August 18, 2022
August is a funny time in Paris. The weather's mostly beautiful. Blue skies every day. Golden hour extends to 10pm. Yet Parisians leave the city in search for more hospitable climates: Nice, Marseille, Greece, and beyond. That opens up the opportunity for travelers to snag an apartment. In our case were were lucky to stay in a friend's flat while they were out of town.
We lived in the 6th arrondissement near the Luxembourg Gardens. It seemed like a neighborhood more for locals than tourists. And that made it my favorite living situation yet. It really let us imagine a life in Paris, walking to all the local spots, and leaving the throngs of tourists near the Eiffel in the background. It's easy to acclimate when you're surrounded by people going about their normal lives.
Our move to Paris also marked the first big metropolis of our trip. And we certainly made the most of it. We did an absurd amount of walking every day, sampled every possible cuisine, and even picked up a few french linen shirts along the way. I realized that I appreciate a yin-and-yang to traveling like we are. Cascais was amazing while we were there but it got a bit sleepy after two weeks. Paris always had something to do but only offered a few spots for serenity.
We also got an authentic experience in another way: the heat. Turns out Parisian apartments don't have fans or air conditioning. Which makes sense - you don't need them. Except for August. But more on that later.
The coworking spaces in Paris cost a lot for what they are. Unlike our great find in Cascais, most places were €400-€600 without 24 hour access. I really do prefer working out of a coworking space where possible. It separates work from home while still providing a bustle of energy. At their best they're coffee shops with more amenities and later hours. But in Paris the access limits were a deal breaker given our schedules. Working from home it was, starting an hour later than in Portugal to align with the timezones.
This working situation was only viable because we had a one bedroom apartment and great wifi. We typically rotated between the bedroom desk and the kitchen table whenever we had calls at the same time. The kitchen got more sun but was hotter; the other room was darker but cooler. It ended up being a game of musical chairs throughout the day: when one got too hot you'd chill in the other. We'd work late - usually 1am or 1:30am depending on when our calls wrapped up. But we didn't start our calls until early evening, which gave us the opportunity to enjoy the Parisian sunshine for the afternoon.
Within a few days I settled into a consistent routine. I'd start every day around 8 or 9 and try to get in at least two hours of work while it was still relatively cool. I'd kick myself awake with a nice stiff french press of % Arabica coffee, our favorite coffee shop discovery that we made early on. I usually tried to wrap up whatever project I had started the night before and push something out before the day started. That switched between OKR planning and code. Depending on the day, I'd make a few calls home to my night owl friends back in California. We'd then break for some afternoon exploration until 4 or 5.
One drawback to our evening schedule was work occupying a disproportionate mindshare during the earlier part of our day. Since you know the day's coming you start preplanning what you're going to focus on later. There's not as clear of a dividing line as working in the morning and stopping for the evenings. This dissipated somewhat but never fully went away. In Paris we were always on.
I mentioned the weather. It was definitely hot. Much hotter than Cascais, by an average of 20° a day. Paris has no benefit of the sea breeze so it's more exposed to the heat waves that struck Europe recently. About two days a week were particularly brutal - temperatures getting up to 95° with humidity. Some stores offered temporary solace but most spaces that were more amenable to work didn't: coffee shops, boulangeries, etc. These hot days never really cooled down, even far after midday when we would start our pacific schedule.
Our apartment seemed to be stuck at a constant state of 80°. Even by midnight it was still in the 70s. On the first hot day I felt like we were living in a sauna. I immediately went out and bought a fan from Fnac that turned out to be my best purchase of the trip. You'll enjoy a dinner for an evening but a fan for life. It almost sounds like a Twain quote. We also adopted some makeshift cooling techniques like taking a siesta in the middle of the day, filling water bottles with tap water and then sticking them in the freezer, and going to as many museums as we could.
If we had to do these days again we should have rented a coworking space. Most have daily access plans and even with the hour limits they would have been worth it to get out of the heat temporarily.
