Paris weekend: Friday afternoon (part 1 of 2)

wall of buildings on the Seine, Paris

After leaving Montparnasse Cemetery late morning on Friday, we walked north through the west side of the Luxembourg Gardens and up to the Île de la Cité. In August, the French are mostly all away from Paris at the beach or out in the countryside in their hometowns on their five or more weeks of summer vacation. And then because of increased terrorist acts, strikes, and recent flooding, Paris tourism is down, from which we inadvertently benefited. "How did we not wait in line for one or two hours? This is not normal!" my expat friend, S, kept saying at the Louvre, at Notre Dame, at Saint-Chappelle. Paris was thus largely empty of people. To me, though, there were still too many tourists, which means that if I ever return to Paris and it's not August, I'll be saying things like, When did Paris get so crowded? It wasn't like this in 2016!

fountain, Paris

French graffiti

woman with shopping bag, Paris

balcony vines, Paris

Paris ball sculpture

bride and groom at Notre Dame

hibiscus, Marché aux Fleurs, Paris

Anyway, I can't recall the exact order of events for most of the afternoon spent at the edges of the 4th through 6th arrondissements: St. Germain des Prés, the northwestern border of the Latin Quarter, and the Île de la Cité. We were flâneuses, women wandering central Paris with no appointments, no real agenda other than looking, experiencing, photographing.

We stopped into a bunch of little shops and boutiques on small side streets here and there. S tried on some shoes, searching for new low heels for work. (She didn't find anything since the dominant fall footwear trend is suede, not at all suitable for rainy London. It's also surreal to see the chunky 1990s heels back in fashion, which means we're definitely middle-aged.) She bought perfumed soaps as gifts from Fragonard on the Boulevard Saint-Germain. We both bought handmade olive-oil soaps made in Marseille from a street stall, where I practiced my never-fluent French. At her urging (because she would like me to move to Europe), I bought the classic French verb conjugations book at Gibert Joseph.

We ate savory and dessert crêpes at a cheap place she knew on the Left Bank. We sat in Notre Dame and Saint-Sulpice, admiring the high-flying buttresses, and stood amid the walls of stained glass at Saint-Chappelle. We walked through the Marché aux Fleurs, which was mostly closed. We walked across the Pont Neuf (the 'New Bridge' that has become the oldest Paris bridge) and the Pont des Arts (where the clunky, heavy, view-obstructing "love locks" are finally gone).

windows of Saint-Chappelle

Gothic protrusion, Saint-Chappelle exterior

Pont Neuf, Paris

Paris was between heat waves these few days, so the weather, sadly for me, was just like London's: cool and cloudy. It was overcast and windy most of the day. It even rained a little, off and on. We had left our umbrellas at the hotel since the forecast has predicted rain on Saturday, not Friday. But I had on my brown suede cowboy hat, which kept off the drizzle. And S bought a cheap black tourist umbrella printed with little purple Eiffel Towers that she shared with her daughter, E, whose favorite color is purple. The rain was soft enough not to drive us inside, so we kept moving, from shop to church to market. Paris in August was like walking through a living museum, a fossilized organism made of tan stone with a green river for a spine.


field trip: Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Beckett's grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Cemeteries and grocery stores reveal so much about a culture. They should be the first places to go when traveling. We eat, we die. The rest is pure luxury (and periodically, hell). After racing under the English Tunnel and into the Gare du Nord on the two-hours-from-London Eurostar Thursday night, we caught the Métro down to our inexpensive boutique hotel in the 14th arrondissement, crashed out for the night, woke up and gobbled complimentary croissants, yogurt, fruit, cheese, and hot chocolate, and then set out on foot.

For this first trip to Paris, I had compiled a short list of things to do over the weekend. Then my American-expat friend, who had lived in Paris before moving to London, sketched out the general itinerary. We weren't planning to stroll all the way up to the Louvre, but by Friday evening we had. But that's a later story. Our first stop on route to the Île de la Cité was the Cimetière du Montparnasse, also in the 14th and quite near our hotel.

ladybug in fake flower, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

grave with mini-garden, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

bird sculpture, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Paris, I have since learned, is divided by major streets and the river itself into 20 arrondissements (for our purposes, neighborhoods or districts) spiraling like a galaxy or escargot shell outwards from the Louvre on the Seine River, smaller and more compact within the center and widening towards the circular boundary—the Périphérique Boulevard—beyond which are the infamous banlieues. But of course, like most other cities around the world, it is cheaper to live farther from the center. The 14th, by the way, is a good area to stay in Paris, quiet, non-touristy, and still subway accessible: we were in fact a block from a Métro station.

wildflower border, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Though most guidebooks recommend the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, that older and larger cemetery is even farther from the center, over in the 20th arrondissement on the east side of Paris. To maximize time, we had planned to keep mostly to the Left Bank. So once we discovered that Simone de Beauvoir and other famous 20th-century writers and artists were installed in Montparnasse and realizing it was only a short walk from our hotel, regretting nothing, we crossed Père Lachaise right off the list.

graves of Sartre & de Beauvoir, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Susan Sontag's grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Marguerite Duras grave, Montparnasse Cemetery, Paris

Instead we plucked off a hook a laminated map of luminaries buried at Montparnasse and found the conjoined graves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, the simple grave of Samuel Beckett, the more recent grave of Susan Sontag, and the cluttered grave of Marguerite Duras, decorating with red geraniums, shells, trinkets, pebbles, and a plant pot full of disposable pens deposited by visiting reader-fans. I suppose it is better to be remembered than keep a chic grave.


