The Paris Diaries: Part One
Paris: the city of lights, love, le Louvre, and damn good croissants. Having studied French throughout high school, by best friend Tayla and I had eagerly anticipated our visit to the famed capital of France. So, with tattered backpacks (and not much else), we emerged from Gare du Nord with high hopes.
Having explored London for three weeks prior, we found the cheapest and most simple way to get there was via the Eurostar, a train service running beneath the English Channel direct from London to Paris. So, one lazy spring morning we left our little flat in Brixton, hurtled under the city, and arrived at St. Pancras Station simply to board yet another train. The journey was surprisingly quick, and before we knew it inky black walls had transformed into sparkly French countryside. My ears were certainly not happy with the rate at which we were flying through the damp Earth, but the trip gave us plenty of time to do some journalling and eat some chips. Within a few short hours, brick-and-vine London had disappeared, and we found ourselves embraced by an ancient, cobblestoned city, bathed in its peachy afternoon sunlight.
I mustn't lie - when we took our very first steps on French soil I was rather terrified. Not only were we faced by a mob of con-artists coagulated at every possible exit of Gare du Nord, but every sign and screen was glaringly en français. This was obviously to be expected, but there's nothing quite like the confusion one experiences when what was previously confined to a textbook for the past five years is suddenly in, on, and around you. Having never been to a European country before, it was a slight culture shock to say the very least - no amount of drumming Francoise Hardy's French songs into my subconscious could have ever prepared me for this. We naively thought that London had taught us all we needed to know about public transport, however this was immediately proven a dud theory as we took almost an hour of foot-tapping and broken French in order to simply purchase our first Metro tickets.
Our first Parisian home was exactly that - a cosy wooden-floored apartment on the fourth floor of a block opposite Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, a cemetery famed for its ornate graves and well-known inhabitants. As opposed to a hostel or hotel where one stays alone, our gorgeous AirBnB booking meant that we had the opportunity to live with proper Parisians. We were truly lucky in that our hosts were some of the kindest people I've ever met - a couple, their baby, and their dog, Boomiki. Not only did they speak four languages almost fluently, but they also took it upon themselves to give us a lesson in cooking ratatouille, whilst simultaneously schooling us in the French language. We swapped warm, homemade vegan cake with soy cream for tales of nearby parks, cinemas and hammams.
The apartment itself was stunning - worn herringbone wooden floors, with high ceilings, enormous windows opening out to the bustling street below, and kitchen cupboards brimming with teabags and tins. We drank Kusmi tea by the potful, and indulged in apple crumble for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, often stuffing our empty applesauce jars with the mixture for snacks throughout the day. Tayla played the piano in the living room while I listened alongside Boomiki, who had been brought back from French Guiana as a puppy. Needless to say, we adored our time in Pere Lachaise.
Our next nest was a proper Parisian dream - a fifth-floor loft in Montmartre, perched atop a spiral staircase, with a box of dog-earred French records, and a teeny kitchen looking out over the endless horizon of rooftops and chimneys. We would dash down to the supermarket across the street and stock up on supplies each evening - flocons d'avoine, sparkling lemon water, avocados, and pots of apple puree - planning our feast as we tiptoed down the staircase. We stayed in our little loft for days, emerging only for supplies. Jamie XX's In Colour and Majid Jordan's U were whispering over the soundsystem as we read about Patti Smith's life in New York and a material that can capture stardust, and when we grew tired of reading, watched Woody Allen films in French.
One evening, we travelled via Metro to a venue called Le Trabendo in Paris's north-east, to see Purity Ring perform. It was unlike any concert we'd ever attended - Parisians sipping on cups of beer and smoking cigarettes in the peach-pink sunset-bathed courtyard, cradling warm hotdogs in tattooed hands. It was a warm spring evening, and although I dislike smoking, I enjoyed being able to soak up the last of the sunlight shrouded in a mist of tobacco as opposed to being hustled into the venue. The concert was wonderful, and although I was apprehensive about the trip home, we had no problems on the Metro. However, as we emerged from the underground and began pacing up the street leading up to our block, a man began to walk alongside us. He kept asking us questions, which I refused to answer. He figured out we were tourists. Thankfully, I yanked Tayla into a small convenience store and he promptly disappeared just as quickly as he had arrived. I purchased a small box of banana soy milk and scuttled home warily under the streetlights. I was shaken. I had heard stories of men like this on travel blogs, and if it weren't for my avid reading pre-trip this situation may have turned out very differently.
