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A Working Vacation


Paris is a daily feast, a city of pleasant prospects.

Notice the tree-shaded streets and the creamy, sun-warmed building facades. There are shops and brasseries on the ground floor -- butchers, bakers, florists, cafes. Above, six floors of apartments, each with ironwork railings or grilles fronting the windows and balconies. Geraniums, petunias and lobelias spill from flower boxes.

This is the Paris that Parisians live in. One hopes that they are not blase about the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower and the Hemingway haunts and the boat rides on the Seine. But Parisians are also real people who live in a real city. They work, shop and play.

For one summer, my wife, Betsy, and I became Parisians. We lined up a small apartment and a temp job to pay for it. We found somebody to look after the dog and water the plants at home. We prepaid the bills, packed our bags and got on a plane.

We were not exactly strangers to Paris. Betsy had lived there during her college junior year abroad, and her French is fluent (mine is barely adequate). In the 1980s, when I was a foreign correspondent for The Sun, we had made frequent visits. On those occasions, though, I was usually working and Betsy was usually pushing a stroller.

When we would compare notes at the end of the day, I would report that some French diplomat had been cryptic about some policy point, and she would report that the children had enjoyed the elephants in the zoo.

"I saw a lot more elephants than Old Masters in those days," Betsy says. Except for the sidewalk scene, it was not exactly like visiting Paris.

Our stay last summer, though, was more like it. Empty-nesters now, we were giddy with freedom. Not only were there no strollers to push or diplomats to spar with, there was no household to manage -- no children to chauffeur, no committee meetings or choir practices, no auto tune-ups, no lawn mowing, no light bulbs to change or plumbers to call.

And we had Paris. The sense of irresponsibility was sweetened by the city of romance. As we wandered hand-in-hand, Betsy said she liked to imagine that the world took us for a middle-aged widow and widower who had remarried and found crazy love all over again.

And we had Paris. The sense of irresponsibility was sweetened by the city of romance. As we wandered hand-in-hand, Betsy said she liked to imagine that the world took us for a middle-aged widow and widower who had remarried and found crazy love all over again.

I doubt that the world was paying that much attention to us, and I hope we have never strayed from crazy love, but it is true that the summer felt like an extended second honeymoon.

Where to stay

Spending a summer in Paris is not so difficult as it may seem.

Finding a place is easy. Many Parisians flee the city in summer, and some are only too happy for their apartments to earn them money while they are away. Obviously, personal contacts are best, but you need not rely on them. Just typing "apartment in Paris" into any Internet search engine will lead you to a number of Web sites with listings, pictures and prices.

We went through a broker in New York who helped us figure out the trade-offs of price, location and amenity. We got a modernized apartment in an old building -- living room, bedroom, kitchen and bath. The rooms were small and functional, bright and airy. The kitchen was equipped for immediate use, with stores of coffee and tea, pasta, crackers, potatoes, garlic, jam, butter, vinegar and olive oil -- and a bottle of anise-flavored aperitif liqueur.

And we had the Eiffel Tower out our kitchen window.

We paid about $500 a week for our place on Avenue Kleber. You can do it cheaper, especially if you find a place on an upper floor in a building with no elevator or if you are away from central Paris. As with all rentals, location is everything.

I had lined up my summer job in Paris -- editing at an English-language paper -- through friends. But plenty of other jobs are available, 12,000 at Disneyland Paris alone, according to its Web site. Students may be able to land internships at UNESCO or other Paris-based international agencies. Just type "summer jobs in Paris" into a search engine, and you'll find plenty of leads.

My work hours were 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., and my days off were split, Saturday and one other day, so we took Paris day by day -- usually morning by morning.

Our typical day was to go to a museum or visit a park in the morning and have lunch in a sidewalk cafe. Then I went to work, and Betsy went on to an art gallery or researched our next day's plan. Sometimes she met French friends in the evenings, and they exchanged conversation lessons in French and English.

Beauty and ripeness

Paris owes its beauty and harmony to circumstance and genius.

The circumstance was the disobedience of the Hitler henchman who commanded the occupation of the city in World War II. The Fuehrer ordered him to destroy Paris before retreating in the face of the Allied push in 1944. At dinner tonight, please include that general in your prayer of thanksgiving. He may have been a Nazi, but he spared Paris.

Thus survived the city planned by the genius Baron Georges Eugene Haussman. He developed and extended the boulevards where the old city walls had been. He laid out squares and circles and parks. He cleared away the medieval, the miscellaneous and the remnant structures. No doubt much was lost. But what was gained was the Second Empire Paris (1852-1870) that many admire today as the world's most beautiful city.

Harmony and lightness give it a human scale that contrasts with the gridwork of New York, the regimented skyscrapers of Hong Kong or the disorganized clutter of London or Rome. Paris remains very much an Enlightenment city, a tribute simultaneously to the rational genius of the state and to respect for the common man.

In Baron Haussman's day there were no electric elevators, so building height was limited to the number of stairs a person might reasonably walk up. Our forbears were hardy -- six flights is the Paris standard. Tiny elevators have been retrofitted into the cramped stairwells of many older buildings. They accommodate two people, if they are kissing.

