Some advice for Paris, particularly FOOD

Because I’ve been lucky enough to live in Paris twice – four months in 2014 to 2015 and three months in early 2016 – I am sometimes asked for advice. And I freely give it. From my Dad, when I was growing up, I learned a restaurant or business should come recommended. The best advice would often come from someone you know.

When I started travelling the world, it was in the age of the travel guides: Let’s Go! and others. They were all about someone who had inside knowledge and experience passing it on to the hundreds or thousands of people who were reading the book! I’ve often searched long and hard for a particular cafe or tourist destination, determined to follow advice I’d received from a friend, or a friend of a friend, or from an article in the New York Times.

So my first advice about Paris may seem counter-intuitive. The thing is, in my experience, so many people have been to Paris and love Paris, that they will offer advice, a lot of it, about their absolutely MUST-do activities. And the truth is: Paris will be magical, and will be yours, so my first advice is not to worry about taking everyone’s advice. Including mine. If something catches your interest, it can be a fun adventure to seek it out. I often build my travel around various missions: certain restaurants or treats or a tour of used designer clothes stores. But cities will offer you their own gifts, especially Paris.

I’m a particular fan of the almost-free bike system in cities like Paris. It is astonishing that you can ride around freely, often in wide bike lanes, but even in traffic, it seems like Paris drivers are so used to chaos, and cyclists, and pedestrians, that you should feel safe and easy. These days I think you need to download their app, and use their app, and you can rent cycles for single trips, or for a day, or with some difficulty for three days at a time. I love riding on a Vélib in Paris. I feel utterly free. Exhilarated. Getting lost is part of the fun.

If you don’t have time or choose not to do the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay is wonderful. In that whole area, on the lovely bridges and river, when the gypsies throw rings at you, or ask if you lost it and thrust it in your hand, return it and ignore them. Similarly, if you’re up at Sacre Coeur (I love the church and the view is wonderful, though during the day, it’s a bit touristy and the shops are terrible), when the African string men try to tie string around the wrists of you or your party, politely refuse and move on. But don’t get aggressive with them, as that’s their aim.

I think it’s a lovely thing to go to a humble French restaurant, the tables all close together, and the menus all nearly the same. Tripadvisor or Google Maps will give you reviews for ones near where you’re staying. A friend told me in 2023, the new trend is to go to a bouillon, a classic French bistro serving humble food at not high prices. I should have checked them out myself! If you’re in the Marais, I really like the restaurant Dessance: it’s very good value for such a gourmet meal, not the top-end of restaurants (which are so expensive) but a treat nonetheless, and you should treat yourselves to AT LEAST one lovely meal while in Paris. You can watch the chefs at work in the open kitchen; the staff are utterly charming, and the food is surprising and delicious and wonderful.

I also love the Israeli food and falafels in the Jewish streets of the Marais (Rue de Rosier), an ‘ethnic’ break from French food, but really, the only reasonable and nice non-French food in Paris (Asian food was terrible (though perhaps improving?) and other cuisines will be expensive and generic, though Moroccan or Tunisian restaurants can be pretty good. L’As du Falafel is famous.

Do take a break, if you have the time, from restaurants and have a lighter meal at your AirBNB (which I always recommend over hotels in Paris; they’re often very charming, and better value, and located in more interesting locations). Pop into a grocery store (you’ll likely see Monoprix, Franprix and Carrefour) and the cheese will be of such quality and such a bargain, it may make you sad ever after you’ve left France. Maybe some paté campagne? The grocery stores sell liquor and have the most interesting selections of French aperitifs, like Lillet Blanc or Floc de Gascogne. They’ll cost a pittance. Have a little glass to fortify you each evening before you head out for your evening activity.

I find no greater delight in Paris than the pastries. If you see a sign that says a boulangerie has won a prize for best croissant or baguette, go in and buy one! They’re crazy good. My trip in 2023, I discovered a new pastry, le pain de seigle feuilleté: it’s made from rye flour and tastes like a croissant with many layers but in the form of bread. I chased down mine at Les Copains du Faubourg (as recommended by the New York Times) but the bakery near my AirBNB (La Parisienne St Germain) also had them, so, even though a friend from Paris said she’d never heard of it, maybe it’s a new trend?

I think it’s really important to try a pastry from a shop that will be glowing and sparkling and looking like they sell jewellery or expensive watches instead of just pastries! Splurge (because when’s the next time you’ll be in Paris?). I am ALWAYS telling my friends to go to Aux Merveilleux de Fred (there are branches all over Paris, look on Google). Based on a traditional recipe from Northern France, they’ve shrunk a cake to individual portions, basically a meringue filled with cream, and covered in chocolate flakes. They’re unbelievable. Don’t go for the small ones: the proportions are wrong. Have a proper big sized one. Please.

