch (not in Paris, but in most places). Go out to dinner in the middle of the week. Sit and have a coffee in a good piece of porcelain rather than take it with you in a big paper cup. Sit in a park for an hour or two. I like it.
That was it, my week. I ate a lot of ham and cheese sandwiches and drank lots of cafe cremes. I spent more time outside than I had in months. I fed Parisian pigeons. I read seven books. I got lost 26 times. It was a wonderful vacation.