Paris: A Week of Living Right in the City of Lights

Thursday, January 15, 2009 | Paris, France (map)

Our New Year's Eve spread contained quite a few ingredients that we just can't find back in Morocco.
After four months in Fes—a medieval city in every possible sense—Jacqueline and I needed a break. Over New Year's, we spent a week in Paris, reconnecting with Western civilization through a seven-day hedonistic binge (well-deserved, we felt) of gastronomic delights, French wines, and—most exciting of all—bicycling.

Vélib', Paris's citywide bike sharing system, has reinvented the city with a simple model: pick out a bicycle from one of the 1,450 stations (roughly one every 300 meters throughout the city), ride anywhere you please, and return it to the nearest station when you're finished. Using the system costs at most a few Euros per day, making it an ideal way to commute or, for visitors like Jacqueline and me, to bounce around town quickly and simply.

The system makes Paris feel much smaller and more manageable, and other major world cities—
including Washington, DC—are picking up on the model.

In Paris, the bikes themselves have a chunky, graceless charm not unlike a pudgy toddler's. I would never have guessed that this style—accented further by Vélib's kid-inspired logo—would fly with the fashion-obsessed Parisians, but the bikes are an undeniable hit. At any given moment in the city streets, we could stop and look around, and within a minute or so spot at least one Vélibiste whiz by—this in bitter winds, chilly gray skies, and snow. If Parisians are so enamored with Vélib' that many use the bikes even in the depths of winter, I can't imagine how popular they must be in warmer months.

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With citywide transportation so effortless, Jacqueline and I set to work reacquainting ourselves with the good life. We sheltered from the cold and snow in bookstores and cafés, crêperies and chic bistros, chocolate shops and Jewish delis.

Most of all, we avoided Moroccan food like the plague, and did our best to absorb as much exquisite French and international cooking as we could in seven days: ham and cheese sandwiches at Les Deux Magots, scones and coffee beside the Luxembourg Gardens, falafel sandwiches in the streets of the Marais, Poilâne breads, foie gras, duck confit, gelatos, apple tarts, local microbrews, Greek gyros, kirsch-soaked cherries, chocolate mousse, and more wine and cheese than we had eaten in months.

Around the holidays, the city buzzed with energy. Jacqueline and I connected with some old friends in Paris, where she had once lived, and even managed to get a few to promise to "think about coming" to visit us in Morocco. As has always been my experience, I found the Parisians to be (contrary to their reputation) perfectly welcoming hosts and the city a spirited New Year's destination.

Our last day arrived all too quickly. Lucky for us, Allah and EasyJet heard our prayers, and conspired to cancel our flight after a light dusting of snow, granting us an extra 24 hours in paradise. Comme la vie est belle là-bas...

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