We’re excited to have Christina Henry de Tessan as a guest blogger this week! Christina is the author of Forever Paris: 25 Walks in the Footsteps of Chanel, Hemingway, Picasso, Molière, and More, and the editor-at-large of the City Walks series.
The top 10 discoveries I made while working on this book:
I thought I knew Paris before embarking on this project. After all, I grew up visiting my grandmother there, I lived and worked there, and I’ve written walking guides to the city. Walking guides with fifty walks. I’ve come up with sassy and insider stories about the top ten do’s and don’ts in Paris. I know where to buy everything from house paint to wedding dresses. I really thought I’d left no stone unturned. But it turns out there are always new discoveries waiting to be made. And with this project, I got to sift through entirely new layers of the city—and had the good fortune of falling head over heels in love with a city I thought I knew so well.
Here’s a top ten list of quirky and wonderful things I learned and loved on this latest journey:
1. I am both fascinated and mystified by the fact that Coco Chanel had a gorgeous apartment on rue Cambon that had no bedroom. That’s right. It’s still there, decked out with all of her signature motifs, a sumptuous physical embodiment of everything she was about, but she always slept across the street at the Ritz. Of course, the legendary workaholic didn’t seem like the type to sneak up to her place for the occasional afternoon nap, but still.
2. I love learning how different neighborhoods and streets change character over time. I happen to stay in the 9th arrondissement when I’m visiting Paris and run all my errands on the nearby rue des Martyrs. It’s a jolly and gentrified shopping street crowded with stroller-pushing moms and lined with a dizzying array of delicious food purveyors. Who knew that back in Colette’s day it was a seedy thoroughfare lined with illicit gay bars and frequented by types like Zola’s courtesan Nana?
3. I had never seen Serge Gainsbourg’s famous graffiti-covered house. It’s located in the 7th arrondissement, one of the most eminently staid parts of Paris. But there it is, a brazen riot of color in the midst of the elegant white stone apartment buildings. Evidently, there have been efforts to paint over it, but the graffiti just returns. I kind of like that.
4. I love that Julia Child’s favorite culinary equipment store is the same as mine. I love picturing her combing its narrow packed-to-the-rafters aisles, just as I love to do in search of a new whisk or cake pan shape. Another fave of hers, Au Pied de Cochon, is only steps away, where she loved to order oysters and champagne at 4am. Someday, I will do that too.
5. I finally understand Shakespeare and Co.’s history. The one that I love to visit now is not the original that was opened by Sylvia Beach and frequented by Hemingway and his compatriots. Hers was on rue de l’Odeon, and she closed it during World War II. The one right on the Seine is merely named after the original. I’m glad to finally be clear on that.
6. George Sand and Victor Hugo shared the same favorite restaurant—Laperouse—and it remains just as magnificently atmospheric as it must have been back in their day—reminiscent of centuries of scandals and drama and complete with mirrors scarred by women verifying the authenticity of the diamond rings offered them by their suitors. No matter how good the restaurant scene is in Portland these days, none of them can hold a candle to that kind of history.
7. Balzac had such peculiar housing requirements. He moved several times over the course of his life, but he always needed a home with a back exit, from which he could escape his creditors. Apparently, he even had a system of passwords for visitors. Actually, George Sand needed a back exit too, but in her case, it was to allow her lover of the moment to escape in case her husband came knocking.
8. As a modern Facebook-loving girl, I loved learning who was friends with whom. Toulouse-Lautrec lived next door to Degas, and they were evidently great pals. Picasso and Matisse hung out together in Gertrude Stein’s living room. Henri Cartier-Bresson was tight with the Surrealists of Montparnasse. Zola went to elementary school with Cezanne and became great friends with Manet. The list goes on. There’s something wonderful about thinking of them all having drinks together in their favorite cafes.
9. I was quite surprised to discover that the outlandish and brazen Colette lived in not one, but two different apartments in the posh 17th arrondissement, a bastion of conservatism and tradition. I was delighted to discover that she had the audacity to have an acrobatic studio installed in one of them to enable her to practice for her racy performances. All deliciously scandalous.
10. Paris always has more secrets. Discovering a few more of them was a pleasure, but most of all, it was an honor. I can’t wait to drum up another book idea in order to have a new excuse to go hunt more of them down.
What enchanting secrets of Paris have you unveiled during your time there?
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