During the holidays, we usually drive to another part of the country and rent a holiday house or what’s called a gîte. If the holidays last more than a week, we prefer to stay in the mountains, either in the east in Vosges or the southeast in the Alpes. If the holiday is shorter, we will drive to the north and stay near the sea in Normandy. Due to various reasons including unstable weather and the house renovation only just very recently terminated, we have decided to spend the five-day break at home, Gîte Gometz-le-Châtel.
I am not used to spending my holidays in my own abode. Being on holidays has always meant going somewhere new, or somewhere far away from my daily life like exploring another city more than 200km away from home, going camping in the mountains, and visiting my families overseas.
This time round, however, I am doing the things that I usually do at home, as if I were not on holiday. For the first three days, I prepared for my upcoming lessons, did the weekly grocery shopping, weeded a bit in the garden, caught up on my reading (more about this later), fit in a couple of runs, and surfed through the five online platforms for the latest movies and series. The only things that were notably different were not having to wake up early to drive to school, not having to rush through breakfasts and lunches so as not to be late for classes, and having the opportunity to spend more time in the garden, though the weather has not been very conducive to long hours in the garden. To get out of the daily rut and to feel that I am actually on holiday for at least a day, I made Silviu go with me to Paris on the fourth day, on a chilly Monday morning.
Breakfast in America
I travel to Paris about twice a week to teach. When I teach in Paris, I just go there for the classes and rush home, seldom taking the time to hang around. Hence, on the fourth day, I decided to go to Paris and try the breakfast at Breakfast in America, a restaurant that Silviu had mentioned a few times. It’s a place that serves breakfast (and burgers) the whole day. The last time Silviu visited that place was more than ten years ago, when he did his Phd in Paris.
I was expecting the traditional American breakfast fare—pancakes, sausages, eggs done in various ways, bacon, toasts, bagels with cream cheese etc, and I wasn’t disappointed. However, I had no idea why I thought that BIA was one of those swank restaurants that served simple breakfast fare, but dished them out stylishly in expensive looking cutlery and flatware. I was waiting to be wowed, and pampered; and I wanted to be wowed and pampered because it was my holiday. The bill, of course, would commensurate with the dazzle and the cosseting.
I ordered the menu of 2x2x2—2 eggs, 2 strips of bacon, and 2 pancakes. The service was fast (there was only one other client when we arrived) and our food came in less than 15 minutes. Indeed, it was two of each—slightly tired looking pancakes prosaically occupying two-thirds of the ceramic plate, the other third was laid the yellow scramble eggs, and and the 2 strips of rubbery bacon were on top of the eggs. My holiday bubble was burst. It was just simple cooking that Silviu or I could easily make at home and might even make them better; the only difference was that we did not have to do the cooking ourselves. I guess a big part of the disappointment was my fault: my baseless expectation of some fancy dining just because I was on holiday.
After the meal, we decided to keep to our tradition of book shopping whenever we had a day out in Paris. FNAC is our usual hangout place because of its wide range of books. This time round, however, we decided to stay in the Latin Quarter, which is famous for its cafés, bookshops and of course, La Sorbonne or Université de Paris, the renowned oldest university in France.
The day started out chilly at close to 0°C when we woke up, but it got warmer, when we stepped out of Breakfast in America. It felt almost like close to ten degrees whenever we happened to walk in the sun. With a friendlier temperature, we decided to visit Shakespeare and Company, a bookshop which was less than 10 minutes leisure walk away from BIA, next to the left bank of the Sein river. If I am not wrong, SAC offers the widest selection of English books in Paris, both new and secondhand books. It was one of my favourite hangout places more than twenty years when I lived in Paris as a student. SAC was the place I would go to buy secondhand English books whenever I needed my dose of affordable English literature.