Still, there are astonishing pastry shops on Rue du Bac, and all over Paris. Macarons were a bit thing for a period, especially from Ladurée and Pierre Hermé, and I mean, you should certainly try one, but do also try a fancier pastry. Or two. Or three. On my last trip, I discovered the Pierre Hermé are also renowned for their pastries, in additions to their macarons. I tried two varieties, and my god, they were incredible. Actually, as weight control, I skipped lunch one day … and had a pastry instead. The description on this one said: The 2000 feuilles presents a harmony of textures: caramelized puff pastry and crushed hazelnuts contrast with the creaminess of its praline mousseline cream.

A favourite meal in Paris is a hole in the wall (the space is literally called ‘Le trou dans le mur’) where the wall happens to be the back of a really great wine shop, La Cave des Abbesses (it’s below Sacre Coeur, not far from Montmartre). You order une planche (a platter, a plank?) of cheese and meat, and my god, it’s the best cheese and charcuterie EVER. Wash it down with aperitifs or a wide selection of reasonably priced French wine. I can’t recommend this enough.

I also find a wonderful mystery of Paris is how good the baguettes are. When pondering this, a friend explained that it’s not a surprise that they taste different in Paris than elsewhere, when the flour, yeast, butter and water are ALL different. One of my favourite Paris food writers, David Lebovitz, recommended a sandwich from Le Petit Vendôme, centrally located a stone’s throw from Opéra. You have to sit at the counter, rather than at a table to order a sandwich, but my god it was good. I’d wager that it was *perfect*.

So, you’ve probably gotten the impression that I could go on and on. And I could. The best caramels you’ve ever had in your life, from Jacques Genin. A wander around the food hall at La Grande Épicerie. I myself love to wander slowly around a department store like La Samaritaine or Printemps and see the latest and greatest in fashion (and wonder who can afford to pay $500 for a t-shirt). The best (and most expensive) chocolates you’ve ever tasted, maybe from Paul Roger. I like spending time in some of the beautiful old churches in Paris. I’m not religious but I feel a quiet sense of wonder that I don’t feel in newer churches. But honestly, there is so much you will discover on your own, I should leave you to it! Enjoy and leave comments if you will and what you enjoyed the most. But one last thing … When it gets dark, on the hour, until 11pm, take a stroll somewhere where you have a good view of the Eiffel Tower (from Palais de Tokyo perhaps). You will not be disappointed. I can’t believe I didn’t know about it until …

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Book Review: Kevin Wilson’s Now is Not the Time to Panic

Now Is Not the Time to PanicNow Is Not the Time to Panic by Kevin Wilson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked ‘Nothing to See Here’ enough that I was definitely keen to read more. I find Wilson a very interesting writer. The narration is readable, funny and engaging, and he seems to take a great idea and then run with it. Case in point: this book. It feels like it came out of a central idea (no spoilers here) and Wilson created a world around it: a past, present and future, quirky characters, details and consequences. I thought it was very skilful how he portrays a particular moment in time, while contrasting it with today (for example in how the story played out in a pre-social media world). He has a lot to say, about moral panic, about the spreading of ideas, about anonymity and a lack of it, about the consequences on people’s lives, and yet all stealthily deployed in a lively narrative. Recommended.

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Travel advice: Italy – A visit to the Gargano

View of Pescichi

It’s April 2023 and I recently found this blog post from 2019 that I never posted! I think I drafted it and then was planning to match it up with photos once at my home desktop … and then never did. Better late than never, I say, and we really do recommend Gargano as a place to visit. We really fell in love with Puglia and Sicily!

We’ve often been inspired by articles in the New York Times to guide our travels. In fact, this was one of our inspiration’s for last year’s trip (2018) to Puglia (we also visited Sicily, Matera and Ravello) and we loved Puglia so much and the rest of our trip, that we decided to return to Italy again this year for our holidays.

View from Gli Orti di Malva, a great, great B&B

And even though the Gargano peninsula seemed a little out of the way, the NYT article we read made it seem so charming, we wanted to fit it into our itinerary (which this year focused on Umbria and Abruzzo). By breaking up the travel and staying in Abruzzo on the way there and back (which we’d highly recommend for its natural beauty), it was manageable to visit Gargano (or you could pop up from the south of Puglia, if you’re there already).

