I like to stop in Paris as often as possible, so whenever I plan a trip to Europe, I look for flights with connections through Charles de Gaulle airport. That way I have an excuse: "I was there anyway," I can say. "It only made sense to stay a few days."
A few days is all I want. I did the City of Light initiation trip 15 years ago, the one when you stay a week and see all the sights. I have graduated to wanting to know, not see, Paris, and do it a little bit at a time, in small portions, the way the French eat.
Dropping in occasionally gives me the chance to note the way a place changes. Since that initial visit, Paris has changed. The city used to put a chip on my shoulder. When I was there I never felt sophisticated enough. With their good looks, hauteur and unwillingness to let anyone else parler francais, the Parisians seemed to agree.
But lately they've started loosening up, cracking the occasional smile, indulging visitors more, even taking an interest in the people who travel halfway around the world to visit their fair city. Maybe it's a result of globalization, a person-to-person effort to overcome acrimony over the war in Iraq or the advent of a new, more open generation of tour guides, waiters and hotel clerks. Or maybe I've just grown older and wiser and better at French (thanks to classes I've been taking).
When I went back last month, I felt no fear. Even better, I planned to rendezvous there with my sister, Martha, who lives in Belgium and speaks French well.
There is something special about meeting someone you love in a faraway place. The first sight of that person after a long separation is a joy in itself, and, away from the distractions of home, the level of your communication is magically raised.
We had just one day. She took the train from Brussels to Paris, a 90-minute trip for her, and showed up around 10 a.m. at my hotel, the pretty little Therese on the Right Bank. I had alerted the front-desk clerk to watch for her. He seemed to enjoy my excitement and approved of my efforts to speak French. When Martha arrived, he sent her to my room, and she appeared at the door looking chic and European.
We hugged and cried, then got right down to the business of planning our day. She had come prepared with magazine articles about current art exhibits, and I had been studying the entertainment section of Le Figaro newspaper. We decided to visit the Musee du Luxembourg on the Left Bank, for a special showing of paintings by Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli, then have a long lunch at L'Epi Dupin, a small, excellent restaurant I'd tried before that's within walking distance of the museum.
The sun was breaking through gray clouds when we set out on foot, passing a striking statue of 17th century French dramatist Moliere on the Rue de Richelieu, which gave us the idea of seeing his "The Imaginary Invalid" at the nearby Comedie-Francaise. On our way to the Metro, we bought tickets at the theater box office and took a shortcut through the elegant courtyard of the Palais-Royal.
The Botticelli show, in a small exhibition hall at the edge of Luxembourg Gardens, underwhelmed us, partly because it was crowded. But lunch at L'Epi Dupin, friendly and bustling, on an unprepossessing street near the Bon Marche department store, didn't let us down. I had delicious, meaty roast duck, and Martha had coquilles St. Jacques, accompanied by a split of Chateau Mourgues du Gres, a white wine from southern France. Then there were two different fresh fig desserts, espresso, a brief chat with chef Francois Pasteau and suddenly heavy eyelids.
It was time to go back to the hotel for a nap. Martha said she felt guilty about snoozing away precious time in Paris, but as a tourist, I'm starting to learn my limits. Besides, we needed to be fresh for the play, which would be performed in French.
We were so full from lunch that we didn't bother to eat dinner before going to the theater, an 18th century edifice with statues of famous French theater people in the lobby. It also has the rather threadbare chair into which Moliere collapsed in 1673 while performing in "The Imaginary Invalid" (dying shortly thereafter).
The Comedie-Francaise, officially formed in 1680, is a French institution to which schoolchildren are routinely taken. A group of them sat behind us, kicking the backs of our seats. But it didn't matter, because the play was wonderful. The set and costumes evoked the 17th century with a minimalist air; the acting was perfect; and the staging was so clear that I came away feeling I had understood every word, though, of course, I hadn't.
It was raining, and we were suddenly hungry when we left the theater, so we ducked in to a neighborhood bar. The waiter, who doubled as the barman, brought us a carafe of red vin ordinaire, a few wedges of Brie and bread and told us to take our time, even though he seemed to be closing.
The rain fell. We talked, although I can't remember about what. But I do recall the savor of that unspectacular wine. It was the taste of a day spent by two American sisters in Paris, which made them welcome.
Hotel Therese, 5 Rue Therese; 011-33-1-4296-1001,
fax 011-33-1-4296-1522, www.hoteltherese.com.
Doubles start at $190.
L'Epi Dupin, 11 Rue Dupin; 011-33-1-4222-6456.