Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | June 25, 2010

Danse a la Ville, or How I Learned to Embrace my Inner Introvert and Dine Alone without Feeling Awkward

My trip to France came together in a rather unexpected way; the opportunity essentially fell into my lap. Unfortunately, since my husband needed be at work (we were just back from our Laos and Vietnam trip a few weeks earlier), I would have to go on my own.  At first, the pack-animal in me was desperate to find other people to join me. I tried recruiting friends to meet me in Paris, but no one was able to clear their schedule and jump on a plane. I looked into joining up with a group bike tour in France for the week, but the Vietnam trip had severely depleted the vacation fund. In the end, it became clear that the simplest and most economical choice was to just spend time in Paris by myself.

To be honest, I didn’t think much about what it would be like until I was en route. People would ask me what I was going to do, and I would smile and say “Have a great time.” I didn’t spend time formulating plans. I figured one of the benefits to traveling alone was that I could do what I wanted, when I wanted. Traveling solo was a little outside my comfort zone, but it also presented some great opportunities, most notably, the opportunity to travel without an itinerary.

One thing I knew I wanted to do was go to museums. I loved the idea of being able to go to a world-class museum without having to drag along reluctant family members.  No one asking “Can we leave now?”  Just me, alone with my own thoughts, meandering along, taking my own sweet time. It sounded heavenly.

I also wanted to be able to spend some time working on a photography project I’d started a few months ago: taking pictures of people in paintings. It all started when I was at the Art Institute in Chicago with the kids. I’d been taking some pictures of the kids, then I started taking pictures of the paintings they were looking at. For some reason, I started focusing in on the secondary characters in the backgrounds of paintings. Why were they there? What value did they add? What might their stories be? I combed the Art Institute taking pictures of the nobodies in the backgrounds of some of the world’s most famous paintings. It became an interesting endeavor. In some paintings, the background subjects were carefully crafted and fully fleshed out. In others, they were merely the suggestion of people, shapes without faces.  Why put a person in a painting but not bother to give him or her a face? Conversely, why spend so much time creating a person only to tuck him or her away in a corner?  I had a great time photographing people in paintings in Chicago. I figured Paris would offer ample opportunities to continue the project. My main destination was not the Louvre, but the Musee d’Orsay. Alas, the d’Orsay does not allow photography. Well, I thought to myself, I’ll just bring the camera and see if I can get away with it.

As I got to the d’Orsay, I immediately headed to the Impressionist paintings. In particular, I was looking for some Renoirs. I found what I was looking for, Renoir’s Danse a la Campagne, a colorful scene of a couple dancing. Attention is easily drawn to the couple, their facial expressions, their dress. It appears they are sharing an intimate moment alone, in a garden, probably after eating dinner. Then, however, you notice two small faces in the lower left corner, another man and a woman. The man is looking off to the side, but the woman is watching the couple dance.  The faces of the observers are small and not easy to see at first, but there they are, added for a reason only Renoir knows. His companion piece, Danse a la Ville, shows a similar scene of a couple dancing, but they are alone, no audience can be seen.

The two paintings hang next to each other in the Musee d’Orsay, which makes the issue of the audience in the first painting that much more prominent. Why is that couple tucked in the corner in Danse a la Campagne? To show that the scene is not private?  Then why is there no audience in Danse a la Ville, even though that couple is obviously dressed for a night out on the town, presumably in a public location? What was Renoir getting at? That the anonymous life of the city affords more privacy? That in the country there is always someone watching your every move? Who knows? I’m no art scholar. I am just someone who likes to go to museums because they are quiet and no one bothers me and the paintings are pretty. When it comes to the deeper meaning, I have no clue. But I do like to take pictures. Unfortunately, everywhere I turned there were big signs on the wall stating that photography was forbidden.

I thought about discretely trying to snap a few shots, but the galleries were all carefully monitored by ever-present security personnel, so I didn’t even dare get my camera out of my bag. I tried to clandestinely get some pictures using my phone. They were lousy. In the end, I bought a postcard of Danse a la Campagne at the museum gift store. Not quite what I was after.

The day was not a total loss, though. The museum was wonderful, even without photographs, and what’s more, I had plans for the evening.  After so many nights of anguishing over eating alone, I finally had dining companions. I was meeting up with friends who were traveling to Paris after being in London. They were arriving that afternoon on the train, and it was their first time in Paris. I told them I would take care of our dinner reservation.

Now, Paris is full of fabulous restaurants. You could live there a year, eat out every night of the week, and still never hit them all. When it comes to picking a restaurant for dinner, it is almost hard to go wrong. But I knew what I wanted: nothing fancy, nothing too high-end, just a simple and delicious duck confit in a small, cozy setting. I had to go to Le Florimond.

I had been to Le Florimond on my last trip to Paris, stumbling upon it by accident. My husband and I were on our way to do some sightseeing when we were caught short by a rainstorm. We decided to skip whatever sights were on the schedule and take refuge in a restaurant for an impromptu lunch date. I, as usual, ordered duck confit (my favorite), and it was the best I’d ever had. The wine, the duck, the rain, the gracious greeting we got from the host, Laurent, made for a magical afternoon. Suddenly Le Florimond was my favorite restaurant in Paris and I couldn’t wait to go back.

Alas, since I was traveling alone on this trip, I hadn’t mustered up the courage to go there. Le Florimond is a tiny restaurant, probably less than 10 tables, and all of them are tightly packed together. It is certainly not a place where a solo diner could simply blend into the background. So, when I had the chance to make reservations for dinner with my friends, I knew where we had to go.