Those two brutal days aside, the weather had some benefits. The chilliest of nights still let you walk around in shorts and a t-shirt. Skies are blue and sunsets are golden. Everyone still in Paris is out and about enjoying the scenery; swarms of picnics, racing boats in fountains, and enjoying a glass of wine. And the baguettes. People literally do walk around with a baguette hanging out of their messenger bag. Even on the hottest of days.
We walked a lot around town. We averaged 15k steps a day without really thinking about it. But after a week we still felt the urge to head back to a gym. There's just something to a dedicated exercise session that walking doesn't provide.
There was a BasicFit within a pretty short walk to our apartment. I'm convinced that BasicFit might be the pinnacle of gym experiences. You sign up at a kiosk in the front and either go month to month or get a year membership (about 30% less expensive). For 10 euros more a month you can invite a gym buddy to go with you every time you're there, which was how we intended on using it anyway. It netted out to around 30 euros a month for both of us. It puts all gyms in San Francisco to shame.
The funniest part about the BasicFit was how quiet it is. Imagine a swarm of 45 french men lifting barbells in silence. No music. No grunting. It was quieter than most libraries I've been to. Just pure workout focus. We went every day from we signed up until the day that we left - sometimes for as short as a 30 minute ab workout and sometimes as long as an hour and a half.
We had procrastinated finding a gym because we expected it would be harder to find a good one and that the membership process might be prohibitive. Once we figured out where to go it was painless. Europe seems to have a much different relationship to gyms than we do back home. Monthly memberships are the standard and they often offer weekly passes to sample the facility. There's also a proliferation of them in major cities and they're all priced competitively.
We often would choose a destination for lunch and make our way over. We optimized to going to a new neighborhood so we'd see some new places there and along the way. We quickly realized that when Parisians leave the city, their shop owners do as well. A good 2/3rds of the restaurants that we tried were closed on arrival. Especially the ones that were recommended to us by friends.
Most of the cultural experiences were consistently open, however, and we made the most of those.
Musée de l'Armée: Museum with Medieval armory going back to 200BCE. They trace the development of weapons through to the modern day. When we went there was also a great spy exhibit that showcased the french resistance during WWII. Also home to Napolean's tomb. Worth spending a few minutes inside but the great exhibits are in the other parts of the museum.
Musee d'Orsay: Museum with a host of artwork and rotating exhibits. Busy but way less than the Louvre. At least from what I hear, I still didn't go over this trip. The architecture of the building is very impressive; it was an active train station back in the early 1900s and it shows. It still has the towering archways and glass ceiling in the main hall. Great sculpture exhibits and showcased Aristide Majol when we were there. Another one of his works was right in the Louvre Garden across the river. Was neat to see his work in a gallery and outside.
Sunset on the Seine: It sounds cliche. But it's one of those things that's too good to pass up. Plus, Parisians actually do it themselves. Skip the tour boats. If sunset is looking particularly nice, grab a sparkling water and head to the banks.
Metro: We ended up taking the metro all of one time in the course of our stay. That's not for lack of appreciation. Their metro is cheap and convenient with near direct access to all of the city. But given the great weather and our free morning schedules we opted to walk instead. If you walk, expect to be on your feet for at least three hours a day since everything is manageable but nothing is close.
Lunch in Luxembourg
Grocery stores aren't often the highlight of a trip but Paris is a place full of surprises. La Grande Epicerie is a market next to The Bon Marche with some of the nicest foods you'll ever see. Near everything is from local growers either in France or Italy. Whole wings are dedicated to meat, fish, cheese, and bread. And the aesthetics are on point. Products glow with a soft gold from recessed lights somewhere in the wood shelves. People meander through with some intention but mostly to see what selections captivate them.
Their bread was some of the best we had in the city. The crust was perfectly charred on the outside but could still pull apart with a slight tug to reveal the doughy filling. Likewise for cheese. We tried a few different varieties but kept coming back to the truffle brie. Other favorites: pesto sauce, jam, and prosciutto.