At the bottom of our building was a bakery -- breakfast just six floors down. Other shops within steps of our front door were two more bakeries, a couple of grocers, a butcher, two florists, a cheese shop and a delicatessen.

Twice weekly a sort of traveling Lexington Market set up in the boulevard two blocks away. We could get roasts and chops and ready-to-cook dishes like shish kebab, paella, risotto, stuffed peppers and barbecued chicken; embarrassed-looking poultry with their heads and feet on, looking mortified to be caught without their feathers; pigeons, quails and quails' eggs; cheeses too numerous to mention; Breton pate, Provencal pate, pate de Campagna, tongue pate; several varieties of quiche and pizza; ham hocks and pig's trotters; octopus, lobster claws, crevettes, scallops; baby pineapples, white and yellow peaches, white and yellow nectarines, black and yellow plums; gooseberries, currants and some fruits I couldn't identify; every kind of dessert; luggage, jewelry, handbags, "virtual leather" goods; vitamin supplements and natural foods; pots and pans, tables and chairs, mattresses, violins, carpets, furniture and clothing.

That is only a partial listing, of course.

We learned to shop as Parisians do, buying only for the day, rather than loading up for the week ahead. This is charming, but also necessary because French foods evidently use less preservative. Milk spoils rapidly, even in the fridge. Cheese ripens and molds quickly. Tender things like blackberries hardly survive the walk home from the market.

"For today or tomorrow," asked a fruiterer when we negotiated the purchase of a cantaloupe. Tomorrow, we said, though we intended to start it today. We were thinking of stretching out the leftovers.

The fruiterer thumped a melon, frowned, thumped another, shook his head. At last he settled on the one cantaloupe that would ripen to perfection in precisely 24 hours.

Serendipitous city

In our daily explorations, something delightful almost always happened. On one more or less typical day, our principal objective was to get Betsy's hair done. We had an appointment with the Left Bank hairdresser of a chic Parisian friend. With our map we worked it out that if we took the Metro to the Louvre stop, we could cross the river on the Pont des Arts while admiring the French Academy that defends the purity of the French language against barbarisms imported from English.

Then we would walk the few blocks through a pleasingly run-down neighborhood to the hairdresser.

But the bridge was closed to pedestrians. Lots of people, some striking, some scruffy, some star- struck, were milling around. A television commercial was in progress.

While we were trying to figure out whether to hike up to the next bridge or go back to the Metro, the filming ended and we were permitted to cross the bridge. But we had lost time: It appeared I might have to go to work hungry.

I needn't have worried. Two doors from the hairdresser was the restaurant L'Epi Dupin. It was a hole in the wall on a side street, as far as we could tell -- nothing a guidebook had noticed.

We shared a starter of pork cutlet in garlic butter sauce. That was followed by Betsy's veal-tail croquette on fresh pasta and my lightly curried rabbit with a pear and sweet potato chutney. We traded plates, and each was better than the other.

My point: You don't have to do much planning in Paris. Every day will shock you with novelty and pleasure.

(Most incredibly, despite a summer of happy eating we did not gain weight. Perhaps it was because we walked a lot, or because we did much of our restaurant eating at lunchtime, when portions are smaller.)

Out and about

We got around the city with subways and the occasional taxi. Real Parisians seem to use the bus a lot. We never quite got the hang of the bus system, and preferred to walk whenever possible.

The Paris Metro may be the best in the world -- cleaner than the New York subway, closer stops than the London Underground. There are monthly and weekly passes, but the best deal may be to buy a carnet -- 10 tickets for the price of about 8 1/2 .

The Paris buskers -- musicians who play for coins -- are some of the best you will hear anywhere. One guy in the Chatelet Metro station, I believe, plays what looks like a double-wide accordion, but he makes it sound like a pipe organ, with Bach fugues and toccatas resonating fabulously against the subway tiles. Tip him magnificently if you are able. This man adds to the sum of human enjoyment.

On days off, we sometimes rented a car and took a day or overnight trip -- to Honfleur, a picturesque old port on the Normandy coast, or to Monet's home and gardens at Giverny. Once, we caught a train to Bruges, a beautifully preserved late-medieval town in Belgium, and returned the next morning in time for me to get to work.

Some mornings we did nothing, just read or poked around the neighborhood. Then Betsy fixed a simple noontime dinner.

Neighborhood living was one of our great pleasures. We were in the 16th arrondissement, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower and down the street from the Arc de Triomphe. It is a pleasant neighborhood of shade trees, shops and apartment buildings, of dogs and the occasional beggar.

And it is just a few blocks from where Betsy lived when she was 19. We strolled over to the Rue de la Pompe one afternoon, and Betsy pointed out the window of her room. She and several other exchange students stayed with a shabby-genteel family that supported itself by taking in foreign girls on study programs. Sunday mornings there was breakfast in bed with croissants and cafe au lait. In the evenings, there was wine with dinner, but Betsy the Methodist could not learn to enjoy it. Her palate has since matured.

The neighborhood had not changed greatly, Betsy said. That is by design. Strict codes preserve the 19th-century Paris familiar to us from the paintings of the impressionists.

