“Not a Station, but a Place”–Gare de Lyon and Le Train Bleu, Paris

Soon after we moved to Paris I sought out this “Place” M.F.K. Fisher wrote eloquently about as being more than just a train depot for entering or exiting the city. She was referring to the Gare de Lyon in the 12th Arrondissement. I wanted to know why it was so special.

Fisher’s experience on French trains began in 1929 when she moved from California to Dijon. She described herself in the early years as “…always one more ant scuttling for a certain track.” Then, in 1937, while waiting for guests to arrive, she sat under the enormous glass roof in a trackside café with marble tables and green trees planted in boxes. With a brandy and water in hand, absorbing her surroundings, she was suddenly overcome by a feeling that she “was not in a station, but in a Place”. From then on, she made it a habit to arrive early–with time to wait.

In the 1960s and early ‘70s, after children and husbands and lovers were long gone, she was often sent to Provence on writing assignments. Her publishers encouraged her to fly south from Paris. Memories honed decades earlier meant she preferred the “Mistral” train from Gare de Lyon to Marseille or Aix-en-Provence.

She developed the habit of arriving at least two hours before departure. This allowed time to ascend the wide stone staircase to the second floor restaurant–Le Train Bleu. When you spin through the revolving wood and glass door, then and now, it is like walking into a time capsule from La Belle Époque. Instinctively, you stand a little taller and walk a little more gracefully to your table.

In 1900, Paris was hosting a second world’s fair. As part of the preparation, a new train station, Gare de Lyon, was designed to highlight the railway lines of the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] Company from Paris to destinations in Provence and the Côte d’Azur on the Mediterranean. The company also wanted a prestigious and elegant restaurant to symbolize travel, luxury and comfort.

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gare de lyon today

In 1901, Buffet de la Gare de Lyon first opened its’ doors amid sumptuous art nouveau décor. Ornate carvings, moldings, gilding, and imposing chandeliers highlighted frescoes and murals of cities and scenery viewed from PLM trains as they headed south and east. The restaurant offered tranquility, character, and a place for travelers to spend a refined break. In Fisher’s words, it was “all that was opulently cheerful, generously vulgar and delightful about la Belle Époque.”

In 1963, the restaurant was renamed Le Train Bleu in reference to the French Riviera destinations.

Fisher’s early arrival gave her the luxury of time for a leisurely breakfast or lunch. In the 1960s, she believed that the fresh bread served in Le Train Bleu was the best she had tasted since before WWII. For petit déjeuner she always had “bread and butter, Parma ham, and a half-bottle of brut champagne…”, which she thought a bit expensive, but enjoyed all the same.

If lunchtime, she started off with a Kir and wine cocktail, followed by some kind of soufflé and fresh berries for dessert. Oh–and a half bottle of white wine–Grand-Cru Chablis. She liked her grown up drinks, having adapted easily to the French way.

Interestingly, Fisher played a role in the longevity and preservation of Le Train Bleu. By the early 1970s, the paintings were filthy with soot and pollution, gold leaf was flaking from the ceiling, the lace curtains hung in tatters and, underfoot, the flooring creaked and sagged. She was told by a group of worried waiters that the restaurant’s survival seemed doomed. She relayed all this to an American friend, Janet Flanner, who was also her neighbor. Flanner, a longtime journalist and Paris correspondent for the New Yorker magazine, went directly to the French Minister of Culture at the time. Le Train Bleu was designated an historic monument in 1972.

Since that time there have been many renovations, the most recent in 2014. Parquet floors were insulated and shored up, paintings re-cleaned, carved moldings refinished or repainted, brass coat and luggage racks polished, and leather banquettes refurbished. The name over the door was updated from neon lights to a chic metal plate.

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neon sign pre 2014 renovation

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and after renovation

The antique Big Ben Bar from 1901 is used today as a decoration piece and stands imposingly by the swinging glass doors to the kitchen. The original cash register is there too.

There is not one corner or wall, ceiling or chandelier, archway or window in this special Place that doesn’t grab your attention or overwhelm your senses. Every time.

These days, the menu is priced for upper-crust travellers, tourists, or well-heeled Parisians. But because it is such a Place, truly unlike any other, it’s always worth it.

Recently, I went for lunch by myself. Timed perfectly, I arrived near the end of the service, around 2:00 PM. On this cool, autumn day I decided to try the made-in-house foie gras served with rhubarb chutney and grainy toast, green salad and a glass of Montrachet white wine–from Burgundy.

When I dine alone, the pleasure is subtle and personal. Not everyone feels this way. But, over time, I have fine-tuned the ability to “disappear” in public and enjoy everything around me as if I were invisibly dropped into the scene. It is an example of cultural learning from which I have benefited greatly.

Fisher sometimes spoke of moving like “a ghost” in her travels, seemingly invisible to others, often because she was wrapped up in one of personal trials. I understand what she meant, but in a different way. For me, invisibility is a feeling of being completely content with my own company. And, at the same time, not taking anything, within the experience I am having, for granted. I observe and wonder, discreetly, without being the center of anyone else’s observations.

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view toward kitchen and big ben bar

On this particular day, directly in front of me was an opulent antique buffet with perfectly arranged wine glasses and the PLM [Paris-Lyon-Marseille] logo carved on the top piece. Above that, reaching up to the very high ceiling, was a colorful painting of Marseille.