On numerous occasions, our explorations led us to La Basilique du Sacré Cœur, at the peak of Montmartre Hill. We ate sugar-crusted peanuts on its staircase, watching tourists barter for bracelets and buskers noodling away with their guitars. We sat in the gardens below, with a picnic feast of cherry tomatoes, hummus, baguettes, and alfalfa sprouts, watching the con-men desperately trying to avoid the police and travellers taking crazy photographs. We also found ourselves perched on one of the sidewalk tables in the surrounding streets, sipping on long blacks, scribbling out lengthy postcards to home, and listening to the accordion music wafting in the breeze. If there's one thing you must eat when you're in Montmartre, it's the bubble tea from Ô Bubble. We had soy milk gingerbread and coconut, and it was divine - the perfect treat to slurp on while wandering the cobblestoned streets. Out of all the arrondissements we visited, none felt quite as Parisian as Montmartre.
There was also a gorgeous little square crammed with artists and tourists near the top of the hill, the area adorned with caricatures and psychedelic postcards brimming out of plastic-scented tourist stores. It is a little claustrophobic because the concentration of visitors is so high, so much so that it requires fully-armed army personnel to be wandering the alleyways and staircases all the time. If you are able to, I highly suggest you walk up the hill by foot rather than take the little train. The full experience is unparalleled - florists, cafes, and art that I fear you'll miss if you don't huff and puff up the narrow staircases and wobbly streets on your own two feet. There are just some things that are best done authentically.
Eating plant-based in Paris was a lot less difficult than I had originally expected. With its rich culinary history of grenouille, escargot, croque monsieur and so on, it came as quite a surprise to find a number of vegan eateries dotted in amongst the boulangeries and boucheries. We unexpectedly indulged on croissants, fromage, and vin rouge amongst other delectable delights. Here are our favourite spots for a bite to eat:
55 Rue des Archives, Paris, France
HANK, which literally stands for 'Have a Nice Karma', was a culinary highlight of our trip. A teeny tiny store that sells all-vegan burgers, fries, and brownies couldn't possibly be anything less than fantastic! My favourite was definitely l'Allume burger - smoky barbecue with red peppers - especially when smothered in the free mayonnaise that sits in big squeezy bottles on the tables. Additionally, all the staff speak English which makes it the perfect haven for those who are a little overwhelmed by the complex task that is navigating a French menu. Although it is exceptionally small, the good wifi and great food certainly make up for it!
UN MONDE VEGAN
64 rue Notre Dame de Nazareth, Paris, France
This petit supermarche nestled amongst galleries and bookstores near the Republique Metro station is your one stop shop for everything vegan. From vegan ham, to vegan croissants, to vegan cheese, and even vegan chocolate bars that taste like nutella (Vego, I'm looking at you), this place has it all. Its by no means big, but their selection is enough to overwhelm even the biggest of foodies - I'm telling you from experience! A great place to stock up on some tasty vegan treats, and fulfil those buttery pastry cravings induced by those bakeries lining each and every street.
99 rue du Théâtre, Paris, France
If you're looking for a smiling face, this is where you need to go. I've not been to a place as cheery as this - and their chocolate cake is off the charts! Located on a corner opposite a little grocers on the western side of Paris, Brasserie Lola offers an assortment of culinary delights include pad thai, bananas foster, and bomb as vegan wine to name a few. The interior is very classic and understated, with big windows so that you can watch the scooters zooming past. This is the perfect place to bring your non-vegan friends and show them how yummy good vegan food can be.
When we were to lazy to head out for a bite, or found that our bank balances had dwindled suspiciously, we simply headed to the local supermarket to buy some supplies. The beauty of staying in your own apartment as opposed to a hostel or hotel is that you get free reign of the kitchen, and more often than not, a complementary supply of tea, oils, and spices. We shopped at Monoprix and Carrefour most of the time - you'll find one within walking distance of almost any Parisian apartment within the Boulevard Périphérique.
Staples on my shopping list included basmati rice, jars of unsweetened apple puree, rolled oats, cinnamon, almond milk, Kusmi tea, cherry tomatoes, hummus, gluten-free baguettes, frozen vegetables, avocados, potatoes, tomato sauce, chickpeas, rice crackers, bananas, strawberries, and sparkling lemon water. Most of these were inexpensive, and will easily last a few hours in a jar if you want to make bulk and tote it around with you to avoid spending excess money or the hassle of tracking down vegan-friendly eateries.
QUICK TIPS FOR YOUNG TRAVELLERS
- Occasionally, walking at night can make you a target - if a man starts to follow you, duck into the nearest store and browse the shelves until they move on.
- Make your best effort to speak some French wherever you go. You will be greeted warmly in return (no matter how fragmented your speech), whereas
- Look out for conmen around popular tourist spots, such as La Tour Eiffel, La Sacre Coeur, and so on.
- Keep your wits about you when travelling on public transport. Tayla was holding her camera on the Metro and as we wove our way through the station to get to our next platform, we noticed that the two young boys who had been eying up our belongings on the previous train were following us. Luckily, they got bored, but it was a reminder to always be aware of our surroundings.