Eleven Days Alone In: Paris

by The Hairpin

Edith Zimmerman: Frequent traveler and Wikipedia enthusiast Chiara Atik just took a trip to Paris for Christmas and New Year’s, which she chronicled on Tumblr and Instagram, inspiring both jealousy and vicarious delight. Chiara! Did you stay in one place or did you move around, hotel/apartment-wise?

Chiara Atik: One place! AirBnB. I think I’d be too lazy to move around, but that seems like a cool way to see different parts of a city. It was so nice to have an apartment there, though, to grocery shop, hang out on the couch, and just feel like a local for a week.

What French phrase proved the single most useful? I also loved the part you described on Tumblr about the steak — how would you say “rare”? Bleu?? (Haa.)

Everyone greets you constantly, constantly — walking into a store, walking into a restaurant, passing on the street, everywhere, people say “Bonjour!” And when you leave a restaurant or store or boulangerie or whatever, they say, “Merci, au revoir!” So even if you don’t speak a lick of French, greeting people upon entering somewhere and thanking them when you leave will go a long way in terms of politeness, I think. Also “Nurofen” is ibuprofen in French. That was useful. And “rare” in french is “saignant,” which means bloody. Unnecessarily descriptive!

I don’t even know if I should leave this question in, because it seems sad/pathetic, but whatever — in the past I’ve been intimidated by the idea of traveling solo, not because I’m afraid or lonely, but because the general “look” of people, or their attitude, or whatever it is, makes them seem cooler/better/prettier/more together than I am, which makes me feel like an outsider, or that I’m otherwise unworthy of the city or having fun in it. I guess I haven’t felt like that in a while, and maybe part of getting over that was just getting older and realizing that everyone is great and together, including me, or everyone sucks and is a mess, including me, and everything will be fine. Do you know at all what I’m talking about?

Yessssssss. I mean, anywhere, but especially in a city like Paris, especially when it seems like every other week there’s another book or essay or movie mythologizing contemporary French culture and especially French women. You’re intimidated before you even get off the plane, and then you’re in a restaurant and it’s hard to tell if everyone is ACTUALLY insanely glamorous, or if you’re just looking for it, focused on it, because in New York you’re too busy living your life to sit in a restaurant by yourself analyzing the clothing choices and comportment of everyone else in it.

When I was there I definitely did have a few moments of — wanting to slink into my chair or wishing I could stop being so fucking dowdy, how did I never notice how dowdy all my clothes are? Etc. etc.

And I think the answer, or an answer, is to just get over yourself. Fucking get over yourself! You’re the only person who is wrapped up in whether or not you deserve to be there, whether you fit in, whether you’re cool enough. You’re the only person taking yourself that seriously. There’s a point when being preoccupied like that just becomes vanity.

And it’s The Other that’s fascinating and alluring! It’s not like French girls are sitting around luxuriating in their own chicness, or even aware of it, just like New York girls aren’t. We sometimes romanticize foreign cities and put their inhabitants on a pedestal, but really, most quotidien lives are full of the same preoccupations, whether you’re in Paris or LA, Yves Saint Laurent or Mossimo for Target.

Also how are people looking in Paris these days? Still beautiful?

Yeah. Yeah.

Tell me about that Sunday Dinner Club thing you said you were going to! How was that?

I didn’t go! I chickened out. The day came and I was just like “I don’t … want … to be at a dinner party with 20 strangers right now.”

[I hear that!] Most/least useful items of clothing you brought?

Most useful was black pants, black heeled boots, black-and-white sweater. I basically wore that every day of my trip and left everything else in my suitcase. People love monochrome there! Also useful, now that I think about it, was my puffy, white monstrosity of a winter coat that I didn’t wear once, but that came in handy when it was time to transport some dinner glasses back to NYC.

Did you fall in love????????????????????

With every single scarf-wearing French guy I saw. (Those men know how to wrap a scarf!)

Did you travel outside of Paris, or outside of France?

Not really. I mean, I flew in and out of London, but, I didn’t really travel. Maybe if I had been there for longer. Eurohopping, that thing where you cram, like, three or four countries into one 10-day trip, isn’t for me. I like feeling languid in a city, really sinking in, having mornings where you don’t rush out or feel guilty for not being at a museum. And the thing I like the most, always, is just walking, walking with no particular agenda. Hard to do if you’re only in Paris for a few days before moving on to the next place — more pressure to make the most of your time and see the Top Hits. (I do, however, completely understand the appeal of wanting to make the most of a trip to Europe and see as many places as possible! Just not my personal preference.)

Did you ask people over Twitter or Facebook for recommendations, and was it more helpful to ask specific questions — “cool bar in [Parisian neighborhood]” — or to be more general — “I’m going to be in Paris for 10 days what should I doooo”?

