What to do in Paris at night? Just about anything you can think of. The Opera, the movies (look for movies in “V.O.,” presented in their original language with French subtitles,) a stroll by the Seine river or in the atmospheric streets of the Latin Quarter, a cruise on the Seine river, a delicious meal at a bistro or a gastronomic restaurant, une nocturne (a late night visit) at one of the great Parisian museums (Wednesdays and Fridays at le Louvre, Thursdays at le musée d’Orsay, everyday except Tuesdays at le Centre Pompidou,) a drink (or two) at a bar branché (hip bar) rubbing elbows with Parisian hipsters, a cabaret show. The list goes on.
An invitation to the theatre
While traveling, do you prefer experiencing a new city as a visitor, or as a local? The language barrier can make blending in challenging. One activity many locals favor in Paris at night is going to the theatre. I was one of them when I still lived in the French capital, and even now, so many years after I left, I will occasionally catch a show when I am in town. Going to the theatre is a great way of bringing together my interest in old buildings, history, and people watching. Au théâtre, the show is as much in the room around you, as it is on stage. Not to mention seeing Paris at night is always special.
It is no surprise that when a Paris-based company named Theatre in Paris reached out a few months ago and offered me a chance to test and review their service targeting English-speaking visitors, I agreed enthusiastically. Theatre in Paris offers a unique experience, i.e. a night at the theatre (reserved so far to French speakers.) This is a premium service, 100% in English, with a dedicated team providing assistance from the moment you make a reservation (there are many popular shows to choose from,) to the moment you arrive at the theatre, where you will be greeted, then shown to your seat, your customized program in hand. How does it work? How do you, the English speaker, get to enjoy a French theatre production, in real time? Theatre in English has set up, right above the stage, a projection screen where English subtitles are displayed during the show. One of their operators sits in the back of the room, ready to make changes in case the actors decide to take some artistic license with the material, or skip a line. It is seamless, and because of the positioning of the screen (see photo below,) it is easy to keep your eyes both on the screen and on the stage. What a cool concept!
There were quite a few good shows available that week, and I chose one based on two criteria: Quelque Part dans Cette Vie (Somewhere in this Life) features two of my favorite French actors, Emmanuelle Devos and Pierre Arditi, and the play is presented at my favorite Paris theatre, le Théâtre Edouard VII. More about that later.
Sur les Grands Boulevards
Two nights before I flew back to Seattle, I put on a nice pair of black slacks, a flowing white blouse, a leopard print cardigan, and tied a scarf around my neck on the way out (we, French Girls, do this casually, as the art of mastering scarf tying runs in our blood, n’est-ce-pas?) I nibbled un croque-monsieur (ham and cheese sandwich) at a small café near the hotel, located off Place de la République; then disappeared in le Métro that would take me place de l’Opéra by 7:30pm. How convenient life is, for those who live, work and play in downtown Paris! I anticipated there would be enough time for an early evening stroll along les Grands Boulevards. The show was scheduled to start at 9:00pm, and I was to meet my contact at Theatre in Paris by 8:15 in the theatre lobby. It was still bright when I came out of le Métro, the magnificent Opéra Garnier towering over me. Paris – like this French Girl – was going to do her best to rise to the elegant occasion.
Along the way, iconic sights caught my eye. They never get old.
Soon, I left the busy boulevard des Capucines and took a right into a side street, la rue Edouard VII. The theatre sits at the end of this peaceful street lined with a few restaurants.
Au théâtre ce soir (an evening at the theatre)
Le Théâtre Edouard VII is located in the center of a peaceful square dedicated to English King Edward VII, queen Victoria’s oldest son, who was well-traveled, enjoyed the good life, and was popular in many European countries, including France where he visited often. King Edward VII is honored by a statue in the middle of the square (see photo at the top of this story.) From the start, like a handful of other popular landmarks, le Théâtre Edouard VII contributed to making Paris at night a special time for Parisians and visitors alike. Under the leadership of its most prominent director, legendary French actor, playwright, screenwriter Sacha Guitry (1885-1957,) the elegant theatre became a popular place to enjoy le théâtre de boulevard, light-hearted productions, (comedies for the most part,) meant to entertain, with simply drawn, relatable characters and realistic dialogue. Guitry became as famous for his impressive body of work as he was for his tumultuous personal life (he married five times,) and his scathing sense of humor. Today a giant portrait of “the master” sits at the back of the crowded Café Guitry, a restaurant located inside the theatre.
