(Champs de Elysees at night on Christmas)
December can be a dry and not a such happy time for anyone, but French gourmet lovers, who will still rather spend the last Euro on a bowl of onion soup than on dry cleaning. The days are shorter, the air is crisper and the Champs de Elysées (Elysian fields) lights up right after the last lunch call at 5 p.m. And still, only one place is open for shopping past 6 p.m. – it is the touristy Champs de Elysees, all thanks to hungry for souvenirs tourists from Japan, Italy, Spain, Russia and America.
What makes the winter in Paris even more special, besides all the holiday lights and hot-air-cooking fumes coming out of cozy brasseries, is the Southern France’s delicacy – the chestnuts that come in all cooked styles – as street roasted, as deeply-boiled-in-syrup sweet delights, as sautéed and served with a leg of duck on Christmas eve, and as pureed sweet chestnut feeling in a crepe (the French crepe did originate in Brittany, so a 3-Euro price for an authentic sweet delight- a thin crepe filled with the marron puree (crème de marron or chestnut sweet puree) - is a true heavenly treat.
(Picture 1 and 2: shopping on Champs de Elysees)
Same goes for the very “winter” treat, the duck, almost all self-respected French restaurants serve duck for lunch and dinner both as a main dish and as a smoked thinly-sliced delight on a bed of crisp greens for a cold appetizer. Duck is cooked till the meat comes easily off the bones and is most likely to be served with mashed or sautéed potatoes or famous (real) French fries.
(Siene river at night overlooking Île de la Cité)
(The Place de la Concorde, which is the largest place in Paris, is situated along the Seine and separates the Tuilerie Gardens from the beginning of the Champs Elysées. It is in the 8th arrondissement)
(The Arc de Triomphe, commissioned in 1806 by Napoleon shortly after his victory at Austerlitz. It was not finished until 1836. It's 284 steps tall. Offers the best views of Paris - even better than from the Eiffel Tower.)
(The first stone of the Pont Neuf bridge was laid in 1578. It is the most famous bridge in Paris for in fact it is two spans each anchored on the tip of the Isle de la Cité. You can see both Louvre and Notre Dame de Paris from Pont Neuf. For more on all the bridges in Paris, click here.)
(Christmas decorations of Hôtel St. Régis)
(Night view from Pont Neuf bridge onto Notre Dame de Paris)
Again, the time that French dread the most is Christmas shopping time and the reason is one – no parking available at almost any malls. French come to malls way before the doors are open to secure any available parking lot (almost like we do on "Black Friday.") Sundays are off for all businesses; the only places that are open in Paris are the touristy ones – like the Champs de Elysees. Courtesy to the tourists, on holidays French can buy their milk and stamps on the Champs de Elysees.
If you crave some of your national foods and drinks and can’t go by without your regular Venti Caffe Latte, Starbucks has already invaded Paris. It’s not yet all over the city, but it does have some stores in and around Louvre, as well as you might stumble over it in other busy districts of the city. If you are expecting to get same kind of drink order as you used to do at your local Starbucks store in USA, do not try to order Chai Tea Latte, Venti, with soy milk, no water, extra hot in French, because it won’t have same cup sizes, neither they would understand what means “extra hot,” or “extra milk,” or “skim milk”. Just play by “rules” and order something simple, like an espresso or cappuccino. And the milk, I can assure you, would come for a local cow and most likely from Normandy region.
The first time you get a hold of Paris metro map, you might look puzzled and lost, but don’t be. The metro system can be easy comprehensible as long as you know the end stations of each of the 14 lines! And, the doors of metro trains are opened manually, not automatically, so get that hook working as the train stops on your station.
When getting around, remember - Parisians don’t speak of districts in names, they speak in “arrondissments,” which go by a number – arrondissment 1, arrondissment 2…arrondissment 13, and so on. You are a true Parisian if you can say “J’habite le 6-ieme arrondissment” – “I live in the 6th arrondissment.”
At a French restaurant - Célébrez la cuisine française ravissante!
Never assume you really, really understand the menu. It might look like chicken bits in your le salade, but actually it is the “intimate parts” of a rooster. Yum!
Even if you try to speak French to French, they switch to English instantly, not for the sake to practice their English with you, but more as to give you a hint – “Don’t even try to speak our language, you comprehend it not.” And that’s ok, because it still more convenient for all the non-French speakers to understand a French with bad English rather than speak bad non-comprehensive French to a French.
Extra tip: Menu is not the same thing as it is in English: le menu in French means a fixed-price meal. For the menu list of all available dishes, look for and/or ask for la carte.
Extra tip: All you need to learn are the words for “meat”- la viande, “fish” – le poisson, or vegetarian – “végétarien”! And if you are looking for very French cuisine, depending on a season, look for:
Les escargots – snails (Delicious, I must add.)
Le lapin – rabbit (smoked and/or deeply sautéed and/or oven roasted – a pure heavenly treat.)
Le canard - duck (If with the chestnuts – very Christmasy.)
But with any side dish – (you would not regret the saucy rich duck meat.)
("qui pue, qui tue")
Some tip for the New Year that not many of us know: Do not assume that New Year’s endless intake of champagne would substitute the “fattening” foods of the New Year’s feast. Champagne has the same amount of the calories as does red wine! (To learn more about Champagne region of France, go here.)
Uncensored Traveler's Winter Shopping List from France:
There are, of course, more to France that one would want to bring. Me, personally, every time I go to France, I stock up on things from black and white photos of burlesque dancers to truffles - and I can't avoid the flea markets of Paris, which have the things that one could only see on Bridgitte Bardot at Cannes Film Festival to Catherine Deneuve in "Belle de jour" - timeless and unique pieces of clothing and accessories.
- Caramel liquor from Normandy
- Fromage from Boulogne
- A set of chocolate and coffee éclairs from a Paris bakery café
- Nespresso machine (just ask George Clooney about it!)
- And of course it wouldn't be a true "French" experience, if you didn't get a corset!
The best guide to Paris is not Michelin, it is not Lonely Planet, it is not Eyewitness and it is not even Fodor’s. It is The Little Black Book of Paris: Essential Guide to the City of Lights (Little Black Book Series) by Vesna Neskow and Kerren Barbas - small, detailed, and only $10.95 new at a Barnes & Noble bookstore and $7.24 used on the Amazon.com.
(The Sacré-Coeur basilica of Paris, Montmartre - the place where Dali lived and worked and where to this date artists gather to exchange ideas and share their paintings with the visitors and locals.)
And most importantly – this little black book has been tried and tested with much success. I don't just say it, neither do I encourage free advertising and promotion of any products on my blog. And don’t underrate the cafes and bistros that are not mentioned in a guide book, they can end up being less expensive and very authentically French.