Our timing was a little off though. As soon as October hits, it seems like most places are deserted, and the agriturismo accommodation that we like so much, closes down for the winter. We didn’t mind it being quiet, but it did seem a little eerie sometimes, like a zombie apocalypse had hit, particularly if we visited a town during siesta time (which could be as long as from noon to 6pm!).

Everything about our meal at Porta di Basso was … perfect.

In the end, we would recommend a visit here, but in September rather than October (or the start of the tourist season) and as a somewhat luxury holiday: staying at gorgeous, not-cheap accommodation, and treating yourself to high-end gourmet meals: because these really were stunning.

The thing is, the view of Pescichi, driving in, took my breath away. And then the room in Gli Orti di Malva where we stayed in took my breath away further. It was the type of room that I would have been happy not to leave, just to sit atop these views of the ocean, high up on a cliff. It was magical. Then, I wasn’t even paying attention that the accommodation is connected to one of the best places to eat in the Gargano, Porta di Basso. Aside from ridiculously gourmet breakfasts, we treated ourselves to a dinner at this Michelin-starred restaurant and it was WONDERFUL.

I love that we got a photo of us with the chef!

We couldn’t get into the agriturismo place mentioned in the NYT article, but imagine it would be like the amazing meal we had outside of Spello when we stayed at Il Bastione: a lavish, home-cooked meal of local specialties.

Finally, we managed to get into the last place mentioned in the article, Li Jalantuùmene, and it was incredible. We couldn’t book into the accommodation (it was full, I think) but I’d recommend that as the perfect end (or start) the gourmet Gargano experience. I thought Mont Sant’Angelo was a very charming old town, and the meal deserved a Michelin star: the chef was so warm and personal, it actually made it the most memorable (and tasty) meal of our entire trip (Actually, I wrote about it at the time. Here’s the blog post).

So, there you go. I’d recommend three nights in Gargano, two in Pescichi and one in Mont Sant’Angelo, staying at the same places that you’ll be dining, and treating yourself three nights in a row to stunning meals. Perhaps you’ll want, as I will, to do a post-trip diet!

Mont Sant’Angelo was overcast when we visited, but I liked the vibe a lot.

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The Central Sydney Planning Strategy

Originally published on 28 November 2016 on www.boldface.com.au:

Town Hall, Sydney – 17th August 2016. The Central Sydney Planning Strategy Briefing was held in the Reception Room at Town Hall.

As a member of the City of Sydney’s Professional Writing Panel for the three years that it was in existence (they’ve now moved to getting bids from editors for each individual project…), I had the chance to work on a great many fantastic projects.

The largest of them was the Central Sydney Planning Strategy.

Here’s how they described it when it was released:

The City of Sydney has developed a strategic vision for Sydney’s future skyline with potential building heights in excess of 300 metres – 80 metres taller than Governor Phillip Tower – while still protecting sun access to the city’s important public places and parks.

In the most comprehensive urban planning strategy for Central Sydney in 45 years, the City has identified opportunities to unlock up to 2.9 million square metres of additional floor space for retail, hotel, cultural and office needs to meet long-term targets for the city centre’s growth… more

They also got some good press when it was released, a very supportive editorial and a great article accompanied by a very cool video.

It was exciting to see what they have planned for my adopted home city of Sydney, and the team who put it together are smart, dedicated people working to make Sydney a better place.

I learned lots of new stuff, about urban planning, about balancing residential and commercial interests, about regulations to protect heritage and the environment.

There are consultations and discussions on the document now, while it is in public exhibition. Tomorrow, there will be a strategy discussion. Stay tuned for more.

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Superbly written spam

Originally published on 24 November 2013 on www.boldface.com.au:

We’ve all passed comment on poorly written spam, particularly those Nigerian letters asking you to send your bank account details so that they can transfer a load of money to you, or the emails from your ‘bank’ with basic spelling errors.

I thought I’d point out the opposite. Well, not actually opposite, in that this spam, a comment waiting for moderation on a blog post, is not beautiful writing in and of itself. But I think it’s really fantastic in fulfilling its purpose, to try to get published, though the author (or robot) probably didn’t expect to be published in this form.

Magnificent goods from you, man. I have take into accout your stuff prior to and you are simply extremely wonderful. I actually like what you’ve acquired right here, certainly like what you’re stating and the best way in which you assert it. You’re making it entertaining and you still care for to stay it smart. I can’t wait to learn much more from you. That is actually a wonderful website.

OK. I’m exaggerating. ‘Account’ is spelt incorrectly and ‘you still care for to stay it smart’ is a mind-twister. Still, it’s so wonderfully vague. The ‘goods’ could refer to either a product or the writing itself. It piles on the praise, so unspecific that it feels like it could be specific. I ‘like what you’re stating… and the way in which you assert it’.

