A Scholar's Paris
A Scholar's Paris
Maigret's Paris

By ALICE KAPLAN - The Academic Life - 9/14/07original
For 25 years Paris has been the place where I do research, write, gather materials for my courses, and renew my sense of the French language — and my joie de vivre. For some people Paris is a fashion show or a gourmet meal or a museum. For me and for my colleagues in French studies, it's a library where we wander among the stacks, a fantasy captured by the French architect Dominique Perrault in his design for the new French National Library: four buildings in the shape of open books, towering over the River Seine.

The Paris I love is made of personal memories of the city and the Paris I've gleaned from a thousand books and films — reading and viewing memories that have sometimes doubled back and influenced where I have gone and whom I have met in the city.

There was the summer in the early 1980s when my friend and fellow French scholar Kristin Ross and I were working on French theories of everyday life, reading Henri Lefebvre on consumer culture and Georges Perec's novel Things. We traced the posters on the Métro back to their source, an advertising agency on the Champs-Élysées, which happily gave us 10 of them. We decorated our first assistant-professor apartments in the States with the giant squares of paper that made up the ads, mixing and matching the fragmented images of an advertisement for La Vache Qui Rit cheese with the announcement of a show at the Paris Olympia. In our anxiety about tenure, we used to joke about leaving the academy and starting a mail-order catalog of French products: Opinel pocket knives, big blocks of soap from Marseilles, clothes-drying racks you could suspend on a pulley system from the ceiling over your bathtub, and the thick linen workers' smocks you could only find at the Samaritaine department store, which was then a working-class institution.

Today you'd be hard pressed to find anything in France you can't buy in an ordinary boutique in your local mall — even chestnut cream and canned snails. The old Samaritaine, after a brief reincarnation as a luxury store, has shut down.

Thanks to a network of French and American academics and artists who rent their apartments to visiting scholars, I've lived and worked in the Fifth, Sixth, Seventh, 11th, 13th, and 14th arrondissements of Paris. I spent two summers living in a ground-floor apartment on the rue du Château-des-Rentiers owned by the writer Christiane Rochefort. She had been forced out of more than one Paris neighborhood after gentrification drove up rents, and had made her home in a part of the 13th that retained its working-class identity. A feminist and political activist who never lost her feisty spirit, she used to come out of her own apartment in the mornings to cheer me on as I headed out to the Centre de Documentation Juive Contemporain to investigate the sources of Louis-Ferdinand Céline's anti-Semitic pamphlets. I can still remember the glee and encouragement in her voice: "Go get him!" Christiane liked to relax on an old chaise longue, reading the detective novels in the Série noire collection, but she emerged one weekend to take us to the open market at the Place Jeanne d'Arc, flirting with the butcher's wife in a thick parigot accent and hoping to provoke her American friends by eating a chunk of raw horse meat on the spot.

Christiane Rochefort's courtyard apartment building has been gentrified. Tenured and established, with the staid and polite Sèvres-Babylone area as my home base, I suppose I have, too. Sèvres-Babylone, my Métro stop, defines a neighborhood of Paris bordering the Sixth and Seventh arrondissements on the Left Bank. Both a neighborhood, and a cultural universe, it has changed less than other parts of the city — but only at first glance. I like to think that my neighborhood has two major institutions of higher learning: the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, or EHESS, an interdisciplinary social-science graduate school associated with the most innovative and revered names in 20th-century French thought, and the Bon Marché department store.

The école is headquartered in a building of stacked metal cubes on the corner of the boulevard Raspail and the rue du Cherche-Midi, on the site of a former prison where Alfred Dreyfus was once held. On any day of the week you can walk through its ground-floor lobby and feast your eyes on the announcements for seminars, posted on big, white boards. Last fall there were seminars on urbanism in Amsterdam, on the evolution of feminism, on changing political culture in Italy and France. There was a thesis defense entitled, provocatively, "The Third Sex." The école probably has more visiting professors from foreign universities than any other educational institution in France, so you are likely to find an American friend on the seminar list, lecturing either in French or in English. Most of the école's seminars are open to auditors.

