It is autumn. With the leaves, go bits of ourselves. It is a time to remember, to forgive, to cherish, to hold ourselves and each other fast. I like the traditions of Judaism that ask us to review our lives at this time of year when we can begin again in a new year. We remember and gather strength, and with hope we prepare for the winter and for the life that is waiting for us. A perfect time for a cup of tea and the contemplation it allows.
It is also the time of year when people take special vacations, not those seeking sun and the simple life of sand and sea, but seeking instead memories of tiny village streets, ancient chapels, and the complexity of love. It is the perfect time to go to Paris.
The first time in my young life that I saw Paris, the city of my childhood dreams, it was September. And although I go to Paris regularly now, and love Paris as the old song goes “every season of the year,” there is something about the sky and the falling chestnuts in Paris in the autumn that still takes my breath away.
And when you go because your heart leads you there, you must take tea, for in Paris, the city of cafes and ubiquitous tiny cups of coffee that waiters carry like precious elixirs, there is wonderful tea to be had. Rumpelmayer’s Angelina on the Rue de Rivoli is known for its rich, thick hot chocolate and towering pastries, but also serves wonderful tea with those magnificent Mont Blanc and Paris-Brest delights. The Ladurée establishments, world renowned for their macaroons, also shine “à l'heure du thé.” Some wonderful unique tea rooms include the bohemian Charlotte de l’Isle on the Île Saint-Louis, the classy Les Deux Abeilles in the 7th, the earthy but trendy Rose’s Bakery in the 9th and a few new locations, and the charming Tea Caddy on Rue Saint Julien le Pauvre on the left. The teas of the grand hotels such as the Plaza Athénée’s tea in the Galerie des Gobelins, the tea in the exquisite lobby lounge of the Bristol, the Maurice, and many others are done with typical French style and grace, and are in a word “magnifique.”
It may not be coffee, but the French have a long and respectful relationship with tea and have some of the most venerable houses of tea in the world that provide tea and tea accoutrements of the highest quality. There are Damman, Hediard, Fauchon, and the unequalled house of Les Mariages Frères. When you are in Paris, you must visit the Mariages boutiques preferably the one on the left bank on Rue des Grand Augustins and the one in Le Marais on Rue de Bourg-Tibourg where you can both have tea and buy tea. Buying tea Chez Mariages is a unique experience and not unlike visiting the most refined wineries of Bordeaux and Burgundy. There are these serious young gentlemen in beige lab coats who never tire of taking down huge containers of tea for you to see and smell as they tell you how this particular tea came to be. These teas number over one thousand and you will not find synthetic or candied additives that so many of our US brands have. We are talking real vanilla from a certain plantation in Madagascar, the golden leaves of a specific flower found only in the Himalayas and so on. It is a place of dreams for people who love tea.
I have had some of my most enlightened moments after sipping tea at Les Mariages on Rue des Grands Augustins. Because I have just returned from Paris where the magic of autumn has begun, I am filled with memories of a special day in late October many years ago.
I have just left my friend Elisabet after a long and luscious afternoon tea. Today we have drunk well, and a lot, both preferring the dark richness of Wedding Imperial, a proprietary blend of smooth Indian leaves with a seductive hint of chocolate. Our talk of love and work in a woman’s life provided a bittersweet accompaniment.
But now it is early Saturday evening, and the unseasonably warm fall weather has filled the streets and cafes with crowds of tourists and Parisians. The sun is setting somewhere off in the west, and it has left in its wake an ethereal glow that brings a blueness to the darkening sky. Lights are coming on in apartments, and the strength of this afterglow reveals the smallest details that would seem impossible to see, red flocked wallpaper, a woman’s portrait, a twinkling chandelier. I delight in this newly possible voyeurism, and I imagine what is transpiring in these rooms that seem not to have changed in two hundred years.
As I walk along the Seine, across the bridge to the Île de la Cite and toward Notre Dame, I see the Paris that has inspired love and passion and loyalty. The wide expanse of sky and space, the achingly beautiful ancient buildings that scream out their history and their right to continue, and likewise, the awesome façade of Notre Dame that seems to announce that it has been there for eight hundred years, and has weathered wars and infidels, and will go on doing so, long after today has passed. It is both terrifying and comforting to feel this, and I realize what a small moment in time is mine, and how valuable I must make it.
I turn toward the river and a perfectly halved moon hovers in a hollow left by the silhouettes of two imposing structures. It is the time of day the French call “entre chien and loup” which means “ between dog and wolf.” It is no longer day, but it is not yet night, and I too hover between yesterday and tomorrow, wanting today never to pass. I am deliriously happy, having been so magically awakened to feel the true depth of this moment. Does every moment, even the ones we plow through so recklessly, have this capability? I continue to walk toward the rental apartment that I can temporarily and joyfully call home on the Île Saint-Louis, and I want the feeling of being this truly alive to stay with me. The sky is now dark and the City of Light is working a different magic on its inhabitants. I remember an old Japanese proverb: “If a man has no tea in him, he is incapable of understanding truth and beauty.” I am thankful to be so full of tea.
Today in New York I recall that moment in Paris fondly and joyfully because it is the season to remember not to treat life casually. I have lost two good friends and colleagues in as many months, and as I remember them, I remind myself to seize the cup of life and friendship and love.