Top Travel Story in Paris 2009

Paris — the physical as well as the cultural — is the creation less of the moneyed nobility than of the strivers. Well before midsummer, the sun sets late over Paris. Even at 9 p.m., you can sit on the banks of the Canal St.-Martin in the 10th Arrondissement, and see in the still water the reflection of the sky, a blue mottled with thin clouds, and the low pale buildings with their amber lights just turned on, and the ruffled, fractal edge of the trees in full green bloom. Night seems as if it will never come.

By the water, there is a small pink dot of a helium balloon, bobbing in the intermittent breeze. The balloon is key. It was given to you by Pink Flamingo, a pizza parlor down the nearby Rue Bichat, whose bicycle deliveryman will use it as a beacon to locate you and present the five pies you’ve ordered (10.50 to 16 euros each). They’re not all for you, of course — you’ve got friends to help eat the pizza and drink the four bottles of red wine (40 euros) you picked up from Le Verre Volé, a wine bar across the canal.

You’ll love the pizza’s quirky toppings — the Poulidor’s goat cheese and sliced duck breast, the bacon-and-pineapple Obama — and the earthy pinot noir. But finally it will be dark and you’ll be more than tipsy and your friends will be heading home by Métro, by Vespa and by Vélib’, the city’s rental bicycle system.

I dragged my old rolling duffel there from the Hôtel des Arts as a light rain beginning to fall. I checked in (the clerk even complimented my French!) and climbed the stairs to my room, the Mistinguett, named for the singer who started out selling flowers on the street and a couple decades later was insuring her legs for 500,000 francs.

When I walked in the door, I felt suddenly, weirdly out of place. The bed was big and soft, covered in a thick, tastefully pink duvet. Rose-patterned toile de Jouy wallpaper added to the romance, and in the huge bathroom I spied a whirlpool tub. (Towels, too!) After a week of striving, I’d hit the big time, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for it. I almost felt as if I couldn’t simply relax there — as if this was someone else’s room and I didn’t want to mess it up. One afternoon, I brought home a merguez sandwich (4.50 euros) and ate it carefully, afraid of what the housekeepers might think if they found crumbs in the sheets.

It wasn’t until my last morning in Paris that I put that whirlpool bathtub to its proper use. There, with the hot water whooshing around me, I examined the intricate details of the tiled wall and felt what I imagine Hemingway, Piaf and every other striver who made it felt — that despite the challenges of poverty, self-imposed or circumstantial, the days of denial had made this final indulgence that much sweeter (especially, in my case, since I still wasn’t spending much). Life in Paris on a low budget could be tough, could be frustrating, could involve long walks, bad meals, rudeness and discomfort. It was certainly no picnic — except, of course, when it was.

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