Almost every neighborhood is typically Parisian. That is, the human comedy walking the streets is unsurpassed in its diversity, but visually the French capital harmonizes; it is not a jumble. So although one neighborhood differs from another, all are unmistakably Parisian.

A place to appreciate this harmony is from the top of Montmartre. Stroll at random through the area, which was the center of artistic and bohemian life a century ago. Toulouse-Lautrec and Utrillo, Picasso and Braque lived here.

Have a wonderful lunch at a cafe that isn't in any guidebook. You may see one housewife abuse another, perhaps about a dog that got unruly. Sphinx-faced old men nurse coffees or play checkers in a shady park.

At the top of the hill, outside the basilica of Sacre-Coeur, you can drop a coin in a telescope and survey the Paris skyline. Save your money. There really isn't much skyline. The Eiffel Tower sticks up, and a couple of church spires.

There is the glass tower of Montparnasse, utterly un-Parisian, obviously a failure of regulatory oversight. Way off at the near outskirts is the only cluster of skyscrapers, the La Defense complex. It is worth a visit, but it is outside the central city and does not appear to be part of the low and surprisingly uniform skyline that is Paris itself.

All of the buildings are the same ground-floor-plus-six-stories height, and most of them are the same creamy, golden-Guernsey color.

A few discordant notes

Lovely as it is, Paris has its predators, as any city does. Pickpockets got my wallet one Sunday in a subway station, but they dropped it a few yards down the hallway. They took $100 but overlooked the only thing of value: my picture of Betsy.

Paris' other discordant note is its intellectuals. Have they ever looked at their own city? If the existentialists had left off bemoaning life's absurdity and stepped outside their smoky cafes, they might have noticed a Paris reflecting optimism and self-confidence. If the post-modernist deconstructionists had wandered into an organ recital at the church of St. Sulpice, they might have decided that truth and meaning may not be so arbitrary and impermanent after all.

Poor intellectuals. Paris is wasted on them -- but not on us.

"So, what do you think?" I asked my wife as the wheels lifted off on the homeward flight.

"I'm ready for next summer," she replied.


10 a.m.: Sleep in -- it's Sunday. Breakfast is six flights down the stairs, in the ground-floor bakery, where the croissants are still warm.

11:30 a.m.: Catch a brief recital after the second Mass at St. Sulpice. The magnificent organ, 58 feet high, with 7,000 pipes and valves, was built in 1862. Enthusiasts are trying to have it declared the world's first United Nations World Heritage musical instrument.

12:30 p.m.: Cross the Seine for a stroll in the Marais. This neighborhood has become trendy, with art studios and fashion boutiques, but don't be discouraged. The area is not yet so gentrified as to drive out the Jewish community that has lived and worked there for more than a century. Have a sandwich at L'As du Falafel or Jo Goldenberg's restaurant.

2:30 p.m.: Visit the nearby Musee Carnevalet, a museum of the history of Paris, a city with plenty of history.

4:30 p.m.: Proceed to the Place des Vosges, a lovely public square named in 1612 by Louis XIII for the district that was first to pay its taxes. Linger to watch the children play.

6:30 p.m.: Ile de St. Louis, the smaller of the two islands in the Seine, is one of the oldest and quietest parts of the city. Dine in one of the many charming restaurants. Try the duck liver; you won't get it in Baltimore.

10 p.m.: Stroll along the Left Bank of the Seine in the long summer twilight. At the Eiffel Tower, cross to Trocadero. On the steps at night, drummers show off their prowess on a multiplicity of percussion instruments. Warning: Susceptible onlookers will find themselves impelled to dance.


Getting there: The major airlines -- including Delta, Continental and American -- offer connecting service from BWI to Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris. There are no direct flights from Baltimore, but Dulles Airport offers six daily flights on United, Delta and Air France.

Living in Paris:

Paris Convention and Visitor's Bureau, 127 avenue des Champs-Elysees -- 75008 Paris

* Phone: 011 33 8 36 68 31 12

* Online: www. paris-touristoffice.com

* Run by Paris City Hall and the Chamber of Commerce, the bureau's staff can give you information in English about accommodations, excursions, museums and other attractions. Its Web site also lists contact information for apartments, hostels and boarding houses.

Working in Paris:

Jobsabroad.com, 8 First Ave., Suite 102, Denver, CO 80203

* Phone: 720-570-1702

* Online: www.jobsabroad.com

* The site lists employment and internship opportunities around the world.

U.S. Embassy in Paris, 2 avenue Gabriel 75008 Paris

* Phone: 011 33 1 43 12 22 22

* Online: www.amb-usa.fr / embassy.htm

* Web site lists job openings at the embassy in fields including clerical and computers, as well as information about traveling to and living within France.

Disneyland in Paris

* Online: www.2000.disneylandparis. com / uk / employment

* With seven hotels, 54 shops and 61 restaurants on its grounds, the amusement park offers many job opportunities in many fields. The site lists positions currently open according to their category of work; you must apply online. Disneyland Paris can also arrange for accommodations during your working stay.

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