What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.
Donna Morris, 49, is a professional tour planner in Paris (www.bestfriendinparis.com), where she has lived for 3 1/2 years. Morris is originally from Granite Falls, N.C.
Q. Where do you live in Paris — and why?
A. I live in the 17th Arrondissement (district), up near the Arc de Triomphe. It's a residential neighborhood with a lot of families.
I live in the top floor of an old, renovated building in what used to be maids' quarters. It is a one-bedroom — it probably was four bedrooms but has been opened up to one apartment that's maybe 600 square feet. My elevator is the size of a small closet. But the place has cute balconies and I even have a view of the Eiffel Tower — it's far away, but it twinkles at night.
I wanted to be in a more French neighborhood. There are lots of expat Americans in Paris, and they go to the Fifth and Sixth and Seventh arrondissements — the center of Paris.
I had come to Paris on a visit in May of 2006 and was wandering around. I had a map and wanted to walk through every arrondissement looking for resale shops. I kept getting lost and ending up here in the 17th. One day, in a little coffee shop, I thought, maybe I'm supposed to live here.
Q. Your American customers — what are they looking for in Paris?
A. It depends. If they've never been here before, they want to see the Eiffel Tower, ride a boat on the Seine, go to Notre Dame... see the major stuff. I enjoy working with people who don't speak French because I can help them feel not so intimidated — giving them tips on how to navigate a restaurant menu and avoid the tourist traps. I want everyone to love Paris the way I do. I have a lot of customers who are interested in wine — one of my particular passions. I've created a wine-tasting tour here in my neighborhood and in others where I know the shop owners. It gives people the chance to ask questions and really drink like a local and try wines they might not find in the States. The shop owners are quite familiar with the wines they carry and can talk about the different regions and have lots of great stories to share.
I also update my website frequently with addresses of where I've been and what I drank. I've made lots of wine friends since arriving here!
Q. Your favorite wine bar?
A. This week, it's a place in the Fifth Arrondissement called Les Pages du Vin — a cute, little shop. The guy who owns it is from Guadeloupe, a French overseas territory. It's filled with small-boutique French wines and regional products. Very relaxed and friendly. A great place to hang out, drink wine and learn.
Q. Where did you have your biggest "wow" moment in Paris?
A. Hard to say; they happen almost every time I walk out the door. I discover unusual things, like the police museum where I don't think many people go. They have an original map of Paris from the 1200s, a guillotine from the French Revolution and documents describing various punishments. Some pretty brutal stuff went down on the plaza of the Hotel de Ville way back when.
Q. Folks tend to head for the big attractions in central Paris. Is there anything people are missing in the burbs?
A. Absolutely. There are beautiful and historic destinations within an hour of Paris. It's easy to use the local RER — regional trains — to get to places like St. Germain-en-Laye, where the first royal chateau was built in 1122. Several French kings were born there, too. One of my personal favorites is Mont Valerian. I ride my bike there, but it's also accessible by RER. There's an American military cemetery there and a French WWII memorial to the resistance fighters.
And even though it's not a "burb," a lot of people don't realize they can be in the Champagne region for as little as 12 euros (about $14.35) in 45 minutes via the TGV — the high-speed train.
I often use the local Velib system of free bikes to get to the "outskirts" of Paris. Last week I was riding to Roland Garros, where they play the French Open. Roland Garros is in the 16th Arrondissement.
Q. Are Paris summers as beastly hot as some say?
A. Not so far for me, although it's doesn't have to get that warm to still feel like it is. The French don't use much air conditioning — and it's especially obvious when you're on a crowded bus or metro car. In the summer I usually stay in Paris, when all the locals leave for the south of France. Paris is calm and quiet during August. The city builds a beach down on the Seine for all the folks who choose to stay or can't afford a vacation. They pump in sand and build a boardwalk with cafes and stages for concerts. I adore it!
Q. And are there still nightclubs where chanteuses sing like Edith Piaf?
A. Yes. They're in little cabarets like the Lapin Agile in the 18th or sometimes on a barge. I have friends who live on a barge near the Bastille, and we were together one night on a cruise up the Canal St. Martin being serenaded by a woman singing old-style French songs. I swear she was straight out of an old movie.