Christmas in Paris

Paris, December 25, 2016

ARRIVING in Paris early Christmas morning is the best Christmas gift I’ve ever given myself. Not much seems to have changed at the Charles de Gaulle airport since I was last here 15 years ago. The Buck Rogers era travelators encased in a see-through tube, crisscrossing the light-filled atrium, evokes a modernity of the 1970s. The baggage carousel too, has a yesterday feel. I suppose the French aren’t as manic about tearing things up and making things new, gorgeous, and first-world the way Singaporeans are.

It is as my longtime Paris-based French friend, F, has observed: the French culture, the cuisine, the aesthetics are all so refined and elegant, the top and the best, but when it comes to transport infrastructure, why bother seems to be their abiding ethic.

And so, this very first morning, after I settled my valise in F’s apartment, and zipped out with him to his patisserie on the left bank at Saint-Germain-des-Prés—there’s a line of customers waiting to take home their pre-ordered Christmas goodies and log cakes—I grabbed his arm and squealed, “Oh, there’s a mouse!” Yes, une souris, a mouse, not a rat, scampering along in the Odéon subway towards the sortie, as if it were running along with us.

I suppose 19 years ago, for six good ones, when I had been a denizen of New York, the mouse wouldn’t have fazed me. New York, is after all, home to rodents, as well as the homeless, in the depths of its dank, dusty, rumbling subways, just like in Paris. Alas, the temperament of the Singaporean girl is all I have right now. See no evil, hear no evil, see no mice, spy no rats. I seem to forget that this is the grand city of Ratatouille.

But I have returned, ready to conquer the rats and lick the windows—lécher les vitrines, as the French would say, their sensual and poetic take on window-shopping. My first stop: Gérard Mulot, an old-school patisserie and chocolatier, founded in 1976. At the front window and the side, bûches de Noël, Christmas log cakes of various sizes, glaze, colors, and flavors, line themselves up neatly.

Inside, fresh from the kitchen sitting on the racks of a baker’s trolley, are creations I’ve never seen before: raspberries sandwiched between almond- and pistachio-flecked meringues.

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It’s only about half past eight, and a line, about a dozen deep, has snaked out from a tentage set up at the back of the this forty-year-old establishment along Rue Lobineau. The line, F tells me, was even longer on Christmas eve, worming its way down the entire length of the store. If you had been on this line, you would have had the pleasure of the store window winking and twinkling at you with Christmas revelry and colors, including a tall Christmas tree fashioned from chocolate macarons just by the chocolate section.

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Christmas is in the air, so send in the sweets and the goodies! No one is counting calories, just taking stock of presents and what must fill the Yuletide table.

Meanwhile, I’m busy doing the tourist thing, snapping away on my iPhone, this cake and that one and that other one—the stylish beauty decked with glazed raspberries and a yellow-on-green striped motif down its side, the shining-like-a-mirror one with the glaçage au chocolat topped with ribbons of chocolate, and the limited edition all-yellow log made from organic lemons from Menton, stamped with the prestigious A.O.P., or Appellation Origine Protegée, a mark that recognizes them as a special produce of high quality.  

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Snap, snap, snap! All out of sight from F, who has quickly and quietly slipped away by the back door to be with his team at the tentage, which includes his papa and maman, who has come all the way from Annecy to give a hand.

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The morning is long and having slept soundly most of my way in a comfortably uncrowded non-stop flight, it was time to explore the city by foot. And at eight degrees Celsius, the stroll was pleasant, taking me from the Rue de Seine where Gérard Mulot is, down towards the Seine, the Palais de Justice, then towards Notre Dame, which was teeming with people and police checks by the barrier. No, I didn’t venture in.

A savory crêpe was on my mind, and after some turns down a rue, and another, and yet another, I settled on one not far from Gérard Mulot, just outside the Odéon station, with the option of à emporter (take away), or eating in au bar (by the counter, standing), with the take-away option always cheaper. As if life weren’t complicated enough, when I asked to see the menu, the wait person by the counter, a hottie with the looks of Matt Dillon and an hauteur that was somewhat annoying, he tells me, “Oh, if you want a menu, then you have to go next door to Le Comptoir.” It is a sister restaurant, purely dine-in, or sur place, with all the comforts of sitting on those chic Parisian wicker chairs in salles climatisées—rooms that are air-conditioned in summer, and heated in winter. This would have been the most expensive option.

Only in Paris do you get pricing three ways. In Singapore, oddly, da-bao costs more. The hawker will charge you ten or twenty cents more for plastic takeaway containers.

I went with the Mr. Hottie option, au bar, a term I learned in my very first trip to Paris in 1994. Having the phrase float in my mind again was nostalgic, the same way I felt thinking about how I met F and his parents at their café in Annecy in fall 22 years ago, when coming out from a TGV from Paris, I was desperately hungry and looking for a quick bite. My hunger blessed me with their friendship.

Vive l’amitié! Long live friendship! 

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