Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Put on your walking shoes! Car-free day in Paris this Sunday, September 27.

The Champs-Élysées will be completely car-free on Sunday, September 27, 2015. 

For the first time in recent history, motorized vehicles will be banned from many of the city's streets this Sunday. As Mayor Anne Hidalgo announced in March: “Paris will be completely transformed for a day. This is an opportunity for Parisians and tourists to enjoy the city without noise, pollution and therefore without stress.”

The most popular tourist spots will be fully dedicated to pedestrians, bicycles and scooters on Sunday, September 27, from 9:00 am until 6:00 pm. Areas without traffic will include the 1st, 2nd, 3th, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 10th and 11th arrondissements.

Events organizers Paris Sans Voiture have invited the public to plan giant picnics on the Champs-Elysées, street concerts, dance classes, treasure hunts and other activities that will enhance this unique car-free day in Paris.

Une Journée Sans Voiture ("Day Without a Car") is part of the city’s campaign against pollution and is in line with the European Mobility Week (Sept 16-22), as well as the upcoming United Nations Conference on Climate Change (COP21) in Paris from November 30 to December 11, 2015.

September 27: Paris Day Without Car! Circulation is not advisable in the light green areas between 11:00am and 6:00pm. The speed limit will be restricted to 20 KM/H. Cars will be forbidden access to the dark green areas from 11:00am until 6:00pm. Exceptions will be made for public buses, health service vehicles, some tourist buses (Big Bus and Open Tour), taxis, and delivery and moving vans with prior approval. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Mapping my favorite places in Paris (and the world) with Mapstr!

Works in Progress - screenshots of my Mapstr maps of Paris and Boston

I knew that it was going to take something really exciting to jolt me out of my blogger doldrums. Computer mishaps, traveling and pondering the expat's eternal question of "where next?" have kept me from blogging for the past month. It was getting to the point where I was tempted to hang an "out of business" sign on my blog.

Everything changed when I picked up a copy of 20 Minutes as I was running to catch the RER train bound for Orly airport last Friday. Buried at the back of the newspaper was an article about an app that's proving to be the answer to one of my biggest challenges.

Like most people who live in a large city, I have a really hard time keeping track of all the new restaurants I want to try and boutiques I would like to visit, not to mention all of my tried-and-true favorite places. Torn out pages from travel magazines and cocktail napkins covered with restaurant recommendations clutter my desk. When someone asks me to suggest a place for lunch, it usually takes me about 40 minutes to come up with a solid proposal because I don't want to go to just any old place. I want to go to the restaurant I read about in the Air France magazine a couple of months ago. But since I was jet-lagged when I unpacked my suitcase, I can't remember exactly where I put that stupid article. Grrrrrr.....

Now, thanks to Frenchman Sébastien Caron, I can store all of that information in one easily accessible place -- in an app on my iPhone. Mapstr enables users to create their own maps with color coded icons and to further classify them with tabs. My favorite restaurants have a heart icon while eateries that I've read about are marked with green "to try" tags. There are also a variety of icons to visually represent different services, such as a fork and knife for restaurants, a painting for museums and a shoe for favorite footwear boutiques.

The free mobile application, with its clean design and easy functionality, already has more than 60,000 users worldwide (only 40% are in France) and recently raised $800,000. Hailed by Grazia as "the smartest app of 2015" and GQ as "the app Google should have developed with Maps, to let users save all their favorites places", I predict that Mapstr will soon become a favorite of travelers.

In the meantime, I've got a couple of proposals for dinner ...

Wine, cheese and saucisson at Les Climats, one of my new favorite restaurants in Paris, or ...
Steak-frites at the tried-and-true Relais de l'Entrecote

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A Writer’s Surreal Quest for a Shared Paris Nest by Annabel Hertz

Author Annabel Hertz feeling victorious after finally finding her solo flat in Paris!

Guest post by Annabel Hertz, author of Seeing Green

While based in Geneva a few years back, I came to spend enough weekends in Paris that it made sense—or so I easily convinced myself—to maintain my life-sustaining (slash) luxurious addiction to the City of Light via flat share. But this seemingly manageable goal turned into the real estate misadventure of a lifetime (and this from someone who has flat hunted in NYC).

Still, I was in it to win it.