As for the Bon Marché, one of the models for Zola's great department-store saga, Ladies' Paradise, it has changed completely since I was a student in the 70s and 80s. Then it was the favorite shopping place of the nuns from several nearby orders, a dusty, dowdy place, with the most extensive selection of sewing notions in Paris. Today the Bon Marché is a showplace for every chic clothes designer in the world. The store has become so expensive that the name "Bon Marché," which means "a bargain," has become an embarrassment, and publicity for the store tends to emphasize a new name, Carré Rive Gauche (Left Bank Square), with Le Bon Marché appearing only in tiny print below.

For all its luxury and its charms, a few days in Sèvres-Babylone always whets my appetite for the rest of the city. One cold day last winter I took Métro line 10 east to the Maubert-Mutualité stop and climbed the "mountain" — one of Paris's hills, the Montagne Sainte-Geneviève — from the boulevard Saint-Germain up to the Place du Panthéon, to the Sainte-Geneviève library. Ever since the Bibliothèque Nationale moved from the rue Richelieu to its grand, postmodern quarters on the bank of the Seine, I find myself longing for an old-fashioned library scene, and Sainte-Geneviève fits the bill. It's the University of Paris branch library used by the high-school students at the Lycées Louis-le-Grand and Henri IV as they prepare for the rigorous entrance exams to the Grandes Écoles, but anyone with an academic ID can get a library card to work here. Paris is self-conscious about its cultural traditions: In the entryway, a banner reproduces the passage from Simone de Beauvoir's Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, where she recalls reading Balzac's Human Comedy at Sainte-Geneviève, seated at a desk with a black moleskin top.

The desk tops are bare wood now, but the reading room retains the spirit evoked by Beauvoir, with its vaulted ceilings covered in fancy ironwork, giving it the feel of a grand train station. The books I ordered arrived in 20 minutes. I was working with the Dalloz code of French military law to see if I could find French equivalents for a translation of my book about American courts-martial at the Liberation. One book led to another, and I had to be careful not to be distracted by a history of Pierre Mendès-France's trial under Vichy. Meanwhile, it felt good to be surrounded by so many young people, taking their notes in the hyper-neat way they've always had — on square, lined paper, with pencils in several colors, using a ruler to underline.

At 4:30 I exited the library, passing a dozen students standing in the hall who were making their evening plans by cellphone. Outside the front door of the library stood the 84 bus, ready and waiting. It whisked me in the rosy dusk past the Luxembourg Gardens and the Place Saint-Sulpice, made famous anew by The Da Vinci Code, before stopping back at my familiar Sèvres-Babylone.

There, a few steps from the bus stop, at the corner of the boulevard Raspail and the rue de Sèvres, beckoned another Paris institution, the Sip-Babylone café. It took me many years to understand that the exorbitant price of cafés in France was actually a form of rent, to be paid for the privilege of occupying a table with a view onto the most entrancing city in the world. The Sip used to have pink, mid-60s decor, and somehow I concluded that the close-up of a cup of thick black expresso in the 1967 Godard movie, Two or Three Things I Know About Her, must have been filmed here, although no one I know can confirm that it was ever a location for a New Wave film.

The Sip had the first real Italian expresso machine in the neighborhood, in a city where, contrary to expectations, there's no guarantee of good coffee. It still makes the best cappuccino around. The café was recently redecorated (or relooké, according to the latest slang) in the dark chocolate tones that the interior designer Christian Liaigre has made fashionable in hotels and restaurants throughout the city. I settled in a striped velour chair with my cappuccino and evening paper, staring out at the Hotel Lutetia across the street. In front of me was a woman whose black mink coat was slung over her chair. She was wearing a long-sleeved leopard T-shirt, off one shoulder, black bra strap showing — a very old Parisian lady, demonstrating the newest fashion.

The Hotel Lutetia, which I could see out the window of the Sip, is the neighborhood's only "palace" hotel. Pierre Assouline, whose blog, the Republic of Books, is an excellent source for Paris literary news and gossip, set his best-selling historical novel at the Lutetia. His main character is a hotel detective. I never go by the large building without thinking of its history. Used by the Nazis for torture during the occupation, it became an official headquarters for returning deportees in 1945. People came from all over France to look for their loved ones there, rarely finding them: Of the 76,000 Jews deported from France, only 3,000 returned. There's a plaque outside the hotel commemorating that terrible time, which is described in Marguerite Duras's La Douleur. Today the hotel bar, filled with groups of comfortable leather club chairs, is a rendezvous for scholars from the École des Hautes Études and the nearby Institut des Sciences Politiques ("Sciences Po" for short), many of whom have contributed to research on the history of Vichy France and postliberation Paris.

