The last guidebook I bought cost me $6.99. It was an impulse buy at the checkout counter, where all impulse shopping lives. I’m convinced that if sex was on sale at the “impulse stand” everyone would leave their grocery stores pregnant – not one of those you-have-a-glow-about-you kind of pregnancies, but the one-nightstand-I-can’t-remember-anything-after-I-got-into-the-dancing-cage kind of nauseating feeling that forces us to scramble through our wallets and purses for a return receipt we know we no longer have. Needless to say, the guidebook now lives wedged between a greasy cookbook and dirty saucepan at the corner of my kitchen countertop where it will remain forgotten until next week’s trash goes out.
Paris guidebooks today are still sending hungry travelers to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, the Champs de Elysee and other “must-see-sites.” They may even spend a few chapters recommending best French eateries, best hotels, best values and best ways to get around the city (the Metro being on of the most popular ones, as it is said to be the most clean, timely and effective subterranean train system in the world – well…not so much that it is said, as much as I just decided to say so – so there).
Recently, the only way to get the real world right between the eyes is to watch Antony Bourdain’s episodes of Parts Unknown where he personally (and often painfully) guides you through the get-your-fucking-hands-dirty and prepare-to-eat-shit-with-the-locals kind of experience every worldly adventurer craves. Unfortunately, Paris is yet to be on his list of destinations as his producers tackle Beirut, Miami, Korea, Budapest and New Jersey just to name a few exotic locations – but he did manage two great episodes about Paris on his series, No Reservations and Layover, in which he specifically warms viewers against the common touristy traps and recommends a lot of eating, a lot of drinking (after all this is Bourdain) some great ice cream and sex with a Parisienne among other guilty pleasures.
But after waiting two years to get back to this great city of lights and romance, magic and mystery, I knew to stay away from any guides. Period. This time I fought the urge to type up and categorize an itinerary which I would have packed with way too many things to enjoy properly. This time we would just be true Parisienne flanuers.
When you look flanuer in the dictionary it mistakingly defines this beautiful philosophy by using two crude synonyms: idler and lounger. These terms aren’t so much wrong as they are oversimplified. A true flanuer is not idle. Idle congers visions of some motor engine just seating there on for no reason and going nowhere. This is quiet the opposite with a flanker since their main goal is to wander – aimlessly wander about their city with no specific destination, appointment or agenda. A flanuer moves about from place to place following an initial whim, a distant call to no place special and yet manages to make great discoveries along the way – a new city park they haven’t seen before, a quaint corner bookstore quietly out of sight, or a master boulanger with late night hours.
And so in order to allow ourselves to discover Paris rather then plan it out like a CEO would a merger, we checked into our same little apartment on Avenue Secretan in the 19th arrondissement – the one with the key and the stubborn lock that refused to budge and had induced so much stress, embarrassment and profanity two years before. The one that this time opened as if we had whispered abracadabra. Once inside we sat our luggage down throughout the four corners of the 450ish square-feet of urban space then quickly squeezed our way down the breezy hallway toward the tiny elevator that would descend six stories – ejecting us into the streets of Paris with no specific destination, appointment or agenda – true flanuers.
Well? Maybe not completely without agenda. We were, as usual, starving. So finding a descent place to eat was crucial if we were going to successfully continue to flanuer about the city – because one thing is certain, you cannot be a careless wonderer when your belly’s hurting for sustenance. The French secret to flanuering like a pro is eating great food. Step one, eat. Step two, go. But since we went without first eating, thus follows the story of how we ordered the largest Cokes in all of France.
Recipe for adventure: five hungry people in an unknown city accepting the invitation of a salesman-like waiter that stood on the sidewalk to snatch tourists off the street and lure them into cute outdoor cafe tables armed with lunch menus and a shifty smile. We were in for a treat. He looked at us: no French and no clue. He knew this would be the table.
“You are thirsty, yes?” He assured in a really cool French accent.
We replied in the affirmative – hook, line and sinker.
“Then you order the large Cokes, yes?”
And so we answer in the affirmative again only to be jaw-droppingly-shocked when he returned with the largest Cokes we had ever seen. Somebody call Guiness, these things were ginormous!
The kids challenged themselves to race to the finish but the forty-something adults were in complete fear of a very plausible sugar-induced coma so we were going to proceed with caution as if drinking something that clearly required the Sergeant General’s warning label on it.
After the shock of the ultra-sided Coke had passed we were still quiet unprepared for the sticker shock. These fizzy puppies came at a whopping fifteen euros each which converted to a hefty $16 each for a grand total of $80 in drinks alone before desserts, taxes and the tip were added to the bill. Ouch!
Unlike the greatest cup of coffee in the world we had in Venice at Lavena in the Piazza San Marco, this was an $80 mistake we would not be repeating. But after lunch we did have a reason to wonder about the parks and side streets of Paris along la Siene and further complicate things for ourselves in a city we did not know but were so eager to discover.