The hi-jinks started with a stunning three-bedroom apartment in the southeastern lowlands of Montmartre. Though I normally shied away from the touristy Ninth arrondissement, the email photos of the room for rent had me at JPEG. A distressed antique chair sat facing a floor-to-ceiling window, basking in its bright light: a writer’s dream come true! Not to mention an enormous, fully equipped kitchen—a rare find in Paris. Upon arriving, I reveled further in the nearby farmers market (Metro Anvers) and the uncharacteristically spacious and fast moving Deco elevator that would carry me home each day. In such a place, I could easily conjure up feasts both real and fictional.

But my fantasies were put to rest when my potential—and pleasant enough—colocotaire gave me the tour. First, the antique chair I had seen in the photo was, in fact, only about two feet tall (intended for infants of generations past). The floor to ceiling window was therefore in reality probably six feet tall. I turned to the owner with a look of confused horror on my face, and she explained with a giggle that she was once a fashion and design photographer and could do wonders with angles and interiors. And before I could even process—let alone protest—such a gross misrepresentation, and the fare and time I had allotted in travel to the flat, she directed me to a slender armoire in the corner and opened it. “You can put your things here,” she said, pointing to the half of it that was empty. There was almost enough space for a single pair of shoes and two hanging suits—but not quite. (The shoes would have to be stacked.)

Sacré-Coeur Basilica perched high above Paris on the Butte Montmartre

At that point, I flinched, covering my open mouth. I may have even made an instinctive, jerky move towards the exit. But my smiling tour guide remained oblivious to any signs of personal distress and began reciting a long list of house rules. Thus, it hit me (and hard): her Internet optical illusion had been working! Indeed, there must have been a steady stream of young students, fresh off the plane and so hard pressed for housing, that they were willing to overlook things like wearing clothes during their time in Paris. Talk about twisted market forces!

I was then led to the oversized and empty kitchen. “This is where you can store your food,” she instructed, pulling aside a homemade curtain that covered a plastic crate on its side. (I had to admit, the allotted space was generous compared to the clothes closet; I might have fit two good-sized boxes of energy bars in there.) As it turned out, this potential colocotaire not only did not cook (probably the one Paris born individual who consumed only raw, macrobiotic foods) but admittedly, “did not enjoy eating” per se, and discouraged her tenants from cooking and eating as well.

Going without clothes was one thing. But the idea of a kitchen for visual purposes only, in a city so devoted to the love of food and in which good kitchens were so hard to come by, in a flat so near a famer’s market, was just too much to bear. I fled.

Le Café Montmartre. Photo credit: Annabel Hertz

Once I had recovered, however, I investigated a flat share in the beloved 11th arrondissement, tucked away on a maze-like side street between Voltaire and Charonne Metros. I had always appreciated the lower key cafes on some of the lesser-known streets in this part of town. It was an area in which people might even learn your name. A writer and her laptop could actually get some traction in the morning without being shooed out for the lunch crowd.

The woman renting out the room was a professor with a lovely, welcoming and open demeanor. Unfortunately, the flat itself was a bit less expansive. As it was, there was no room to stand—much less sit—save for in the shower, at the stove, or at the foot of the bed in the room for rent. She suggested that given the lack of common area, one could simply stand in the doorways. I said that at least she had a high-end swivel chair to sit on while working at her desk. But then I noticed the rest of her bedroom was taken up by her sleeping arrangement—and by “arrangement” I do not mean “bed,” but rather a sleeping bag on the floor. “No one really needs a matelas or frame,” she explained. And who was I to argue? Nevertheless, I was intent on renting a place where I could stand, or even sit, outside of the moments I was asleep, making coffee or bathing.

As I departed the 11th, I wondered: was I witnessing a trend of self-imposed asceticism—perhaps as a rebellious countermeasure to such an aesthetically pleasing city? This idea propelled me onward to the next flat. I was fascinated in the way anthropologists become obsessed by the discovery of new people and their ways of life. Of course, there was nothing particularly French or Parisian about this lifestyle, but I was certain I had stumbled upon a unique underworld of flat sharing with random foreigners—a sub-cultural context of distorted supply and demand.

