November 15 2010
I woke early on Saturday ready to drive my daughter Charlotte to her weekly tennis lesson at The Queen’s Club. A few months ago I discovered the joys of not owning a car, yet taking advantage of having one without the worry of insurance cover, servicing, congestion charge, or even paying for petrol. I am a member of one of these car clubs (www.streetcar.co.uk) that offers you everything you wish from a car, except the fulfilment of ownership. I have always questioned the true relevance of this feeling: owning something. Whether a stone (a home) or a piece of metal (a car). Why buy and accumulate and have the fulfilment of owning? Is this luxury?
I am still not sure. I want to go from point A to point B in a new-ish BMW 118d M sport. Why is it necessary to own this, and pay to maintain it until you want to use it again? Does that make sense? I don’t think so, and for that reason I rent.
Usually weekends go slowly at home, speeding up occasionally when it is time to collect one child from a maths lesson, another one from football or ballet. This can be quite demanding on the parent and the child, as the inter-family competition among neighbours intensifies, year after year, based on who pushes more activities on his child. But this weekend, apart from Charlotte’s tennis lesson at 9am, Arabic lesson at 10am and play date with Clara at 12, and William’s school rugby match against Dulwich College, it was a quiet start to the weekend.
I was waiting quietly and keeping a low profile at home, fearing an injunction from my wife of dishwashing or shopping from Waitrose, until mid-afternoon, when it was time for me to head to St Pancras and take the Eurostar for a (work) weekend in Paris. I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on hotel trends at the international biannual Equip’Hotel fair, one of the biggest hotel fairs in the world.
After making sure that my wife understood that this is work and that I was not going to Paris for some kind of fun and relaxing trip without her, I jumped into a cab and made sure I was in carriage 7 seat 21 next to my friend Sue Whiteley, who coincidentally had some Louis Vuitton-related work to do in Paris. We had a very nice time, chatting and comparing notes on what to buy and where in the French capital. Jean-Jacques Best (one of the nicest and truly bilingual train managers on the Eurostar) took great care of us, securing my seat next to Sue.
We decided to go for dinner that evening at my favourite restaurant in Paris, Le Voltaire, 27 Quai Voltaire (don’t try to find it on the internet or in the Yellow Pages, its real phone number is not listed). Come to it; take the business card of the restaurant to call on another day, or make a future reservation on the spot. You have to suffer to deserve Le Voltaire (apparently). Make sure you sit in the back room. This is the “regulars’ room”, if you want to impress your guests.
Everything here is good. I usually judge a restaurant’s quality of food and service on the age of the waiters and the longevity of their position at the establishment. They are not as old as Voltaire was when he died, but their age is right: late 50s and very fit, to make the run between kitchen, bar and room, crack a joke and kiss the regulars, with true friendship and affection.
Sue and I felt inspired by Paris’s mild temperature forecast for the weekend, so we decided to visit the flea market the next day, while we were enjoying the conversation between us and the Portuguese-Irish couple on the right and the Paris-based Japanese husband and wife on the left. It all felt like a smart cosmopolitan family gathering around foie gras and steak au poivre with an abundance of small side dishes including fries, green beans, mash, steamed vegetables and carrot purée. Please don’t make the easy mistake of asking the waiter if the steak comes with any side dishes. You will be banned from the restaurant.
On Sunday morning at 10am, I had successfully reached the Porte de Versailles location of the hotel fair after being traditionally late, and getting lost in the fair grounds. I tried to take a shortcut through internal stairs to avoid the sleepy Sunday-morning crowd entering the fair and tripped on the last top step of the cold concrete stairs and smashed my left big toe through my Prada trainers. Ah! Those silly architects who design stairs with the last step higher than the rest to catch up the floor level. And why are Prada trainers not reinforced?
After spending a few minutes lost, trying to explain who I am to a blasé VIP hostess, I managed to get hold of the very charming Delphine, who was organising the talk. After that, everything went smoothly and was very enjoyable, except my new public walk, limping with maybe a broken toe.
I managed to upset all the architects present on the panel with my ideas of luxury, design trend forecasting and opinions on luxury excellence and perfection that are the opposite of any (boring) mainstream approach mentioned that day, and all this on camera directed by Nicolas Salomon of www.lusineagaz.net.
At the end of my performance, I was driven by the organisers’ car to l’Avenue in Avenue Montaigne for a quick bite and then took a taxi to the flea market with Sue. We made some very interesting finds.
Sunday evening was marked by the crazy search for the right meal at the right place. After a drink with a Parisian friend at Hôtel Costes and a look at the nice but “international-standard food” menu, at around 8pm, I headed to a supposedly nice place for dinner: le Reservoir, close to Bastille. It was like entering a deserted Middle Eastern palace decorated à la Louis-Farouk (the last king of Egypt).
I decided to go for the big name and headed to L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon where one sits at the kitchen bar and enjoys a refined cuisine. I ordered a sea bass carpaccio which was delicious but of an extremely small portion.
I was enjoying a conversation with a French expat based in Brazil to my right and a newly married couple to my left, but decided to leave this nice setting for something special and more consistent. I wanted, in fact, a good (and nostalgic type of) meal I usually have in Paris, which reminds me of my careless teenage time in the capital with my parents and friends. The smell and taste started coming back. This is strange?
I have decided that one should have the courage of taking action when necessary. Of course I hesitated as it was a weird move; I had only just arrived. But then I asked for the bill and left for a proper entrecôte at Le Relais de Venise near Porte-Maillot! Now I could travel back to London the next day satisfied and proud, I had had my steak and magical sauce.
I am nearly done writing my diary for this excellent publication. I thought this exercise was going to be a sort of online exhibitionism written to fulfil a voyeuristic readership. It was not, I was wrong. It was more of a powerful and sometimes draining introspection. When one thinks, one’s life is a routine, and some days pass by without a discovery or an interesting encounter, that is not true. I had the joyful revelation that my days are full of variety. Thank you Maria and Gillian and David for asking me to write and discover.
I am a lucky person and so are you, dear reader. Just stop a moment and look around; you will have the same findings: in different places, faces and souls. (This could be signed by Paulo Coelho, but no, this was a chunk of Rabih Hage). Over and… see you around.