Rak Rants

A Pittsburgher In Paris (By Pam Selker Rak)

Pam Selker Rak is founder and president of CommuniTech, LLC and an avid traveler.

Cue the violins. We’re going to talk about Paris. But we’re going to start in Pittsburgh to make a point.  So cue the accordions first.

When people visit Pittsburgh for the first time, one of their initial journeys is a ride up the incline to Mt. Washington.  And why not?  It’s beautiful up there – the hills and the view – oh, that view – shows the totality of Pittsburgh from on-high.

But is it really the best of Pittsburgh?

When I talk to those first-time visitors, they tend to wax poetic about Mt. Washington; and of course, I agree with them.  But my follow-up question is always, “Did you visit any of our other neighborhoods?”

Because as we Pittsburghers know, the heart and soul of our city – and our very culture – is rooted firmly in our neighborhoods.  If you visit here and miss that experience, then you’ve kind of missed the point. Heck, Mr. Rogers even built a legacy around it – and for good reason.  There’s just something about the people and rhythm of life in our neighborhoods that stay with you no matter where you go.

So it probably comes as no surprise that when I first landed in Paris nine years ago, among my first stops was Montmartre and it was love at first sight.  The artists, the hills and the view – oh, that view – were just too incredibly quaint to ignore.

View of Montmartre from St Germain des Pres

For years, it was my favorite neighborhood because it was everything I dreamed Paris would be.  My senses couldn’t drink it in fast enough – everything I saw, smelled, tasted and heard was like a Paris postcard come-to-life.

But wait a minute – wasn’t I falling into the same pattern as those first-time Pittsburgh visitors? Hmmmm, let’s see – the hills, the view, the funicular I took to get up there.  Yep, it dawned on me that Montmartre was my Mt. Washington of Paris!  So I vowed that, on my next trip, I would break out of my comfort zone and more deeply experience some of Paris’s other arrondissements.

Fast-forward to December 2015 (and resume the violins). I returned to Paris to celebrate the holidays and to my complete surprise, I fell in love with a totally different neighborhood: Sainte Germain des Pres, the sixth arrondissement.

Outside of Sainte-Chapell, within walking distance from St Germain des Pres

Sainte-Germain is located on the Left Bank of the Seine, just southwest of Notre-Dame. It’s close to everything.  In minutes, you can walk to the Ile Saint-Louis, to the Latin Quarter, Luxembourg Gardens or the Pont des Arts, and even the Louvre.

But what was it exactly that I loved about Sainte-Germain beyond its juxtaposition to other cool places?  It felt like people actually live there.  And like Pittsburgh, that’s precisely what set it apart.

While Ernest Hemingway no longer writes the next great American novel in the local cafés, Francois Villon has long since disappeared from its riverbanks, and American Jazz virtuosos no longer frequent its late-night bars, Sainte-Germain is still very much alive with a youthful vitality, narrow, cobblestone-laden streets, plenty of lively music and the mood of a flourishing, intellectual quarter.

It didn’t take long to get into the rhythm of this neighborhood.  Each morning, we’d walk to the local patisserie for café latte and pain au chocolate; and after a few days, we started seeing the residents doing the same. And they started seeing us.  The shop owner and patrons started recognizing and acknowledging us, and even engaging us in their morning chit-chat.

Becoming absorbed in its lifestyle is part of Sainte-Germain’s charm. Even though you’re there as a visitor, you have the opportunity to be become part of the fabric of the neighborhood, even if it’s for just a week or two at a time. And this feeling permeates everywhere. In fact, one of the greatest unifiers – music – surrounds Sainte-Germain, from the classically trained piano player situated smack in the middle of the street to the rag-tag band that played faithfully day and night on the street corner adjacent to our hotel, in exchange for a few euros tossed into their open case.  It didn’t matter what language, location, time of day, instrument or song being played, the music brought us all together to share and embrace the love the life.

This spirit was embodied by a vibrant, enterprising young boy named Antoine, who, complete with silver tails and matching glitter-laden top hat, danced and entertained the gathered crowd while his grandfather sat at the nearby Café Paris reading his newspaper. It was evident that his grandson’s act was “old hat” to him.

At night, we’d stroll to our favorite restaurants and would run into none other than Antoine and his grandfather – taking the night off from entertaining and enjoying an evening out. After dinner and a night cap, we’d return to the hotel, swing open our window and fall asleep to the Dixieland jazz wafting up from the street and our friendly musicians below.

Whether by day or night, one of the best ways to experience Sainte-Germain is to walk it. You can meander up and down the streets and find lots of upscale boutiques, bookshops and art galleries, not to mention the cafés, literally one on every corner. You could easily see why Hemingway was so inspired here.

One of the streets of St Germain des Pres, decorated for the holidays

In fact, three of the most famous cafés in this neighborhood is Les Deux Magots, Café Flore and Brasserie Lipp—places frequented by Hemingway, Jean Paul Satre, Picasso, Dali, and, well, perhaps the entire Midnight in Paris cast for that matter.  It’s almost surreal sitting in these cafés, trying to imagine everything those walls have seen and heard over the years.

Frame-worthy hot chocolate served at Café Flore in St Germain des Pres, one of the many cafes frequented by Ernest Hemingway and a host of other writers and artists.



And speaking of food and restaurants, two of our favorites were Le Comptoir du Relais, Yves Camdeborde’s now-classic neo-bistro, and Le Relais de L’Entrecote. We found the latter while walking around the neighborhood, noticing the consistently long lines and knowing we had to find out why the locals bothered to wait patiently each and every night in the freezing cold.

Steak isn’t the only famous thing served at Relais de L’Entrecote; their desserts are pretty amazing, too!

It’s somewhat of a steak mill – churning people in and out much more quickly than the typical Parisian restaurant – but we still loved it, from the bossy serveuses to the perfectly seasoned frites and addictive sauce. We realized it was like Primanti’s, just served in a slightly different order!

And since I said, “bossy,” let me put that into context with a word about the people of Sainte-Germain.  Oftentimes, Parisians get a bad rap for being less-than-friendly; but it’s not true, or fair, at least in our experience.

We found that, once immersed into their lifestyle, the residents of Sainte-Germain were very eager to not only welcome us into their neighborhood, but also accept us as part of their own, daily routine. Their warmth and friendliness made us feel right at home. In fact, take away the language barrier, and it was almost like we were sitting outside at a Shadyside restaurant.

So the next time you plan a trip to Paris, consider staying in Sainte-Germain. To paraphrase English author Samuel Johnson’s sentiment, “If you are bored with Sainte- Germain Des Pres, then you are bored with life.”

Trust me, you won’t be bored.

And if this will be your first-time visit to Paris, then by all means go to Montmartre. But just remember to step back from the usual touristy hills and mountains and go deeper into the valleys. Because that’s there where you’ll most likely find yourself saying, “Oui, I’ll be your neighbor.”

Monsieur Rogers would be glad you did. And so will you.