View of Notre Dame Cathedral from the terrace of the Institut du Monde Arabe

Perhaps survival in Paris simply required living one’s life outside of one’s abode. Flat sharers might settle for a place to sleep, shower and receive the occasional piece of mail. Or maybe, as I came to understand on my visit to a flat near Strasbourg St Denis, you would simply forego the sleep. (Afterall, one could probably cuddle up during the day at the Institut du Monde Arabe or the Bibliothèque Nationale.) I had always found this quartier a transitional segue between neighborhoods, but given its convenient and central location, I was hoping to being persuaded of its charm: and certainly the flat had its size and brightness going for it. There was even common space and access to the kitchen with no restrictions.

I asked if the bedroom for rent had a good-sized armoire or closet. The keeper of the flat, a shirtless young man who had greeted me with sleepy eyes, led me down the hall and opened a door. The room did not exactly have a closet; it was a closet. A reasonably-sized, corner closet. By this, I mean it was reasonably sized for hanging clothes (especially compared to the Montmartre armoire). I pictured all my shoes and clothes fitting nicely in it. The one problem with the room, as he called it, was that while a twin mattress could actually fit in it, the mattress could not be laid flat given that the space was essentially a triangle, so renters normally positioned the mattress diagonally and folded half of it up against the wall, sort of like a chair. The renter could then sleep sitting up. With all the comfort of sleeping on a plane, I noted, minus the tilt-back function of the seat and headrest.

Streetscene in Charonne. Photo credit: Annabel Hertz

I told the guy that I wasn't very good at sleeping at ninety degrees—then clarified I meant the angle, not the temperature in Fahrenheit/English (though, conceivably, that could also be tough.) There was still the critical matter of breathing in a windowless space, but I refused to believe that house rules precluded leaving the closet door open. Still, I didn’t ask…

I left that flat feeling I had been altogether wronged by the right—bank that is. Though I eventually found a six-floor walk up loft with a sprawling internal courtyard less than a mile east of Bastille. By then, the search for a flat share had presented its fat share of problems, so I ignored a gross architectural misdemeanor committed by the owners: a pseudo gazebo built around the dining area. Though tacky beyond measure, that gazebo did not stop me from cooking, lounging, sleeping or making significant inroads on my novel, Seeing Green. I had a spectacular view of the gray Mansard rooftops perched on the other creamy lemon Haussmanns that surrounded our building. Situated at the mouth of the Faidherbe-Chaligny Metro, the flat was a quick walk to Marché d’Aligre, and fifteen minutes to Gare de Lyon (and the train back to Geneva).

Of course, such a situation did not last long; the owners came back to reclaim their rightful place in the 20th, and the next time I would find a Paris flat, it would be solo. Nevertheless, I had triumphed, and Flat-share-boot-camp had given me a fundamental appreciation for all co-housing arrangements thereafter. Once secure in my lodgings, I could delve into the dramas of my novel’s protagonist, and leave the real life spectacles behind. I never looked back on that underworld (until now). I consider my voyage there a true testament to what people are willing to do for a Paris address.

Author Annabel Hertz's Seeing Green is a “timely, energetic and witty” story of a young woman “on a mission to puncture the stasis" of environmental policy (HuffPo). The novel takes place in the lead up to a Paris Ministerial (much like this December's climate change conference in Paris) and pays homage to international---and office---politics, and idealism. This "felicitously fast-moving, tightly organized narrative” also explores the rocky and rewarding terrain of family and personal relationships from the perspective of a multicultural protagonist. Connect with Annabel Hertz via Facebook.

Don't miss the giveaway of Seeing Green on Out and About's Facebook page on Thursday, August 13, 2015!

Seeing Green by Annabel Hertz

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A Hip, New Way to Experience Paris - Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour with Mon Beau Paris

Polaroid photos taken during Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour with Mon Beau Paris

Whether they're family, friends or complete strangers, people frequently ask me some variation of the following two questions when they start planning their vacations in Paris:

I've already seen all the touristy sights. What's something different/unique/off the beaten path that I can do?
What should I do with my teenagers/children?

Up until recently, I've responded with some fairly standard answers about the catacombs, sewers of Paris and Pari-Roller's weekly Friday night get-together to rollerblade through the streets of the city. Now, thanks to Mon Beau Paris, I have a new response. Try Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour!

