Letter From Paris: Hôtel Charpentier

Paris has been bathing in Californian sunshine steadily, for several weeks now (including when I was away, I’ve been told). Right now the rolling pelouse (lawn) of Parc Montsouris facing my home and the screen of my laptop, is studded with sun BASKERS who have put the war in Iraq behind them and are getting on with their lives as well as they can, as we all try to do. The anti-war demonstrations over here are not a pretty sight. It’s not only about pacifism, alas. So much hatred and so much violence is part of the scene, decades of frustration contained in a fortress of suburban high-rises (you may have had an insight into them in the film La Haine), have now erupted like a long-dormant volcano, spitting out hatred for America, and, even more so for the Jews. On one occasion it culminated into the beating up, with iron bars of three Jewish youths, who belong to a left-wing movement. This incident happened during the Pacifist demonstration last Saturday. Why were demonstrators armed with iron bars on such an occasion? Most French people shrink from this violence, for sure, but little is done to stop it. Most French people oppose the war for sure, but the vocal ones who take to the streets are, by and large, members of political parties, of trade unions and the young. Even the very young, who are so easily enflamed, and talk with their hearts rather than with historical or political references. It was refreshing to go to Paris Soirées last Sunday night and reflect on the sad state of the world in a more congenial atmosphere. In case you’ve never heard of Paris Soirées, it’s a Sunday night gathering, in English, run by the charming Patricia Laplante. First of all, the location itself deserves special mention, as the gatherings take place in a beautiful townhouse in the Marais, now converted into a youth hostel. It is so special that I even included it in my new book, Romantic Paris. It has a wonderful, cobbled patio garden where you can settle in summer with your dinner (lovingly prepared and cooked every week by Patricia) after you have picked your choice at the buffet.  Believe it or not, last Sunday was warm enough to do so. Paris Soirées is not only about having a nice meal. Ever since her early childhood Patricia has enjoyed playing hostess, perhaps because she was an only child. However, she also loves culture (she graduated in Art History and Literature). As a matter of fact, she likes combining entertainment, good food and culture, and does so most successfully. Furthermore, Paris Soirées provides a meeting ground for locals and visitors. Patricia is an American expat and has been living here since 1983 (except for one year’s escapade to Italy). Like herself, most of the locals are expats and the lingua franca of the evening is English. The few French guests who join in are quite fluent or very fluent in English and like mingling with English-speaking people (referred to by the French as “Anglo-Saxons”).The social blend is very exciting, a mix of professionals, writers, photographers, retirees, computer engineers, marketing people, what have you, and of all generations. Last Sunday, for instance, several women poetesses read their own or others’ poems – a poignant poem about the war by E.E. Cummings, a gentle rendering of Wordsworth’s Daffodils, a shattering poem, in French – Afrique Afrique – about the spellbinding beauty and the woes of the bruised black continent, a hilarious naughty poem about an English lesson taught to foreigners. We needed a good laugh and it was very therapeutic, just as cooking is to Patricia, as she has told me.  After the poetry interlude, we had an interesting talk by Shireen Dodson about the book club she had set up with her daughter to improve relationships between parents and children through the love of books. Shireen Dodson used to work for the African American Centre of the Smithsonian in Washington DC and her initiative has now spread to many places in the US. This eclectic evening is an example of the variety of topics you can get at Paris Soirées. I myself have given two talks with slides there, a recent one about Romantic Paris, obviously, and last year a talk about the Left Bank. On some evenings you will hear about aromatherapy, or esoteric topics, on others you will hear a concert. This is one of the nice things about Paris Soirées. Everyone can have his or her pick. It’s never stuffy; it’s never heavy. It’s always pleasing and light hearted. Since my book Romantic Paris has led me to focus on romance in recent times, I couldn’t help asking Patricia if any of the encounters at her Soirées has led to romance. Of course! she answered. And even three marriages that she knows of: One French computer engineer to a Japanese woman journalist, one African American jazz singer to a Scottish banker and one French businessman to a Scottish linguist.  There may have been others that she doesn’t know about, like the Frenchman and the Chinese woman who met at Paris Soirées but have vanished since…. This is what you will read about the Youth Hostel in Romantic Paris Youth Hostel/MIJC Hôtel Charpentier, 6, rue de Fourcy, 5 bedrooms, including one twin. Tel 01 42 74 23 45http://www.mije.com/E-mail:[email protected]: Euro 27 per person with breakfast;  shower and basin in each room; shared toilets in the corridors; sheets provided, but not towels.Lunch and dinner at 8 or 9 euros, in the vaulted dining room.Closes between noon and 3pm for cleaning.Prices may have changed since I wrote my book.If you are young and travelling on a shoe-string, this hostel is a great way to stay in the romantic Marais.  If you want a room for two, (it may be bunk beds) you should book well in advance. The place has the feel of a medieval abbey, with its Spartan simplicity, immaculate cleanliness and beautiful wood furniture.  Some journalist described the MIJC as  “the most beautiful youth hostel in the world.” This is not surprising since the Hôtel Charpentier on rue de Fourcy was the home of Louis XIV’s future chancellor, Gilles Charpentier. (Though by the turn of the 20th century, it had become a brothel called Grosse Margot.  And next door…
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