On a couple of days where the weather was nice and hovering around 80/85 we made a trip to the Epicerie to pick up food for lunch. We focused on the staples - bread, cheese, and fruits mainly. We packed a cutting board and silverware ahead of time so we could make our way directly over to Luxembourg. We spread out in the shade with a blanket and people watched in the park for the better half of two hours. We also brought our books and would alternatively read, eat, and talk. It was one of the best meals we had both in quality and ambiance.
A friend of mine once said, "bury me in the Bon Marche." After that lunch I'd suggest the Epicerie instead.
It's ironic that mail would become such a pivotal story of my time in Paris. But my comedy of errors with UPS' international shipping is something that must be mentioned.
Since we were in Paris I ordered:
- A replacement USB-C cable from Amazon
- A camera battery charger
- A custom PCB from Hong Kong
- Keyboard caps from California
0/4 actually came.
The most complicated saga is for my PCB. On day two of living there they send me a note saying they can't deliver it to the apartment. I suggest they place it at a bodega a few streets away. They confirm delivery. I stroll over two day later and notice the whole place shuttered behind cast iron gates. A nicely penned note on the door says they'll be gone for August (and maybe September) and will see people back in October.
I emailed the business and UPS. The bodega surprised me by immediately responding. UPS had come the day before their closure, the day before I tried to grab my box, and retrieved all the packages they had in the store. Some forward thinking. That narrows down the possibilities.
My UPS email goes unanswered. I call and can't get through to a person. Just a French phone tree for days. I file a lost package claim against their insurance and that gets them invested. A manager reaches out and tells me that I shouldn't worry. They have my box and are actively collecting the information about what to do next. Seems like a lot of infrastructure to redeliver my package.
One wrinkle was that they refuse to communicate with me directly as the receiver and would only speak with my shipper. So that also added a bit of round trip time.
Then things start to get weird. They tell me I haven't paid my customs fee. I had weeks before and sent them the pdf proof. They then reverse course saying they have lost the package and are launching a more dedicated search and rescue campaign. Eight days later of no updates they finally admit they have no idea where it is and that my shipper should continue with the full claim.
I sent the next board back to California.
Talking to my friends about the situation I was surprised how much locals broadly expect this. If something's important you'll ship with DHL. For low value items you'll roll the dice. For things in the middle you'll try to arrange a delivery at a staging box at a grocery store.
If you throw a spoon in any direction in Paris you'll hit a fantastic place. Many of our favorites weren't French, at least not in the proper sense. Paris has a surprising diversity in Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Mediterranean. A few of the most notable places we tried and loved:
Brutus (Gaité): Dare I say the best crepes in Paris. Savory crepes with buckwheat were particularly noteworthy. We got the chicken and sausage on different occasions. Desert crepes were also light and refreshing. They double as a cider bar and their draft selection very much hit the spot on a hot day.
Paris Baguette Saint-Michel: This place wasn't notable for their bread but it was for their hours. It was open until 10pm, far later than the other bakeries in our neighborhood. Great for a late night or in our case a pre-dinner appetizer with some cheese.
La Cidrerie: Following our cider experiences at the crepe place, we found this cider shop while touring around the 3rd. Our bartender chose a stellar flight of ciders for us to split. It outlooks right on a canal where boats lazily float by. It was particularly homey on the cloudy day when we went.
Kodawari Ramen: Some of the best ramen I've ever had. The inside of the restaurant is decorated like a Tokyo alleyway, complete with the ambiance sounds of cars and chatter. Make sure you get on the waitlist ahead of time with SkeepIt since they usually have lines down the street.
Monsieur Henri - Good vibes, good wine. Bartender was a character. When we asked him whether he spoke english he shook his head and said (in English, to be clear) - "No, I only speak wine."
After three weeks we were ready for the next leg of our travels. But we'll keep thinking of the Epicerie every time we go to another grocery store. Up next: Amsterdam.