Christmas in Paris; And My Idea of Dessert

Lighted trees in lobby of Georges Cinq hotel

The interior courtyard of the Georges Cinq hotel

Unlike back home in America, where Thanksgiving serves as a kind of starting gun for the Christmas season, here Christmas advances more slowly, expressed as a gradual shift in mood and spirit. One day you walk down a street and there’s no sign of decoration. The next, there’s some subtle, pretty change in a display window. You walk along the same street a week later, and there are more small changes–maybe some evergreen branches over a doorway, or a special Christmas treat in the window of the patisserie on the corner, or a string of delicate white lights stretched along an awning.

We had lunch the other day at the Brasserie Lipp, one of Hemingway’s old places, and spent some moments staring out a side window, watching two people attempt to put up a Christmas garland over an adjacent shop door. It was not a complex task, but it did involve a lot of gesturing and stepping back to the curb to properly assess the progress being made, of which there was little, as best we could tell. Still, it was entertaining to watch. They were still at it when we left, standing at the curb, lips pursed in appraisal.

Front doors to Givenchy in Paris, with Christmas garlands

Givenchy, Paris

Posters go up for performances of Christmasy music. Two Sundays ago, my wife and I went to the American Cathedral here, and took part in the Messiah Sing, which was a lovely way to get ourselves fully into the Christmas spirit. We had done a very intensive course in Messiah singing when we were dating many eons back in San Francisco, and consider ourselves fairly expert, or at least my wife, an alto, considers herself to be. I’m a bass, and count myself lucky to be able to recognize which stanza I’m supposed to be singing. I stay as far away from the sopranos as possible. One does not ever ever ever want to come in early on a soprano.

Interior, American Cathedral in Paris, during Messiah Sing

Soprano at work, American Cathedral, Paris

Equally helpful in ratcheting up our sense of Christmas spirit was the bar at the Georges Cinq hotel, a block up the street, where we convened after the sing for a couple of well-made Manhattans. The hotel has been beautifully decorated, and the bar is terrific, but it is definitely a special occasion kind of place. The drinks are priced for the Maserati crowd. Still, it was great fun.

Last weekend we did some singing also, but this time we hit the bar first. We tried the Georges Cinq again, but, possibly because Christmas was so near, there was an hour-and-forty-minute wait. So, thinking fast, we walked about a mile, partly through teeming Christmas-shopping crowds on the Champs-Élysées, to the Bristol Hotel, which was one of the locales where Woody Allen did some filming for Midnight in Paris. This hotel is lovely as well, and happily the bar is larger and we reached it just at opening time. The bar also has a fireplace, a handy thing in Paris in winter. Unhappily, the drinks are just as expensive as at the Georges Cinq. But once again, great fun.

Paris streetscape, night, Christmas lights, crowds

The Right Bank at night, two Sundays before Christmas

We walked from there a few blocks south to the Seine, and headed back toward the Ponte d’Alma, with the Eiffel Tower across the river looking especially splendid. At intervals, now, it lights up like an immense jewel, with bursts of light that make it look very much like a Fourth of July sparkler. From the bridge, we again headed back to the cathedral, for an evening of “Songs and Lessons,” a service in which Christmas carols are spaced with brief readings, some in French, some English. The service ended with a rousing “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” which brought to mind the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life, and consequently of course brought tears to our eyes. I half expected a mob of Parisians to come charging into the church to drop off money to save George Bailey’s bank from the evil Monsieur Potter. That film, by the way, is one of the long list of Christmas movies that we and our kids will attempt to watch before The Day, after my wife and I return to Seattle for the holiday. Now, you may ask, why are we returning to Seattle just for Christmas, when we could experience Christmas in Paris? Three sentimental daughters, mainly. But Seattle’s a good Christmas town too, full of fireplaces and the smell of fir trees, the living kind.

Interior of cafe, with flowers, mirrors, warm festive feel

Le Grand Corona

After the service, we walked back toward the river and stopped in at a terrific, old cafe, Le Grand Corona, where we had a light dinner on the terrace, under heat lamps suspended overhead. The city’s big cafes are really quite amazing. In summer, you can sit outside at tables arrayed along the sidewalk, but come winter, many cafes put up protective glass and metal partitions which effectively contain the warmth, while still providing a nice view of the sidewalk and the endless current of people passing by.

The Corona doesn’t get the best reviews on TripAdvisor, but we found it charming and welcoming. I chose sautéed veal liver for dinner, one of my favorite Parisian meals; for dessert, half-a-dozen Breton oysters, the house specialty. I know, I know. I should have had a chocolate soufflé, or a mille-feuille, or creme brûlé with a flaming top. But I’m not a dessert guy, and the oysters that everyone else in the place was getting looked awfully good. Happily my wife doesn’t like oysters, so I had them all to myself, and they were so fresh it was as if I were devouring the sea itself. Hemingway got it right. The city really is a moveable feast.

Happy holidays, all, and may the best of new years lie ahead.

Floor of Bistro Lipp, with the name in brass letters

Brasserie Lipp


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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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