The different forms of praise are impressive: previous knowledge of one’s work or reputation, personal praise: ‘you are simply extremely wonderful’, praise for the writing itself appealing to someone who wants to be 1/ entertaining 2/caring and/or 3/smart. The spambot tries to establish a personal connection (‘I can’t want to learn much more from you’) before admitting (‘actually’) that it’s not only read the blog post but the whole website.

As a bit of marketing, whoever wrote this out put some thought into: ‘How can I appeal to the widest number of website owners and bloggers in a way that they’ll be more likely to accept this as a comment which allows me to put my spammy e-mail address or website in their comments? How can I not let on that I haven’t read the post and am indeed a robot?’

Well done, spambot writer. I hope someone paid you well for your work.

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Book review: Andrew Sean Greer’s Less is Lost

Less is LostLess is Lost by Andrew Sean Greer
My rating:
4 of 5 stars

I loved ‘Less’ so much that I guess four stars is a fall from five. I wasn’t opposed to a sequel to ‘Less’ but what would it bring to be new, to be engaging? I love Greer’s writing, and find it both immensely readable and at times, simply beautiful. I didn’t find the American adventures quite as compelling as his international ones. There were some fun parts that made me laugh, but I suppose I wasn’t charmed in the same way as being freshly introduced to Arthur Less. The other thing is that I loved (and was surprised) by the mystery of the narrator of the first book; losing this tension felt a bit unsatisfying. My husband hated how the narrator announced too often, ‘I’m Freddy Pelu!’ whereas I found that there were a number of odd descriptions of the race of a character, a sense that Greer wants to do right and be correct about writing in these fraught times but isn’t quite sure how to do so. One description, of an old, Black woman made me think that ‘old’ and ‘Black’ was possibly the least interesting way to say something about someone. Still, I love that Greer wrote a comic novel that was taken seriously as literature, that he was celebrated for it, and that he portrayed gay aging in a way so poignant, relatable and funny, and that goodwill carried over to reading ‘Less is Lost’.

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2023 update: Do you Vélib in life after love?

My favourite thing to do in Paris is to ride around on a Vélib, the almost free biking system. I wondered how much it had changed in seven years, as I’d heard a lot had changed. New operators. Competition from other bike schemes, more chaotically organised where people leave the bikes in random places. Electric scooters too, which I’m too afraid to try. And e-bikes. The current Vélib system has e-bikes.

It was no simple thing to figure out how to use the system regularly while in Paris. Being there a week, I reckoned I’d need two 3-day passes, which requires getting a special identity card from the metro system. Going through the payment system and putting down a large deposit each time I used one would be too cumbersome.

But when I asked the fellow at the closest metro station about a card that I needed to use the Vélib system, he said, checking with his colleague, that he’d never heard of such a thing. While it was the only time this happened this week, this has happened a number of times on previous trips to Paris. It’s a guessing game. You ask for information directly but then end up asking questions to get negative responses until you finally ask the right one. In this case, even after rewording my question, I left, dejected, but then checked the information online, and found out I needed a ‘découverte’ card. It was only EUR 5 and required photos to stick to the card. Why hadn’t I brought those extra photos I kept for just such an occasion? There are actually photo booths all over Paris, and the train stations, so I made some photos for EUR 10, went and bought the proper card from the fellow (who sort of indicated, ‘oh, that’s what you wanted’) and then discovered that you really don’t need the photos on the card, and the photo doesn’t fit in any case. I cut it down to size and stuck in on anyways.

From there, you subscribe online for a pass, and are given an ID code and a password. The ID code shows up immediately on the Vélib app, so I assumed the password would too. But when I went out to get my first Vélib, it asked for the ID code, and THEN for the password, and the password was nowhere in sight. Where, where could it be? Nowhere it seemed. If you don’t write it down the first

Seven years ago, I was so pleased to have obtained one of these, which allowed me to use the system the whole few months I was there, without renewing the pass every few days, like this trip.

time, you snooze, you lose. So, I called the helpline and the helpful person on English help reset my code and gave it to me. Hurrah. So, I rented my first Vélib bike and was surprised to see that after you enter in the ID code and the password, you then connect it to your travel card, and then don’t need to use them again! Just the card.

And then… after my first excursion, I put my bike back into one of the docking stations, and went for lunch. But then the next time I tried to use the bike, I couldn’t get one out. Sigh. I tried a few times, walked around and then took the Metro for the first (and only) time. When I got home, and called the helpline, I got the same person! Perhaps there is only one English helpdesk operator. She told me that I hadn’t docked the bike properly. Oops. She reset it for me, kindly, and soon after I received an email, in French, scolding me for being a bad Vélib user and asking me to be more careful from now on. How French, I thought.

