On the Culture Front: Five Days in Paris

08/17/2017 12:46 pm ET Updated Aug 21, 2017

When I went to Paris with my then-girlfriend two years ago, we had been together for six months but were already deeply familiar to each other. It was the kind of love that began to erupt on our first date, when we discovered our mutual love for theater and hiking over cocktails at the Flatiron Lounge. She had also grown up in Manhattan and had an intense love for sarcastic New Yorkers like Woody Allen and Larry David, fitting for a woman who smiles widely and with her soul.

It seemed natural to ask her to meet me in Paris for five days as the city’s romantic reputation is well known. What surprised us both is how much the city of lights feels like New York. Walking through the Marais where our hotel (the oddball boutique 1K) was located, reminded us both of a more scenic Upper West Side, a lived-in quiet residential neighborhood. The Seine flowed nearby and many of the city’s best museums were within walking distance. We covered a dizzying array of them.

My favorite was Musée d’Orsay. Housed in a former beaux-arts train station, it exudes the kind of quirky charm that is often missing in rarefied institutions. We saw an exhibit, “Splendor and Misery,” that depicted prostitution through paintings by Vincent Van Gogh, Edouard Manet, Edgar Degas and many of the other heavy hitters. But the main attraction was hidden behind a red velvet curtain: hardcore porn films made over a century ago. In addition to being titillated, I found myself moved in a different way. As much as our society has changed and our lives are radically different from our ancestors, our most intense connections and amusements remain the same.

A few days later, we attended a show at Crazy Horse, the famed nude cabaret. This description of the club feels like much less of a euphemism than the strip clubs dubbed gentlemen’s cabarets here in New York. The routines are choreographed with the precision of a Broadway virtuoso and the lighting is equally sophisticated, drawing our eyes to certain body parts and then away from them. The show opened with the aptly titled dance “God Save Our Bareskin,” which has opened the show since 1989. It features the women clad in army uniforms one of their many costumes throughout the evening.

We also made a stop at the now-shuttered Museum of Eroticism, which felt like a low-rent version of the Museum of Sex. Part art and part straight up porn, its seven floors featured works collected throughout Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Nearby in the heavily trafficked Montmarte, we did an excellent free walking tour with Paris Greeters. Our guide, Jill, took us through the rich history of the area, but R’s favorite part was hearing anecdotes about the filming of Woody Allen’s musical “Everyone Says I Love You.”

Growing up in New York, we’ve been spoiled with good food, but there were a few utterly transcendent dining experiences that wowed my senses. The first was dinner at Le Relais Plaza, Alain Ducasse’s slightly more casual restaurant. Part cozy bistro and part piano bar, this historic art deco establishment dating back to 1936 feels like an elegant hideaway to eat foie gras and drink champagne. Tucked inside the palatial Hotel Plaza Athenee, it’s the kind of place where time melts away over plates of black truffle risotto, steak tartare and other dishes of royal comfort food.

A sign of an epically good lunch is one that vanquishes an entire afternoon. That’s precisely what happened at Le Cinq at the Four Seasons, which occupies a room so grand it feels like a room at Versailles brought to life. Our nine-course meal featured an array of finely prepared seafood, the brainchild of three-star Michelin chef Christian le Squer. It began with a seamless blend of smoked eel and beetroot and peaked with a roasted blue lobster in hazelnut oil that was as ethereal as any I’ve had, but the moment I’ll remember is seeing R’s mouth drop as our waiter wheeled in a giant cheese cart. With two levels of richly aged cheese to choose from, she was overwhelmed by the bounty.

Our final dinner at L’Oiseau Blanc atop the Pennisula hotel was iconically Parisian or at least in eyes of an American. The Eiffel Tower glowed prominently in the distance as I devoured a plate of foie gras served with an addictive marmalade that perfectly balanced the funkiness of the liver.

Perhaps one of the coolest discoveries was Theatre in Paris, an organization that arranges subtitled performances of some of the most popular current shows. After our epic lunch at Le Cinq and a restorative boat cruise on the Seine, we saw a production of a new acerbic and farcical comedy, “The Lie,” by Florian Zeller. It questioned the level of truth that’s ideal for relationships and touched upon difficulty of practicing monogamy with 100% accuracy. When you arrange your tickets through Theatre in Paris, they have an English-speaking guide escort you to your seats and hand you an English program with information about the show and the beautifully preserved Theatre Edouard VII, which is rumored to be haunted by many ghosts including that of Orson Wells.

Another cultural highlight was the Paris Opera Ballet. I first glimpsed this storied institution by watching Frederick Wiseman’s expansive vérité documentary La Danse. In person it’s even more vivid, akin to walking into a living artifact. Founded in 1669, it’s the oldest national ballet company and wears this rich tradition proudly. There was a new piece by star choreographer Benjamin Millepied, “Clear, Loud, Bright, Forward,” on a program with repertoire works by Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine. It featured dancers darting across the stage with elegant fury under the shadowy illumination of wobbly orbs. Set to Nico Muhly’s frenzied march of a score, it captured the insistent and unrelenting pace of time. The closest thing we have to a rewind button is our memories, and while R and I ended our relationship this April, we will always have Paris.

Visit www.parisinfo.com to plan your own trip.

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