We arrived in Paris at early dusk. After a short train ride from Gare du Nord, our rental flat was within a couple of blocks. As we walked on Boulevard de Port-Royal, a hue of light gray started to descend on the city, which seemed to have softened everything—the edges of buildings, the noise of traffic, and the rushing waves of people that would all be typical for a modern metropolitan. My nervousness eased a little. It was difficult not to have high expectations when you were going to a place like Paris! And for me that is usually a source of nervousness, even though I know some French, and Fei and I had both been there before!
Of course it was different this time. Exactly ten years had passed, and our daughter Emily was now almost nine years old, had learned about many famous places around the world, and dreamed of climbing the Eiffel Tower. This summer I had an opportunity to travel to Europe for work. So here we were, beginning our five-day trip in the “City of Light”.
Our first full day in Paris started with a casual stroll along and around Champs-Élysées. At Arc de Triomphe, we marveled at the sheer grandeur of the monument. Constructed in the early 1800s, Arc de Triomphe was originally commissioned as a celebration of a critical battle in the Napoleon Wars. Two centuries later, it now commemorates valor and patriotism that uphold far more than the transient existence of the Empire. What a recurring theme in the drama of history for rulers throughout the world to construct man-made wonders to flaunt power and wealth! And yet how many of them survived history with legitimate legacy and artistic value for the later ages to admire?
Unsurprisingly, Champs-Élysées struck us as the Fifth Avenue in another continent. The extravagant fashion brands and exquisite foods seemed pleasing to all senses, but our detour to a street market turned out to be more satisfying. Rue Poncelet was a narrow and short street filled with stalls displaying the richness of their produce almost in a show-off fashion. The colors in our eyes were a resemblance of oil paintings, and air was filled with scents of cheese, meats, and baked goods. None of the vendors spoke English, and yet all tried to at least extend a friendly greeting. One of the cheese vendors was finally brave enough to talk to us with single English words, and successfully sold us some excellent sheep cheese and pepper-coated salami, which we later assembled into a scrumptious picnic lunch on the shade-covered lawns next to the Petit Palais.
The most exciting moment (to Emily, at least) finally came when we approached the Eiffel Tower in the late afternoon. It started to drizzle a little, but that did not stop tourists from all over the world from lining up to climb this symbol of Paris, us included. Observed from its enormous base, the steel giant was a stunning combination of straight struts of various sizes, which eventually merged into a graceful curvature, steady and silent. When we finally reached the highest observation deck and started surveying the city from the shoulder of the giant, Paris all of a sudden unfolded right in front of us. Once again, it was composed of various shades of gray, all indescribably lively and harmonious. Walking around the deck, we tried to identify the famous landmarks, the Louvre, Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur, and the spokes of roads that led to the Arc de Triomphe. Amazed, I still felt I was missing one, then I laughed, realizing I was thinking about the tower we were standing on. How intriguing that I had forgotten where I was after finally reaching the destination, which had also granted me this breathtaking spectacle!
I guess the man-made wonders do carry their meanings. In this case, it helped revealing the beauty of another wonder, the landscape of Paris, the apex of civil engineering around a historic river, of which the tower itself is a vital component. Interestingly, the tower was built to be only a temporary symbol for the 1889 World’s Fair; it attracted wide criticism upon its erection, but lasted to become the icon of the city. Was it serendipity? Or was it something ingenious about it that eventually stood the test of time?
After a full day of wandering, we were in desperate need for some hearty food . Harmony Café, which stood right across the street, allured us with maroon awnings and rustic patio chairs that we would see in Paris-themed romantic movies. The waitress and owner both spoke excellent English, and yet introduced their food with curious reservation and almost nonchalantly: “everything here is good”. We had no choice but let our appetite guide us, and ordered croque madame. The open-faced sandwich was built with rustic French bread, a generous layer of nutty cheese that tasted like Gruyère, slices of earthy ham, and topped with a fried egg. Savory, cheesy, and rich, the sandwich was a perfectly warm ending of a busy day. As we were leaving the restaurant, we casually asked the owner their hours, thinking we might be back to explore the rest of the menu. The owner scratched his head as if it was a difficult question. “We close when the last guests leave.” He answered with a smile.
Upon returning to the States, the croque madame was the first thing I tried to replicate in our kitchen, along with the egg-less version, croque monsieur. Following the epicurious.com recipe, I realized that it was the béchamel sauce that gave the sandwich the unusual moisture and richness. Unlike many sandwiches that just require simple assembly, this dish was not something that could be put together with haste. Two hours of restless work yielded 6 sandwiches, a very sweaty me, and a burn mark on my finger (which does not happen very often). “It’s almost as good as what we ate in Paris.” My little critique said in an as-a-matter-of-fact fashion after gobbling one down. My heart felt as warm as when I was greeted by the City of Light in its own cool way. —WZ