But sorry for all these details. The experience on the bikes was as good as ever. There are more bike paths than I remember, many of them wide, and busy with cyclists (and some scooters). What surprised me was that with so many Vélibs in use at all times, the biggest problem was not finding a Vélib but finding an empty spot to put the Vélibs back at the stations. Even though they seem to have a new system where you can put a Vélib back in a station when it’s full, by locking itself to something else, the one time I needed to try it, I couldn’t figure it out.

It was exhilarating and terrifying as you are often in busy traffic and super close to the cars. But the thing is, Parisian drivers seem to be use to all this chaos, and there are so many other bikes on the road. So, you just try your best, and cars move around you, and you around cars. The only time I saw people raise their voices was to prevent accidents, when a pedestrian or car or bike were really too close and about to collide.

The bikes are in much better condition than they were seven years ago. The tires were filled. The seats were easily adjustable. There was occasionally the loud brake. Now, the ebikes are such a good idea, and there are as many ebikes as regular bikes, usually. But every time I tried to use them, I could feel an initial acceleration when I first got on, and then … nothing. Nada. I’m sad to report that it took me five days before a young colleague told me she’d had the same problem and you have to press ‘3’ on the dashboard to give it some juice, otherwise it stays in ‘1’. I only got to try a proper ebike once after that. Strangely, it was on a bike that someone had left at a station unlocked and still running (on their account), but they’d already set it on ‘3’ and what a difference it made. It was fast and quite fun.

All in all, what a week. Paris is so compact that I used the metro only one time the whole time I was there, and the rest of the time, I was on a Vélib, or walked. I even went up to Sacre Coeur twice and was definitely winded, it would have been better with a functional ebike! What also made it easy was that I had internet access on my phone. Years ago this was so, so difficult to figure out, but nowadays, Virgin mobile in Australia just allows you to roam for $5 a day (about EUR 3) and being able to access my Vélib app and Google maps was a lifesaver. Of course, I got lost a ton of times and took wrong turns, but what better city in the world to be lost but Paris?

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The Global Monitoring Report on Education for All

Originally published on 28 April 2015 on www.boldface.com.au:

I had the most amazing work opportunity and experience in the last six months. I was hired by the Global Monitoring Report (GMR) team to be the editor for their 2015 report, Education for All 2000–2015: Achievements and Challenges.

This involved working at UNESCO’s office in Paris for a few months with a dedicated and intelligent group of researchers, and to learn about the status of education around the world.

While education isn’t an area that I’m expert in, I welcomed the opportunity to learn about a new field, and I saw my role as an editor to provide an outside perspective: the report is meant to be as accessible as possible, and to be read by both experts and students, in universities and in communities.

I was shocked by what I learned: still so much illiteracy in the world, children out of school, mostly in conflict-affected areas, and kids being taught by teachers who have no more than primary education. The social justice issues that I’ve been involved seem almost a luxury when so many kids aren’t being taught to read or write.

This editorial, How We Can Make Education For All A Reality, by a Nobel Peace Prize winner, from the Huffington Post is a good overview of successes, failures and lessons.

The report was released and launched in April 2015 and is available online.

Update: While I had a break, I’m back as the structural editor for the GEM Reports, doing my editing from Australia rather than in Paris. I still love working with this team and learning about the latest developments in education. Visit the report here.

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Book Reviews on HIV and sexuality

Originally published on 26 October 2015 on www.boldface.com.au:

From the archives, here are two book reviews that I wrote for the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisation’s (AFAO) National AIDS Bulletin.

First of all, a short book review from NAB, volume 13, no 5, 2000 on Peter A. Jackson and Gerard Sullivan (editors)’s Multicultural Queer: Australian Narratives:

An invitation (as in the words from Edward Said) to ‘break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication’.

Multicultural Queer Review

In Endangering Relations: Negotiating Sex and AIDS in Thailand, Chris Lyttleton delves into the real stories behind a country being held up as an example of how the world should respond to HIV.

Endangered Relations Review

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An article on access to HIV drugs

Originally published on 26 October 2015 on www.boldface.com.au:

From the archives, here is an article that I wrote for the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisation’s (AFAO) National AIDS Bulletin.

In 1999, the hot issue was how to get HIV drugs to those who needed them. One way was to find legal ways to import or produce those drugs so they would be affordable. This article on drug access appeared in NAB, volume 13, no 1, 1999:

Article in the National AIDS Bulletin on global access to HIV drugs

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