As much as the Sorbonne in the Latin Quarter, Sciences Po and the EHESS define intellectual life on the Left Bank. But intellectual life in Paris is a moving feast, and in the time since I first came to Paris, many other academic institutions have moved around and moved academics with them.

The Bibliothèque Nationale moved to the bank of the Seine in the 13th Arrondissement in 1996. When it was still in the old city, I used to go there regularly, along with every other American professor in Paris. We worked in the enormous Empire reading room, and we liked to eat lunch — usually a plate of lentils — on the wooden stools in Aux Bons Crus, a tiny wine bar that is still located on the rue des Petits-Champs. Now we take the snazzy "Meteor" Métro line to the new National Library, climb the imposing wooden stairs to its grand plaza, descend again to the depths of the reading rooms, and look out at a forest of glass-enclosed exotic trees while we work. The audiovisual room of the new library, where you can don head phones to watch a French TV show from the 1960s, or a news report from the 1980s, would have been unimaginable in the old library space.

So much in Paris has changed and continues to change, from the libraries to the library of the streets, that any outing is grounds for discovery. On New Year's Eve last year, I got on a Métro at the Place d'Italie, heading toward the Eiffel Tower, but I had timed my trip wrong, so as the stroke of midnight approached, I found myself on an above-ground segment of the route taken by line 6 — the Métro aérien. The Métro was packed with other revelers. It was very much today's Paris, filled with the accents of Mali and Senegal, Portugal and Algeria, Romania and Poland. A young Frenchman of African descent stood at the door, champagne glass in hand, entertaining us with jokes about the two presidential candidates, whom he called by their nicknames, "Sarko" and "Ségo" (for Nicholas Sarkozy and Ségolène Royal: he was all for Ségo). "Loosen up, Parisians," he advised us. "Have a little fun for once!" I laughed with the woman next to me, who explained where she was getting off to view the celebrations. Facing me was a group of Vietnamese-French friends who took pictures of one another, and the scene, exchanging digital cameras. Then the crowd broke into a spontaneous countdown. At the midnight hour our Métro crossed over the river, and we had the best view of the Eiffel Tower in the city. There were kisses all around.

The hardest thing for me about coming home from Paris is always the return to my automobile, the loss of that vital connection to all walks of life that's to be had in Paris for the price of a Métro or bus ticket. No matter how smooth my car ride, how good the song on the radio, I am still alone in a bubble, going from building to building, watching the sidewalks go by — when there are sidewalks — like so much unused space. To console myself, I like to think about how I'll spend my first day back in Paris. Every French teacher I know has a special ritual. Mine used to be buying the latest Pariscope entertainment guide and choosing a 7 p.m. French movie to ward off jet lag. But in recent years, I've been content just to walk down the street, listening to voices, measuring the changes, and delighting in the simple presence of so many people.

Alice Kaplan teaches French literature and history at Duke University. Her most recent book is The Interpreter, now out in paperback from the University of Chicago Press.


We asked Pamela Druckerman, an American writer living in Paris, to tell us about her favorite spots in the city. She is the author of Lust in Translation: The Rules of Infidelity From Tokyo to Tennessee (Penguin, 2007).

A La Renaissance: A few years ago, I laughed when Renaissance closed for "renovations," then reopened as its same old shabby self: cracked tile floor, battered zinc bar, and chipped Formica tables. Now, after several years and hundreds of coffees here, I might join the riot if anything changed. Renaissance is the ultimate neighborhood café: tranquil enough to think and work in, but with undercurrents of pathos from the real-life dramas played out among its staff and clientele. The café crème (Parisians never ask for café au lait) is prepared worshipfully, and the food is fresh and local, down to the perfect packets of raw-milk butter.
87 rue de la Roquette (11th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-43-79-83-09
Métro station: Voltaire
Open every day

Le Pure Café: It's not really on the way to anywhere, and the service can be ... reluctant. But this café inspires loyalty because it's one of the most charming spots in Paris, especially as the late-afternoon sun lands on its triangle of outdoor tables. Inside, the weather-beaten wood, oval-shaped bar, and giant picture windows are so enticing, in a bourgeois-bohemian sort of way, that Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke did some serious flirting here in the movie Before Sunset.
14 rue Jean Macé (11th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-43-71-47-22
Métro station: Charonne
Open every day

