Here, you'll find an elegant old street, Rue St.-Louis-en-l'île, as narrow as your living room. This is the Paris you've always imagined — quaint restaurants, pastry shops and perhaps the best ice cream ever, at the famed Berthillon (pronounced bear-tee-yone).

I had a fine lunch at Les Fous de l'Île, a cheery little bistro. For 20 bucks, I had a mussels remoulade appetizer and grilled lamb chops over a bed of potatoes. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the place was still throbbing. In France, happy hour apparently lasts from noon till about midnight.

From here, you might catch the bus to my beloved Musée d'Orsay. As you're aware, the French have lost a lot of wars over the years yet somehow managed to end up with most of the world's great artwork. Here, I learned that the Symbolists expressed a fragile world, an inner reality.

I also learned that I am particularly drawn to snowscapes or paintings of naked ladies combing their hair. The ultimate masterpiece for me would be a naked lady combing her hair in the snow, but it's difficult to get a naked person outside in even the most ideal conditions. Hence, I am not holding my breath.

Besides, I have an appointment with Napoleon.

The emperor

These days, Napoleon rests inside a series of coffins, one within the other. Honestly, I'm not sure whether it's to protect the remains from thieves or to give him additional stature.

In any case, it is a stirring burial site and comes as part of the $11 admission to the Musée de l'Armée, a sprawling, occasionally repetitive military museum in the heart of the city. You can walk here from almost anywhere, and the golden domed church in which Napoleon is housed is one of the most visible and alluring landmarks.

Parts of the Left Bank where I stayed were pretty buzzy — loud and gridlocked — but on the other side of the river, near the Opéra Garnier, I found the center of the Parisian universe. The area pulses with boutiques and cafes. There are many high-end shops, but bargains abound too. Watch your step, though. Only by the grace of God is there not a traffic death here every minute.

I don't know where I heard about Harry's New York Bar (5 Rue Daunou), a few blocks off the Avenue de l'Opéra, a comforting old Hemingway hangout with just the right blend of stale beer and overvarnished mahogany. But I needed a place to dampen my lips on a hot July day.

After a refreshment here, the French bartender and one of the locals had a grand time directing me to the Métro line that would take me to the Moulin Rouge, the famed red-light district, where I hoped to sample some absinthe.

The No. 3 train to Villiers, then the No. 2 train toward Nation, exiting at Blanche

Despite their help, I eventually found it, after being hustled by a hooker in front of Starbucks, of all places, across from the Moulin Rouge itself. How French.

The absinthe ($12 at Hôtel Royal Fromentin, 11 Rue Fromentin) tasted like bitter lemonade. It's served, quite grandly, by dripping ice water through a sugar cube and into the absinthe itself.

Interesting, sure. But you can pretty much get the same distinctive taste from sucking on an old sweater (usually around $2). And hitting yourself simultaneously in the head with a small hammer ($5).

On Paris time

How else did I waste my time? Hey, remember what Bertrand Russell once said: "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

So I sampled a rhubarb tart at a little deli named Paul on Rue des Pyramides. I tried the cookies at one of the irresistible La Cure Gourmande candy shops. I rented a bike to tour the Tuileries, the sprawling gardens that provide an airy place to recover after your visit to the adjacent Louvre.

I took a jog along the Boulevard des Invalides to admire the bridges along the Seine. I had a bloody Mary at the Carmine Cafe, a friendly little joint a mile from the Eiffel Tower, on Avenue de Suffren. Like the people themselves, French streets seem to have a trace of irony.

And I capped my stay with a fine meal at La Petite Tour, a neighborhood restaurant in the 16th arrondissement, a 10-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Highly recommended by friends, it proved to be a cozy little place, where they sauté the scallops twice, then bounce them off the moon for effect. That's the way the French cook, always going the extra 239,000 miles.

I finished my final day by touring that little landmark, the Eiffel, which is best seen at night when the lines are more manageable and the strobe lights flicker every hour on the hour after the sun finally set — 10 o'clock in the middle of summer.

So that was Paris for me. Five days. Five million memories.

Don't worry so much about the language. I speak sort of a fractured high school French, and my English is even worse. I easily communicated with a windmill of pantomimes and unnecessary roughness signals, a la the NFL. Usually, I ended in a prayer-like pose, proposing marriage a dozen times — accidentally, of course.

Such is Paris, full of surprises and learning opportunities, succulent sideshows and grand masterpieces.

If you've never gone, you really should give it a whirl. Selflessly, I'd be glad to tag along.

chris.erskine@latimes.com