SAC has always been small, piled with books on the dark wooden shelves that lined wall-to-wall. Twenty years ago, I would describe the place as quaint and cosy. It tended to be a little dark in the shop, with narrow walking spaces that hardly fit two people walking abreast. The bookshop was never crowded and one could browse at one’s content. Due to its successful marketing over the last two decades, the bookshop seems to have become one of the ‘must see’ landmark in Paris.
The last time Silviu and I visited SAC was perhaps three or four years ago, soon after I moved to France. It wasn’t a pleasant experience as the bookshop was so crowded that I could hardly walk around and browse—it was almost claustrophobic. After that time, I have never had the urge to visit the bookshop again.
However, since we were in the vicinity of the bookshop, we decided to pop by. Who knows? There might be a smaller crowd this time. Alas, we were just not fated to visit SAC. There was a queue of at least 20 people at the entrance of the bookshop. The sanitary measures coupled with the limited space of SAC made the traffic at the bookshop worse than before.
Book shopping continued. In a couple of minutes, we were at another popular Parisian landmark, the fountain at Place de Saint-Michel. Seeing the fountain filled me with nostalgia again—the fountain used to be one of the favourite meeting points for my friends and I. We continued walking towards the garden of Luxembourg where Gibert Joseph, one of France’s celebrated bookshop is situated.
Gibert Joseph is part of a popular bookshop chain, with the first shop established in 1886. I could not remember the last time I was at this multilevel (think there are 6 floors) bookshop. When I went to the first level, I experienced a few seconds of vertigo— I was overwhelmed by the immerse amount of books. The books were very well categorised, the bookshop well-lit, and the walkways were spacious. Yet, I had no idea where to start!
The lower priced secondhand books will encourage me (or anyone) to explore reading new authors or new subjects. If the new author or subject is not to our liking, we will not feel too guilty for buying the book and not being able to finish reading it!
The best part of Gibert Joseph is that it sells both new and second books. Some of the secondhand books look brand new! Secondly, unlike most of the bookshops in France (except those that specialise in English bookshops e.g. SAC), there is a relatively wide selection of English books here and their prices seem to be lower than those of other bookshops.
From what I have seen so far, the prices of English books in France, compared to the French books, are exorbitant! For book lovers like Silviu and I, who go on a shopping spree every two months or so, our household budget for books is not trivial. Hence, buying the cheaper second books, especially the English ones, will help to reduce our expense a little. Besides, I think the lower priced secondhand books will encourage me (or anyone) to explore reading new authors or new subjects. If the new author or subject is not to our liking, we will not feel too guilty for buying the book and not being able to finish reading it!
Our last shopping spree was during the Christmas break when Silviu and I bought more than ten books. The first round was from a local bookshop in Normandy where we spent a few days in a gîte. We told ourselves that we were supporting the local small businesses by buying the books:-) The second round was at FNAC in Paris, right after we came back from Normandy.
It was a pleasure shopping at Gibert Joseph. Perhaps it was the school break, there were not too many people in the big bookshop and I could browse the books at my own sweet time. It had been a while since I was in the physical presence of so many English books. I don’t often buy English books as I can borrow them digitally from the Singapore National Library Board (one of the perks of being a Singaporean!). If I do want to buy a physical copy, I will likely get them from Amazon since it’s hard to find them in the French bookshops. As such, being at Gibert Joseph for me was like if I were in a candy store!
After the few seconds of vertigo, I managed to find my way around the book depot. In the end, Silviu and I spent about an hour at Gibert Joseph. We left the place as satisfied customers, eight books heavier and €63 euros lighter.
It was a bargain for me. I bought 5 books but these books cost me less than half of the total expenditure. Out of these 5 books, 3 books were secondhand (the yellow label written “occasion”) and 2 of these 3 books were written by authors that I have never read before. It will take me a while to finish this new pile of books (if I do indeed finish every single one of them eventually), particularly as I have bought the 900-page, small font size Vingt Ans Après, the second volume of The Three Musketeers. The first one took me quite a while to finish.