Gordon Square (where Virginia Woolf lived)

Bloomsbury Group Plaque, Gordon Square

While Virginia Woolf is not one of my favorite novelists (because low on plot), her sparkling intellect was formidable and her style at the modernist vanguard (and far more accessible and timeless than that great yawner, James Joyce). Furthermore, her long essay, A Room of One's Own, is still required feminist college reading. After stumbling last month across the house in Belsize Park where Lytton Strachey had regretfully proposed to Virginia Woolf, I was even more curious to check out the part of town where Virginia and her painter sister Vanessa (Stephen) Bell and their now-infamous circle of friends, the Bloomsbury Group—their two brothers, plus Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, and more—fostered a supportive artistic and intellectual community, inspiring each other within their local London Bloomsbury neighborhood for many creatively productive years. That rare atmosphere should be celebrated, even pilgrimaged, flawed and human though it was with the group's many triangulated affections.

46 Gordon Square, London

So after a (third) trip to the vast and fascinating British Museum of human history (as viewed through the objects of conquerors), I skirted recently murderous Russell Square and walked northwest to Gordon Square, my guidebook pointing me to number 46, where Virginia and Vanessa Stephen had lived briefly with their brothers after becoming orphaned in their 20s and before moving to other nearby residences. Number 46, though, showed a blue plaque for the influential economist Keynes, a Bloomsbury friend who subsequently lived in the house for decades.

Gordon Square buildings in dappled shadow

Keynes' house, Gordon Square

number 51 Gordon Square (Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury house)

Several houses down the block, another blue plaque at number 51 indicated Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury house, while a plaque at number 50 more generally sopped up all the Bloomsbury Group. Virginia and Leonard Woolf also lived for many of their Hogarth Press years just around the block on Tavistock Square and then at nearby Mecklenburgh Square, both houses bombed in 1940. Fortunately, the Woolfs were by then based at their country home, Monk's House, near Vanessa Bell's Charleston Farmhouse. Less than a year later, Virginia drowned herself in a Sussex river, fearing another long mental breakdown. She was only 59.

Waterstones bookshop A-frame sign, Gower Street, London

pale roses, Gordon Square Garden

Gordon Square Garden path

Gordon Square Garden scene

peach rose, Gordon Square Garden

The Bloomsbury area is full of students from the University College London, sited just above the British Museum. It seems a quieter, more serious area than most of London. The old Georgian townhouses have mostly been turned into unobtrusive hotels and university offices. I sat on a bench under the trees in Gordon Square and watched pairs and groups of young people talking and eating and drinking and laughing on blankets on a warm clear evening. Then I walked around half the enclosed square before my phone rang, thinking of Virginia Woolf and her peers traversing these same paths and pavements decades, even a century, ago, the memory traces colliding gently in space and time to the scents of cut grass, pea gravel, and pale roses.


field trip: Clifton Nurseries

echinacea close-up

With all the boutique and luxury stores woven throughout London, high-consumerist mecca, of course I'd be most excited over . . . a plant nursery. My friend here had suggested I check out Clifton Nurseries, a West London garden establishment located since 1851 in a quiet neighborhood corner near the canals of Little Venice. The high-end nursery, "farm shop," and café are all quite lovely.

pink hibiscus

Clifton Nurseries "Farm Shop" interior

pink tea rose

pink-tinged white hydrangeas

yellow rose

hot-pink hibiscus

zinnias & arbor

Quince Tree Café tables, Clifton Nurseries

zinnias, Clifton Nurseries

antique blue painted wooden chest

rows of orchids, Clifton Nurseries

epiphytic rickrack cactus (Cryptocereus anthonyanus or Selenicereus anthonyanus)

exotic flowering houseplant

houseplants in greenhouse

potted succulents

Yet once there, wandering around with my camera, surrounded by familiar and exotic indoor and outdoor plants from around the world, I was mostly missing my own humble little Portland garden while daydreaming of plants I could possibly find for free on Craigslist when I get back home.

planter-pots section

olive trees & shrubs, Clifton Nurseries

potted olive tree (Olea Europaea) price tag

white grapes

field of flowers, Clifton Nurseries

shrubs & metal turquoise café table set

Clifton Nurseries entrance
Be prepared for sticker shock, though: prices are high at Clifton, which also provides landscape design services for well-to-do clients. But as a place for gardening inspiration, Clifton provides a calm spot to escape the bustle of nearby Paddington Station. Sales associates also let customers browse without any impatience or hovering—offering a refreshing, freeing anonymity.

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