I asked for very general recs on Tumblr and Twitter, and got amazing amazing responses, a lot of great email lists from people who had lived or spent time in Paris. I also have to say that the much-maligned maps feature on my iPhone was very helpful for looking up directions, both walking and subway, actually. (I didn’t have regular phone service, so I’d look up a route before leaving the apartment and just … vaguely follow it from memory.)

Most delicious meal?

That steakhouse. Also, because I had an apartment it was fun to go to the market and try various things. I sampled many cheeses. Many. And I loved breakfast every day. On my first morning I ordered the “complete breakfast” at the cafe I mentioned, which included orange juice, a croissant, a tartine which amounted to like, half a baguette, and a cafe creme. On the second morning I ordered it again. By the third morning, I had decided that it was sort of a ridiculous amount of carbohydrates to have in one meal, so I decided not to order it, but when I got to the cafe they just brought it to me when I sat down, and I was so thrilled at the thought of having a “usual” in France that I ended up having it for breakfast every day.

Most disgusting meal?

I had steak frites at a neighborhood brasserie that included a pretty noteworthy piece of gristle that lodged into my teeth so terribly that I had to excuse myself to get rid of it.

What was the deal with that butcher you kept photographing?

THE BUTCHER. Was this guy. Who, every. single. morning. at exactly 8:40 would walk from his shop across the little square to the cafe where I would have breakfast, and he would order a coffee and sit at the exact same little table and talk on his phone for exactly 20 minutes and then walk back. I guess there’s nothing so remarkable about that, really, but I was so charmed by the rigidity of his routine. And, I don’t know, I watched Beauty and the Beast a lot as a kid, so that song kept going through my head, and at 8:39 every morning I’d be like, “There goes THE BUTCHER with his coffee, Like. Al. Ways!

[Bonjour, girl!]

And I just started … taking his picture every morning, sneakily, creepily, as sort of, proof.

… I know. I see how this reads, now.

But I really like those pictures, all of them. They made me laugh. They’re all like, crooked and he’s always slightly out of frame, just this butcher straight from central casting secretly being photographed by that American girl who has the huge breakfast every morning and eats alone. My favorite is the one I took on January 1st: I’d gone to the cafe, as usual, but it was closed. But I walked by a Starbucks one street over, and there was my butcher. And I was so pleased to have found him, and he looked so funny, so anachronistic, The Butcher in his apron sort in this tiny little Starbucks chair.

Most interesting or otherwise meaningful conversation you had with someone new?

Well, I write about dating for a living, so that inevitably always leads to conversations about love, and finding love, and relationships. One man I met told me about meeting his wife. She was Italian, and had been studying French in Nice, and he was there taking an English class. They met at a party thrown by the language school, he walked her home, and they started dating for the rest of the six-week course. Then he had to go back to Paris, but the day he got back, he bought a plane ticket to go visit her in Milan. So he went to visit her in Milan, and met her family, etc., and this is only after six weeks of knowing each other. And her father was pretty skeptical of the whole thing, and said to him something like, “You know, long distance relationships are very hard, how is this really going to work?” And the man replied, “I guess we’ll get married.” And three months later, they did, and she moved to Paris, and that was 20 years ago.

“When it’s natural, when you don’t have a lot of questions, when you’re not insecure or analyzing too much, that’s when it’s good,” he told me. “You just meet someone, and when things between you are natural, then you choose that person. And get married.”

I told him that his story was very nice, but that I wish things were that easy in New York.

“What do you mean? It’s the most natural thing in the world. You see someone at the boulangerie, you smile at each other, the next day you see each other again, you meet, if things are easy between you, it goes from there …” (I realize I’m making him sound like Maurice Chevalier here, but that’s really what he said.)

I told him that it was just different in New York. I don’t really know why, but it is. It’s a big city and people have baggage and agendas and exes and oats to sow and quirks and separate social circles and careers and different priorities. No one just meets in boulangeries and falls in love.

“Ah,” he said. “Then move to Paris.”

Are you ever coming back?

I’m baaaack.


[A day passes]

Wait, people are going to be like “how can she afford to do that/must be nice” etc. Is there a place for me to say that I got a free plane ticket, do you think?

Haha. Chiara, how did you get a free plane ticket???

I was coming home from London one year and the flight was oversold so I gave up my seat! They put me in a hotel for the night, gave me a dinner voucher, and I got on a flight the next morning. In return, Virgin Atlantic gave me a free ticket anywhere they fly — which means I could have gone to Hong Kong, to India, to Cape Town, anywhere! In the end, because the ticket expires this coming February, I just booked a ticket to London and took the train over to Paris. And I sort of regret not getting my act together and going somewhere really far. But the point is, when you check in for a flight you can always ask if it’s oversold and just tell them you’d be willing to get bumped. (I tried on my way back, but unfortunately, the plane was practically empty.)

Whoa, that’s incredible. It’s like the flip side of that travel voucher vortex that Sharon Salt got sucked into that other time!