As the tables to the left and right gradually emptied, I gazed openly through the window to my left onto the tracks and boarding passengers one floor below. I wondered where they were going, how long they would stay. Was it travel for business, pleasure, something mysterious or even sad?

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view toward the station tracks

To the right, down a long banquette of tables reset for another meal, sat two diners leaning in towards one another. They were silhouetted against the window overlooking the square at the entrance. Why were they lingering? What was their conversation? When you are invisible, all possibilities are imagined.

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Meal over, espresso finished, with no train to catch, I made my way home. Musing on the métro, my thoughts drifted to a weekend getaway my husband and I took from Paris to Avignon several months before–a trip that began in a place, not a station…

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Judith S. Clancy drawing, exterior façades, 1979

My Market Street

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When our son made his first trip to Paris in 2008, he wryly observed that the city seems to be founded on the notion to stop, have a drink, and talk with someone every 50-100 feet. It’s true that café culture is built into centuries of French history. Within almost any radius of where you stop walking, a “sit down” opportunity presents itself. Locals find a favorite café in their neighborhood or “quartier”. Here, you take a load off your feet, eat, drink, talk, muse, or hang out. It’s also the best entertainment around.

I told one of my French neighbors about my ritual at a particular café on our market street. She nodded and said it’s simply the establishment of my “poste d’observation”. Now that’s what I tell my husband when he calls wondering where I am. I’m involved in an activity of great importance–assessing the cast of characters on any given day. When he can, he hurries home to join me.

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entrance to market street, cast of characters assembled

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the ritual begins here

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Of course, there are market streets all over Paris—open markets, covered markets, farmers’ markets, daily markets, bi-weekly markets, organic markets. But the most important one is the one closest to where you live.

I venture to market street in late afternoon to see what looks delicious to buy for our evening meal. If, by chance, there is an empty sidewalk café table, I take it as a sign that I must sit down for a moment or two. In good weather, I count 11 businesses with sidewalk tables on this narrow street. For my musing and entertainment, I have pledged allegiance to only one. It’s on the corner, where all the action begins.

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There is a children’s book by Arnold Lobel called On Market Street. It tells the story of a little boy enticed by shopping on a particular street. He buys everything from A to Z, then trudges home carrying it all. This is my experience, too, because on this small pedestrian street is just about everything I want or need.

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chickens roast, flowers bloom

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Butchers, boulangeries, fish market, patisseries, florists, cheese purveyors, dry cleaners, books, jewelry, fruit and vegetable vendors, grocery stores, crepes, sushi, caviar, oysters, Italian-made pizza, middle eastern food, tiny cafés and restaurants, coffee, tea and chocolate shop, wine, champagne and liquor, Italian and Greek delicatessens, candles, household decorations, and a pharmacy.

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pastry art

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Before opening my wallet for the day’s necessities, I settle contentedly into an empty chair. Greetings are exchanged with the server. I order a glass of wine. This varies by the season or time of day. On a warm day, Côtes de Provence rosé is standard. In cooler temperatures, a red Bordeaux is cozier under the overhead heaters. Every beverage comes with a savory nibble on the side. Something salty and always slightly stale. Homemade potato chips are the standard limp offerings. Sometimes a tiny glass of pretzels fills in. It’s what I expect and is always perfect.

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standing order: rosé de provence

The tables on either side of mine are occupied. On the left—a couple moves seamlessly from kissing, to smoking, to drinking beer. On the right—two women of a certain age share a crepe sucré. One has coffee, the other sips beer. I give them only a cursory glance because my gaze is focused on the cobbled path in front of me. This is where the rest of the world strolls by.

The best times at my café are weekdays in the late afternoon or early evening. Sunday morning is also a perfect time to make important observations. The parade is constant. It requires my full attention. It never disappoints.

Sometimes I’m absorbed by the range of footwear–spiky heels, stylish boots, flip-flops, sandals, platform shoes, sneakers, orthopaedic shoes, even chic Italian shoes on a man with crutches.

 

 

Shoppers use rolling carts called “chariots” to hold heavy purchases. They carry armfuls of baguettes.

Or they may be laden with flowers, wine, fruits and vegetables, roasted chickens, oysters or prepared food from the “traiteurs”. On Sundays, a cacophony of sound permeates the air. Parisians are picking up ingredients for afternoon lunch “en famille”. Vendors hawk produce, servers rattle glasses and silverware, babies cry, friends greet each other with kisses, dogs bark and fight, children laugh and run around, music plays. And always, people talk, talk, talk over everything.

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The sweetest sights drifting by are small children and dogs, completely at home in the hubbub.

 

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Sometimes I notice someone watching me watching them. The ritual is recognized. Smiles are exchanged. The parade glides by.

As the wine and stale chips dwindle, I move on to the shops and my own errands.

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time to go

Trudging homeward with arms laden, I pass my “poste”. Someone else is sitting in the chair I occupied–watching me as I walk by…

 

 

 On Market Street by Arnold Lobel, illustrations by Anita Lobel

“The merchants down on Market Street were opening their doors. I stepped along that Market Street, I stopped at all the stores. Such wonders there on Market Street! So much to catch my eye! I strolled the length of Market Street to see what I might buy…

My arms were full on Market Street, I could not carry more. As darkness fell on Market Street, my feet were tired and sore. But I was glad on Market Street, these coins I brought to spend, I spent them all on Market Street…

On presents for a friend.”

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illustration by Anita Lobel from “On Market Street”