Le Loir dans la Théière: When gray skies cover Paris from November to April, this cavelike Marais hangout — named after the dormouse in the teapot from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland — is the perfect place to hibernate with a milky tea and a copy of Being and Nothingness. In between sips, choose from an uplifting selection of fresh-baked pies and savory foods that are heavy enough to negate the caffeine but not rule out dinner.
3 rue des Rosiers (4th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-42-72-90-61
Métro station: St. Paul
Open every day


Le Square Trousseau: This is the Platonic ideal of a French restaurant: mosaic floors, polished banisters, antique mirrors, and leather banquettes. And yet because it's off the main tourist track, it's understated, friendly, affordable (the three-course lunch menu costs €25), and even (in the back room) nonsmoking. The commendable bistro fare is matched with a can't-miss wine list.
1 rue Antoine Vollon (12th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-43-43-06-00
Métro station: Ledru-Rollin
Closed Sunday and Monday

Chez Janou: This is another of Paris's impossibly charming spots, on a sleepy side street in the eastern Marais. The soothing terrace leads into a bustling bistro serving Provençal favorites like duck with rosemary (€14) followed by an all-you-can-eat chocolate mousse (€7). Reservations don't guarantee immediate seating here, but a cold pastis at the bar will compensate.

2 rue Roger-Verlomme (3rd arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-42-72-28-41
Métro stations: Chemin Vert, Bastille
Open every day

Mansouria: In this elegant dining room, the cookbook writer, Moroccan food enthusiast, and restaurateur Fatema Hal dispels the myth that North African cuisine just means oversize tagines and mounds of couscous. She serves a 12th-century recipe of "Arab-Andalouse" lamb with 27 spices (€19) and a chicken with a sauce of "tomatoes and folded rose petals" (also €19) that looks like chocolate.
11 rue Faidherbe (11th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-43-71-00-16
Métro station: Faidherbe-Chaligny
Open for dinner Monday to Saturday, lunch Wednesday to Saturday


La Grande Épicerie Paris: The antidote to restaurant fatigue is the Bon Marché's labyrinthine gourmet grocery, the perfect place from which to stock a Parisian picnic, and which puts its New York rivals to shame. There are take-out counters for everything from Italian salads to Chinese dumplings. Friendly sommeliers can recommend one of nearly 2,000 bottles of wine.
38 rue de Sèvres (7th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-44-39-81-00
Métro station: Sèvres-Babylone
Monday to Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.


Context Travel: For the story behind the food, Context Travel offers culinary and other walking tours for the "intellectually adventurous traveler." They're led by specialists like Carolin Young, who's working on a history of the fork.
e-mail: info@contexttravel.com


Hotel Standard Design: Two years ago architects gutted this aging tenement-style hotel, installed shiny spigots and flat-screen TV's, and christened it "Le Standard." Its 34 rooms are still tiny, but they're tidy, reasonably priced (singles start at €95, doubles at €160), and have free Wi-Fi. What's more, the hotel is opposite Les Galopins, which serves up a succulent shoulder-of-lamb platter with heavenly sliced potatoes.

29 rue des Taillandiers (11th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-48-05-30-97
Métro station: Bastille

Hotel Le Clos Médicis: If the Latin Quarter beckons, this three-star hotel near the Luxembourg Garden and the main Sorbonne campus is a tasteful choice. The 38 rooms are small but clean; there's an inviting lobby bar; and, in good weather, breakfast is served in an ivy-covered courtyard. Single rooms are €155 and doubles start at €195.
56 rue Monsieur-Le-Prince (6th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-43-29-10-80
Métro station: Luxembourg

Maison Suger: This pleasant research institute near the St.-Michel Métro station isn't technically a hotel. But if you're affiliated with a foreign institution, it's worth checking to see if one of its 33 rooms is available (odds are best in August). Small singles are €36; doubles range from €43 to €100.
16-18 rue Suger (6th arrondissement)
phone: 33-1-44-41-32-00
Métro station: St.-Michel
e-mail: secretariat.suger@msh-paris.fr