April Pett (April in Paris Tours), one of the Paris' happiest and brightest tour guides, and I showed up to podcaster Oliver Gee's launch party on a cold strike-filled Thursday evening...very, very early because we over-estimated our driver's transport time (30 minutes in lieu of 1.5 hours) to get to the Left Bank. The hour we had to kill gave us the opportunity to pay a visit to Paris' premier department store, Au Bon Marché, buy hand-picked chocolates for a friend in La Grand Epicerie and then head back over to the party.
Au Bon Marché could easily be Paris' most beautiful department store (as well an unaffordable for most). Decorated and dressed to the nines for Christmas, it is currently at its most stunning. It is the city's oldest department store, dating back to 1838. It was revamped by Aristide Boucicaut with his wife, Marguerite, in 1852, and is well-known worldwide for its luxury goods. Boucicaut took a small shop that sold lace, ribbons, sheets, mattresses, buttons, umbrellas and other assorted goods with a staff of 12 working in 300 square meters and changed its perspective from top to bottom. He created fixed pricing (they used to haggle!), allowed exchanges and refunds, advertised to the public (mostly wealthy women) and added new varieties of merchandise. His redesign resulted in a growth from 500,000 francs in 1852 to 10 times that in just eight years. Over time and until his death in 1877, the store itself was enlarged again to 50,000 square meters with the engineering and architectural help of Gustave Eiffel, the income grew wildly, as did the number of employees...and the rest is history for our distinctive pleasure.
I don't get there often enough, living on the Right Bank, but those who are nearby have the privilege of shopping in Au Bon Marché and also the subsidiary, La Grand Epicerie, Paris' best and most prestigious gourmet center just next door.
To my surprise just following the visit to the stores, the national news channel, France24, aired a special "France in Focus" segment: "This week, we're exploring some of Paris's department stores or 'Grands Magasins.' These monuments to shopping have been in business since the mid-to-late 18th century and are internationally renowned." I suspect you'll find the segment fascinating. You can watch it here.
Back at the book launch at the Coutume Café (47, rue de Babylone, 7th), champagne was poured and Oliver's fans filed in. Oliver has written a book about his new life in France with his new wife, Lena and his (relatively) new podcast "The Earful Tower," and titled it Paris On Air. If you have followed Oliver Gee's career from zero to one hundred, then you know that he's not one to sit on his hands — he puts himself out there, puts on that big smile with which everyone falls in love and he pulls it off as if it were effortless. I know better. It's a helluva lot of hard work, but I've never seen anyone create such a tidal wave of success as Oliver and admire him greatly for the spark he has that everyone else dreams of having.
So, he's written a book. Lots of people have, but with Oliver, it's different, because it happens virtually overnight and he manages to make a big bang when others can't or don't know how. Lena, an artist and designer along with being his new wife, designed the cover. It's been professionally edited and now it needs a publisher or the money to make it a reality. And what did he do in typical Oliver style? He held a party, let the champagne flow, read the opening few pages (to which he had a roaring ovation), streamed the event so that his podcast followers could watch it live and recorded it, then launched it on a Kickstarter.com campaign to raise the money to pay for the publishing. His goal was $9,452 and he's already raised almost $12,000 with 25 days to go! But don't let that stop you from contributing to cover his future book tour!
What is the book about? "It's the true story of an inquisitive young Australian man who finds adventure — and the love of his life — in Paris." Oliver promises to "take you around the City of Love on foot, by scooter, and via the stories of his guests on his hit podcast, The Earful Tower." The book is scheduled to be out (for real) in April 2020.
Just two doors down from the Coutume Café where Oliver held his party is an old-fashioned bistrot I have known for about 40 years — Au Pied de Fouet, where you're packed together like sardines, a traditional menu and prices as cheap as it gets. As a tourist long before moving to France, my then husband and I discovered it and made it our tradition to have a lunch or dinner there during every trip. Because the tables were so tightly knit, we always met people and made some very good friends as a result.
Nothing has changed about it, except I suspect the proprietors (now Jean-Michel, Jean-Francois and Guillaume). André, the maîtresse of establishment those 40 years ago used to shuffle all over the place in her house shoes barking at all the patrons, but you could see that under her gruff exterior she was pretty sweet. Even the red-checkered napkins rolled and sitting in their slots are still there awaiting the regular diners. This time, a tall gentleman served us at our table on the upper level, which has a ceiling too low for him, forcing him to hunch over the whole time he was up there dishing out the fare.
The restaurant on rue de Babylone has a "sister" at 3, rue Saint Benoit in the 6th. Once, when I was dining there on my own, I penned a little poem:
No, c'est bon, Au Pied de Fouet with a view on Le Petit Saint-Benoit. No, c'est bon, the fennel salad with its soft creamy sauce and crumbled egg. No, c'est bon, the sky's about to open like a watering can sprinkling on our half-eaten plates. No, c'est bon, the red wine goes down fast. We're safe from the rain. We're safe from bad cuisine at these red checkered cloths and purée fait à la maison. An umbrella opens up to shield her from the rain, to protect her fine French cuisine. They know each other. They talk across the tables, these people who have been coming here for years. They share a cigarette, eat the same meal. The restaurant that was on rue de Babylone, that still is and now has another home on rue Saint-Benoit. The waitress told her no, this is not a brasserie. Order at least one plate or go down the street. No, c'est bon, Au Pied de Fouet.
P.S. Wednesday I'll be on a plane to Los Angeles for the holidays — so stay tuned for some California Dreaming for the next few issues of Parler Paris!
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