Before the show, there was time to walk around the theatre. For this cinephile, the walls of the venerable Parisian landmark provided a chance to travel back in time and to remember famous French actors who had once treaded the stage (and lit up the silver screen.)
I almost bumped into lead actor Pierre Arditi who arrived discreetly, holding the play’s script, malade comme un chien, (“sick as a dog”) as he informed one of the theatre attendants. I did not bother him, and was even more impressed with his two-hour performance (he was on stage in every scene that night.)
As planned, I met Amanda, my friendly Theatre in Paris contact, before the play started, and we chatted for a while about their wonderful service while sipping some wine. Then she escorted me to my seat on the top balcony, where I immediately connected with my neighbors, an American couple who had loved their 10-day stay in the French capital and had decided to celebrate their last evening in town at the theatre. Quelque Part dans Cette Vie is an adaptation of an American production, and the material is more serious than in other plays I have attended at the Edouard VII in the past, yet veteran actors Arditi and Devos kept the audience engaged and got rewarded with several rounds of applause. Arditi kept smiling but looked exhausted. I knew why and felt for him.
Paris at night: After the show
It was after 11:00pm when I exited the theatre. In my American suburban neck of the woods, I would not have thought about walking around that late and would have driven home immediately. This was Paris, and I’d be flying back two days later. I had to make the most of this balmy spring evening in the French capital. I walked back to la place de l’Opéra. There were still diners in restaurants, and people strolling in the streets. I felt safe, the streets and buildings still familiar after all these years. Within minutes, l’Opéra Garnier appeared in front of me, illuminated, magnificent. I almost crossed the street to take a photo, but I was hungry and decided to have a bite at le Café de la Paix (where things had clearly slowed down.)
Once inside, I overheard late night diners’ hushed conversations as I walked past the dining room on my way to the café section overlooking the boulevard. A stylish and friendly waiter informed me it was my lucky day: Le Café de la Paix had just introduced their summer dessert menu that afternoon, with an enticing ice cream selection. This French Girl ordered “l’Opéra parisien,” a caramel-based creation.
The waiter checked on me and the other tables where patrons lingered. He noticed the theatre program I was still holding. An impromptu chat about the play led to a longer conversation on a variety of topics, from my life in the US, to his life in France (he was married to an American woman and would have loved a chance to work in the US,) and what it was like to be a waiter at le Café de la Paix, “une bonne maison,” (a good employer,) for more than 15 years. As always when traveling, making a connection with a local was one of the highlights that day.
It was almost midnight when I asked for the check. Le Café de la Paix should have been closed by now, yet nobody rushed me. I informed the waiter I planned to go take that photo of the lit-up Opéra Garnier. His face dropped. “Oh Madame, je suis désolé. They turned the lights off already. They do that after the theater shows wrap up. L’Opéra is dark by now.” I was sorry for a split second, when I realized I had missed an opportunity; yet decided to look at the silver lining, the delicious moment (quite literally) I had just enjoyed in this iconic Parisian landmark. I needn’t have worried: Another special connection enabled me to get my hands on that prized photo in the end: A long-time French Girl in Seattle reader (and fellow Washingtonian) I had met at Seatac airport on my way to Paris, agreed to walk past l’Opéra a week later and took a few shots of the illuminated building for me. Merci, Dave!
Around midnight, I left le Café de la Paix and asked my Uber driver to drop me off Place de la République, so I could look at Marianne on my way back to the hotel, a pleasant and strangely comforting ritual developed during the second part of the trip. Bonne nuit, Marianne! Bonne nuit, Paris!