Laurent was, as usual, gracious and welcoming, as was our waitress (whose name I didn’t get, unfortunately, but she was wonderful). The duck confit was as good as I remembered. We had a long, luxurious, relaxed dinner. Laurent made fun of my bad French. We laughed. We ordered another bottle of wine. We devoured the cheeses. It was delightful.

Several days later, on my last night in Paris, I wanted to go back to Le Florimond one last time, but since I was once again dining solo, I wasn’t sure. Dining inside the restaurant, sitting alone at a table mere inches from the couples around me, did not seem like fun. However, I just had to have that duck confit one more time.  Once again, my traveler’s schizophrenia took hold of me: I wanted to go to Le Florimond, I didn’t want to go to Le Florimond. I wasn’t sure what to do. Finally it dawned on me that if the weather improved, I could eat outside in one of the three tables on the street. It would be less awkward than sitting inside, and I could get my much-coveted duck confit.  I kept a hopeful eye on the sky.

The weather cleared over the course of the afternoon, so as evening rolled around I strolled over to 19 Avenue La Motte Picquet. When I walked in, Laurent apologized profusely that he did not have a table for me. I said that was too bad, since he has the best duck confit in all of Paris. As if he read my mind, Laurent asked if I would like to eat outside.  “C’est parfait.”

I sat down, ordered my duck confit and vin rouge and watched the street scene unfold before me. I watched families stroll by, observed a young woman park a SmartCar in a parking space the size of a postage stamp, noted the numerous couples walking arm in arm. I must have started a trend, because before I knew it, the other tables out on the sidewalk were full as well. Although I was still a mere inch or two away from the couple behind me, I was facing the street, so I didn’t feel like I was crashing their date. Until they started talking.

They were an American couple, and quickly I ascertained that they had just recently arrived in Paris. They were discussing what they wanted to do over the next few days. Although they were having a private conversation, I could clearly hear every word. Suddenly it dawned on me that I was the observer in their painting – I was the background person in their own little Danse a la Campagne (or Danse au Restaurant, as it were). I was the one making their otherwise private moment a public event.  I am like a woman in a Renoir painting!  Granted, I am not quite as pretty, vibrant or colorful as a woman in a Renoir painting, but hey, close enough. I filled the role nonetheless. I was the woman tucked in the corner, making their private moment public. This became even more clear when they started discussing the menu and what to order.  I heard one of them say “Maybe I should try the duck confit, but I’m not sure.”  Well, I could not keep quiet any more. “It is the best duck confit in all of Paris and you have to try it! Sorry, I didn’t mean to eavesdrop.”

Of course, the ice was broken and we struck up a conversation. They had just arrived in Paris from London where they had been on a group tour (which sounded horrible, by the way.)  We chatted for a while about what they planned to do with their time in the city. The woman confessed she was terrified of the Metro. I suggested they try the Velib bikes as a way to get around. She seemed terrified of those, too.

As I was trying to convince her that the Metro was perfectly safe and she shouldn’t worry so much about crime, in a fit of bad timing, someone tried to steal my phone.  A man approached from the street with a sheet of paper, asking for help translating some writing. I waved him off, but he persistently held the paper in front of me while he surreptitiously grabbed my phone off the table with his other hand.  As he walked away, I immediately noticed the phone was missing and yelled “Hey!” Fortunately, he did not run. The would-be robber just calmly turned around and handed the phone back to me. Then Laurent came out and gave him quite a scolding. The guy shrugged and skulked away. The woman from California was horrified.  I think she was ready to get on the next plane back home.

I settled back to being lost in my thoughts and let the couple get back to their semi-private dinner. It was my last night in Paris and I was sad to leave. Although traveling alone had been challenging, it had also been incredibly rewarding. I was leaving Paris with more confidence in myself.  Yes, my petty fears – fear of feeling awkward, not knowing what to do, feeling foolish – had all come to pass, but it turns out that they didn’t kill me. It is ok to feel like an idiot. It is ok to get lost. It is ok to need help.

In the end, I had learned to trust myself. I had figured my way around, I had mastered the Velib bike system, I even went dans la piscine.  One of my best moments in Paris had come earlier that day when I was on my clunky Velib bike: an Asian tourist came up to me and asked me (in French) if it was expensive to rent them. I said (in French) no, only 1 Euro to start and then another Euro every half hour. He then asked if he could take a picture of me. So there I was, sitting on my ungainly Velib, smiling for this man’s photograph, and it occurred to me that I had become the expert, the tour guide. I had arrived fairly clueless, but I was leaving with slightly more knowledge and experience. Although there had certainly been moments of painful awkwardness, there had also been many moments of quiet contentment. I was leaving Paris satisfied and comfortable with myself. I was reluctant to go.

Finally, I wrapped up my lovely meal at Le Florimond and wished the American couple next to me a pleasant stay. Laurent came to bid me goodbye. I walked away, not sure when I would be back again. But I hope to be back there soon. A little duck confit and vin rouge, perhaps a table overlooking the street, and all is right with the world.


Responses

  1. Described perfectly and sounds heavenly! Maybe, next time I will slow down and spend more time working on my french!

  2. How did I miss this post? I read the one where you went swimming, but missed this. Sue, it’s wonderful. Really. Love the art, food, and tying it together. You should submit it to a travel magazine. I am SO going there for duck confit. My sister told me about that museum too. Hopefully, I can hit it in the limited time we’ll have….. Great post!

  3. […] other important agenda in Paris was food. After reading my friend Sue’s blog I knew I had to visit Le Florimond and eat duck confit. Naturally, on our first night, it was […]


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