While Mon Beau Paris isn't the first company to offer street art tours of the French capital, what I found intriguing when they invited me to join one of their tours is that Mon Beau Paris provides their guests with Polaroid cameras to immortalize their favorite street art on film.

Jef Aérosol's "Chut!" ("Hush!") by the Centre Pompidou is a
reminder to listen to the sounds around you.

"This tour is never the same," explained our guide, "because street art is constantly changing." While Aurélie, who is an official licensed guide with a background in art history, told us about the history of street art and defined some important terms, like graffiti and tagging, other members of the Mon Beau Paris team distributed Polaroid cameras and much appreciated bottles of water to quench our thirst on a hot Parisian day.

Strolling along the familiar streets of the Marais, I found myself looking up, down and all around as Aurélie taught us to distinguish between works by Jef Aérosol, Le Diamantaire and M. Chat. The neighborhood took on a new dimension as we scanned the walls for stickers or words. While some artists use urban spaces to provoke thought or make statements about socially relevant themes, others view street art as a way to share their creations freely with the world.

The Polaroid cameras are a brilliant addition to the tour because they provide an innovative way for visitors to interact with street art and create entirely new pieces of art. I'm so pleased with my Polaroid photos that I'm planning to make a framed collage with them. It will be a uniquely different souvenir of a fun afternoon in Paris.

Mon Beau Paris
34 rue de Cléry
75006 PARIS

Mon Beau Paris currently has a 5/5 rating on Trip Advisor.

Tip: After juggling two cameras and my iPhone during the tour, I would suggest leaving your regular camera at home. If you want to take digital photos of the street art, you can always retrace your steps at a later time. Be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing.  

iPhone photos taken during Le Marais Street Art Polaroid Tour with Mon Beau Paris 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Climb to the top of the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral for one of the best views of Paris!

Stryga, the most famous of the chimera at Notre Dame Cathedral, observing the ever-changing city.

Like Stryga, the most famous of the chimera at Notre Dame Cathedral, I was frozen in place while I gazed at the cityscape of Paris yesterday evening. Tourists with backpacks jostled behind me as I turned my head slowly from Sacré-Cœur Basilica perched high on a bluff to the golden dome of Les Invalides in the distance. The muted sounds of street performers and boats on the river Seine heightened my sense of detachment from the crowd below. Not even the romantic couple with their arms around each other made me regret that Stéphane was on a train and I was there alone. For I wasn't really by myself. Fantastic birds, hybrid beasts and mythical monsters entertained me while I waited for sunset to mark the end of another day.

Notre Dame Cathedral

More than four years, that's how long I had waited to climb the 387 steps to the top of the South Tower. With hindsight, it seems silly that I postponed seeing one of the most spectacular views of Paris for such a long time. I had been waiting until all of the conditions were perfect. When the late evening sunshine illuminated the facade of Notre Dame yesterday evening, I decided that it was finally time to make the ascent.

My heart sank when I turned the corner of the cathedral and saw the long line of other people who had exactly the same idea. Fortunately, I hung around long enough to learn that the wait wasn't expected to last more than 20 minutes. Reading "Towers of Notre-Dame", a brochure distributed to all the visitors standing in line, helped to pass the time.

Emmanuel, Notre Dame's largest bell

One of the unexpected bonuses was the opportunity to see Notre Dame's largest bell, which weighs more than 13 tons. Emmanuel's clapper alone weighs 500 kilos! The 17th century bell is only rung on major Catholic feast days, whereas four other bells in the north tower peal several times a day.

Reluctant to leave the top of the tower, I waited until the very last minute to begin my descent. That's when the evening star made it's appearance in the west.

This lucky Chimera at Notre Dame Cathedral has a view of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower!

On Friday and Saturday evenings in July and August, the Towers of Notre Dame are open until 11:00 pm. Last entrance is 45 minutes before closure.

From April 1 until September 30, the towers are open every day from 10:00 am to 6:30 pm. From October 1 to March 31, they're open from 10:00 am to 5:30 pm. The towers are closed on January 1, May 1 and December 25.

There are 387 steps (no elevator) to the top of the tower so it's best to be in good shape.

Paris, as seen from the top of the south tower of Notre Dame Cathedral