PARIS — The fresh cut grass at the foot of the Eiffel Tower is tickling my toes that have strayed off of my blue and white checkered blanket. I pull my sunglasses over my eyes as I lean back, bask in the sunshine and concoct the perfect combination of ingredients for my next morsel from our treasure trove of a picnic basket.
Here goes: A slice of crusty baguette from my favourite little Montmartre bakery, slathered in apricot jam with a few thin slices of farmer’s market saucisson. And, the pièce de resistance: a generous chunk of Brie De Meaux. It’s salty, it’s sweet, it’s gooey. I’m drooling just writing this.
We’re at Champ de Mars, picnic basket overflowing with bread, meat, cheese, pastries and too many bottles of wine. In Paris, lazy Sundays are set aside for precisely this exercise. Weekend picnicking is a national pastime — you’ll find Parisians sitting alongside the River Seine, among the flora and fauna in Jardin du Luxembourg, and cascading down the rolling hillsides of Buttes Chaumont. All with good company and good food in tow.
Above: No city in the world glitters quite like Paris in the night.
Adapting to life as a Parisian means embracing the art of flâneur — to lounge, stroll or saunter, simply people-watching and soaking in the sights. It’s far too easy to do here.
In 2015, I lived in the City of Lights, in the Sixth Arrondissement, just a stone’s throw away from the famous St-Germain-des-Pres, nicknamed the literary heart and soul of Paris. On weekdays, I’d rise along with the rest of the city, open the heavy doors leading out my building’s courtyard, sun dress and jean jacket, tote bag over my shoulder, wide-eyed and eager to get to La Sorbonne for eight hours dedicated to mastering the art of conjugating verbs.
The city is a palette of soft beige Haussmann-style buildings adorned with black wrought iron balconies. Below the apartments are storefronts, and each quarter has its local fishmonger, butcher, patisserie, florist, pharmacy and selection of bistros with charming little red awnings and a chalkboard listing the delicious offering of the day or plat du jour.
Above: Writer Carmen Chai enjoys the delights of Paris, both on the streets and in the restaurants.
In the mornings, this flâneur would never see to-go coffees in locals’ hands. No, they stand at the bar — cab drivers rubbing shoulders with suits — sipping café, smearing red berry jam all over baguette cut down the middle, always served with copious amounts of butter. In the afternoons, the main streets are hopping: throngs of students, business people and nannies stream out from their workstations and queue for their hot lunch — sometimes it’s a salad Niçoise adorned with ruby-coloured seared tuna and crunchy green beans, or a paper-thin crepe filled to the brim with Emmental cheese and ham. This isn’t assembly line food.
After a morning of wading through passe composé and futur tense, my classmates and I need fuel. We know where we’re heading to: the brasserie across the street with the duck confit on top of ooey, gooey aligot, a rustic side dish of cheese blended seamlessly into mashed potatoes. It becomes a daily ritual, really, the first crunch into the crispy duck skin, to the heavy-handed tap cracking into our crème brûlée to signal the end of the meal and a return to class.
After class comes groceries. The weekly farmers' market has all the spoils you need: a cornucopia of fresh fruits and vegetables, the fisherman’s catch of the day, poultry, steak and game from proud butchers. My go to? The rotisserie chicken. You can smell them from far away. The butcher lines the bottom of the oven with potatoes and onions so they soak up all the drippings from the chicken. It’s just not fair.
Above: Visiting the backstreet restaurants is part of a tourist's ritual when they make it to Paris.
He wraps a chicken up to go for me and ladles a generous amount of the saucy, roasted potatoes and onions to go with it. If you’re travelling to Paris, earmark an afternoon for the farmers' market and be prepared to have chicken for lunch. You won’t regret it.
It’s true, the city twinkles at night. I catch myself craning my neck one too many times as I stroll along the promenade: at the stunning window displays showcasing the season’s latest fashion, at the silver-haired lady donning aubergine baubles, red lips and purple velvet booties as her husband dutifully buttons up her fur coat, at the couples sitting side-by-side outside Café de Flore, warmed under the heat lamps as they share a cigarette. I even wait until after dark on my walks to catch the Eiffel Tower’s glow.
I still visit Paris every year or so. I go to my favourite restaurant, Le Temps des Cerises in Le Marais, and I have the same order: an onion soup, piping hot with cheese bubbling over, followed by duck breast and, you guessed it, more potatoes. I pay a visit to Galeries Lafayette, packed with all of my favourite French designers. I, without fail, head over to Île Saint-Louis, for one thing only: Berthillon ice cream, dubbed the grande dame of glaces. In the summer, they add one special flavour: fraise des Bois. It’s fragrant and speckled with chunks of tiny, wild summer strawberries. I stop to smell the roses — literally — in Jardin des Tuileries, with an Angelina hot chocolate in hand.
And I always make time for the bouquinistes who are, hands down, my favourite thing about this city (aside from the food, of course). The bouquinistes of Paris are the booksellers you see along the banks of the Seine, peddling antique books and artwork. They joined the UNESCO Cultural list in 2018, alongside the Egyptian pyramids and the Venetian gondoliers.
And each time I return to the City of Light, I think about this chapter of my life. When I wandered through the Louvre, the Musee D’Orsay, the Orangerie, filling my brain with notes on Monet and his water lilies, Da Vinci and Mona Lisa, Delacroix and his Victory. I partied in Chateau D’eau, tried absinthe in Pigalle, and drank my weight in wine. I made friends from around the world as we tried — we really did! — to absorb the intricacies of French language and customs.
The sound of French all about me: the bonjours, bon journées, bonsoirees. “C’est tout,” (that’s all), “L’addition,” (bill please), and my much used, “encore une fois lentement, s’il vous plait?” (one more time slowly, please?).
I ate. Oh boy, did I eat. There was the enormous croque madame I couldn’t put a dent in, the tartare garnished with garlic and mustard, one too many salad composées — iceberg lettuce, chunks of ham, corn, cherry tomatoes and cheese go so well when held together with a tart, creamy vinaigrette.
The ascent. Up six flights, at least once daily, to get to my flat at the top of the building, once reserved as the maid’s quarters, centuries ago. The climb to the top of Montmartre for that stunning view at Sacre Coeur with Paris at her feet. Growing up, seeing the world, and leaving a piece of me in the city of love. It was well worth it.
These are my Parisian greatest hits. And I hope to never forget them.
Paris, je t’aime.