Paris: Winter In the City of Light

From the best new restaurants to “old friends” like the Louvre and La Tour Eiffel, Paris always enchants. David Sauveur / Agence VU-Aurora

I was standing in the lobby of the Hôtel Plaza Athénée. It was winter, a gray morning. I was in Paris as part of a series of celebrations my wife had arranged for my 40th birthday. I did not feel like celebrating, though. I had been having health problems, including learning a week before I arrived that I was probably going to develop diabetes.

Paris is like pornography. You respond even if you don’t want to. You turn a corner and see a vista, and your imagination bolts away. Suddenly you are thinking about what it would be like to live in Paris, and then you think about all the lives you have not lived. Sometimes, though, when you are lucky, you only think about how many pleasures the day ahead holds. Then, you feel privileged.

The lobby of the Plaza Athénée is a red-and-gold fantasia. It gives off a whiff of Moulin Rouge decadence. Probably as much as any hotel in Paris, the Plaza Athénée is sexy. I was standing facing the revolving doors and the driveway beyond. A Ducati with a woman on its back—a woman in a short skirt and black-leather jacket—pulled up before the hotel door. She swung off and she was wearing high heels. Normally, my mind would have leaped and imagined a story for this woman. Now it didn’t. I stood there and told myself: Cheer up. You’re in Paris.

In many ways, Paris is best visited in winter. The tourist crowds are at a minimum, and one is not being jammed off the narrow sidewalks along the Rue Dauphine. More than this, Paris is like many other European cities in that the season of blockbuster cultural events tends to begin in mid- to late fall and so, by the time winter, bracing and demanding, appears, most of the cultural treasures of the city are laid out to be admired. For example, the Louvre has a show on China’s Forbidden City that started at the end of September and will run till early January; the Musée du Luxembourg has a gorgeous exhibition called Cézanne and Paris, which started in October and will go through February; and the Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, maintaining its recent record of truly surprising reconsiderations of art that we thought we already knew, is showing Matisse, Cézanne, and Picasso through the collecting habits of one American family, the Steins.

The other great reason why Paris in winter is so much better than Paris in spring and fall is that after the end of the August holidays and the return of chic Parisiennes to their city, the restaurant-opening season truly begins hopping. By winter, many of the new restaurants have worked out their kinks and, once the hype has died down, it is possible to see which restaurants are actually good and which are merely noisy and crowded.

This season brings Chatomat, a lovely rendition of what has become a familiar entity, the nouveau bistro. Like many of these new restaurants that have hype, part of the charm of Chatomat is the slightly raffish neighborhood in which it is located—in this case, Belleville. Also receiving a great deal of interest is the Chinese restaurant Shang Palace in the Shangri-La Paris hotel. The decision to spend one of a limited number of Paris meals eating Chinese food is, of course, an individual decision. The Shangri-La, which had a gradual opening all year long and became fully operational this summer, is built in the old Bonaparte family mansion and is definitely worth visiting. If one wants to eat there, I prefer the more casual La Bauhinia.

I am not a clubgoer. The club Silencio, though, which opened this fall—designed by director David Lynch and named after a boîte in his movie Mulholland Drive—feels not so much like a typical club as a salon or speak-easy. There are movie screenings, concerts, and performances by cutting-edge D.J.s. All these make Paris this winter especially thrilling to visit.

My wife and I checked into our hotel room. A thin, late-morning light was pressing through the window. The cold that I could sense outside made me want to lie in bed and pull the blankets tight around me. My doctor had told me, though, that I needed to exercise every day. I knew also that if I slept and woke, I would feel lost in the short winter day. I unpacked my running shoes and sweatshirt and left the hotel.

Most people are about as happy as they set their mind to being, Lincoln said. In Paris it doesn’t take much to be happy. Outside the hotel, the sky was pale and felt very high up. I walked the few blocks to the Seine and began running along the blue-green river toward the Eiffel Tower. There is a lovely raised terrace with a dirt-and-gravel path that takes one along Trocadero Park toward the tower. The tower in the distance was black, and felt strange and beautiful the way that many things built for the joy of building do. As I ran toward it, because of its lattice structure, the tower seemed obviously delicate. Seeing it, I felt a sense of protectiveness.

I think it was this moment of protectiveness that marked the change in my mood and my slowly becoming thrilled with being in Paris.

I ran and ran through parks, the gravel crunching beneath me. I ran past the painfully clipped plane trees that look like a waiter’s wrist and hand holding up a tray. I ran on cement sidewalks, passing Parisienne women strolling with their teenage daughters. The daughters, in that wonderful French way, were dressed much like their mothers because, in France, there is not the same fetish for youth as there is in many countries. Instead, the emphasis is on chicness and on personality. I ran past the glorious golden-domed Invalides, a 17th-century hospital for veterans, and felt selfishly glad that the French had surrendered to the Nazis so that Paris was not shelled.

I kept running and the body that I had begun to feel distrust for, the body that, with the warning of diabetes, seemed to be letting me down, kept responding to my desire to carry me through beautiful Paris.

During winter evenings, Paris’s streetlamps have a halo and resemble dandelions. In winter, when one leaves the Paris street and enters a café or restaurant, the light and temperature change suddenly and dramatically, and there is the sense of having discovered something secret. In winter, because the days are short, there is an urgency to the choices one makes. Will it be the Louvre today or the Jacquemart-André? One feels always asked to commit. There is the sense that life is short and so let us decide on what matters.

Because it was a milestone birthday, my wife and I were splashing out for our hotel rooms. We were in Paris for a week, and we stayed half the week at the Plaza Athénée and the other half at Le Meurice. My wife picked the latter. She had asked me to pick both hotels, but it felt selfish to spend so much money based just on my own preferences. Unlike the sexy Plaza Athénée, Le Meurice feels discreet, quiet, elegant.

My wife is very different from me. Through the week, she and I alternated which restaurants we would eat at and which museums we would visit. I always picked the newer restaurants or galleries. My wife picked what we refer to as old friends: bistros on the Left Bank and sculptures such as the Winged Victory in the Louvre. I had always known, of course, that I prefer to experience the new and the latest. The back and forth between my wife’s sensibility and my own, combined with the soul-searching I had been going through, made me realize how much of my reaching for new things was a form of grasping, a resistance to being left behind.

Our last meal in Paris was, we thought, going to be an example of French cuisine being redefined. We had reservations to eat at Alain Ducasse’s eponymous Michelin three-star temple. What makes the restaurant cutting-edge is how he adds to what counts as belonging in the category of French cooking: lemongrass and Indian masalas next to mushrooms that are unique to a particular area of France.

The restaurant, quiet, spacious, all cool colors, seemed the height of elegance. What we found when we sat down and looked at our menus, though, was that the chef had recently decided to move the cuisine away from refinement toward simplicity. Choices included steamed shrimp served cold and sweet, hot partridge pie. Each dish that we ordered seemed both only itself and also all the memories that the man who had devised them must have experienced. The dish of shrimp had all the pleasures of walking along a beach. The partridge pie was like being in a forest.

After lunch, my wife and I wandered to our hotel to collect our luggage. We walked along the Seine holding hands. The water hurried along past Gothic churches, under stone and wooden bridges. It went through rich neighborhoods and poor. It had been racing like this for thousands of years and would be doing so for thousands more.

Akhil Sharma is the author of An Obedient Father. His new novel, Stars From Another Sky, will be published next year.