I made the very difficult decision to leave my job at Indigo Books & Music in March to pursue my side hustles full time. It was a big transition for Brandon and I, and one we were both looking forward to embracing as fully as possible. But when Brandon immediately suggested we take an impromptu trip to Paris my fears kicked in and I refused to go. He was, understandably, disappointed. I always thought I would never visit Paris and I had made my peace with that. The use of dairy and nuts, liberally and in nearly everything in French cuisine, would make dining out a massive challenge.
But mostly I worried that we wouldn't be among the romantic couples having brunch and dinner on patios, sipping wine, with a charcuterie board set out before us. I worried that I would see other couples doing that and feel like I was ruining Brandon's time, or robbing him of an authentic Paris experience. I was worried that I'd be an inconvenience, or look like a loser.
After seven years of being with a man who could not give a shit whether I'm eating a homemade hoagie while walking down the street or packing half my suitcase with tins of tuna and instant oatmeal, I don't know why I was suddenly self conscious. When I told him my fears he looked saddened and offended. He told me that he'd rather be eating dinner in our hotel room with me than sitting on a patio with anyone else. I married a good one.
He sought out a suite-style hotel with a kitchen that was centrally located in the Les Halles neighborhood. It felt like a revitalized, hipster type of area. There were tons of grocery stores, fruit markets, and shopping of all kinds, plus jazz bars and a vibrant night life scene. It was also very close to the Marais so it was perfect for strolling and people-watching.
It turns out Brandon doesn't love French cuisine and was happy to have a baguette sandwich for brunch and a takeaway pasta or kebab for dinner. The few times we did go to a restaurant and sit on a patio I'd just pull out my own snack and order a Heineken or a Perrier and he'd have a proper meal. For the first time in the last few years I forgot my allergy translation cards and I felt totally naked without them, so I wasn't willing to take any chances with new restaurants. I had heard the stigma that waiters in Paris are rude, and although none were rude per se, they are certainly less attentive than what we're used to. Most restaurants are also small and cozy, and in the very historic buildings it was not uncommon for the chef to be in the basement sending food up on a dumbwaiter. Not exactly an environment conducive to having food allergy conversations with the chef.
I'm used to a strong beer culture in Toronto so it was different being in a wine-centric place. I often avoid wine that I'm unfamiliar with because dairy products and other allergens don't have to be listed on alcohol labels. Casein and skim milk can be used in wine production, so I generally buy vegan wines or contact the company before purchasing. Fortunately most bars served Heineken even if they only had one beer available, so I was able to order something safe.
I highly recommend hitting up different areas of the city at night to sample the many flavors of night life. On the Saturday we started out at Experimental Cocktail Club, a discrete bar behind an unmarked door with a very intimate vibe. We then moved to Prescription Cocktail Club, which had a bit more breathing room and a cool mix of antique furniture and enthusiastic bartenders. From there we made our way through the arrondisements, finding pockets of bars and clubs on side streets tucked away throughout the city, finally making our way home in the wee hours of the morning. Another evening we visited the Duc de Lombards jazz bar and watched the open mic night, where locals with all types of instruments took turns on stage together, seamlessly absorbing new sounds into short-lived ensemble jazz bands. Live music in Paris is a must.
We went grocery shopping and there were so many options for where to shop. G20 was a good standard grocery store where I bought eggs, lettuce, berries, and prosciutto. I didn't want to spend a lot of time cooking so I avoided buying meat or anything that required chopping. Nuts are kept out in the open with the produce which was totally shocking for me. Because of that I stuck with produce that came wrapped in plastic, just in case. Baby gem lettuce that's a luxury here in Toronto was common and inexpensive in Paris. We also shopped at some premium grocery stores where the produce was displayed as though each item was a work of art; carefully washed and placed with care.
On our final day in Paris we found a Marks and Spencer Foods and I just had to go in and buy a ton of produce for my dinner that night. It's my absolute favorite grocery store as an allergic traveler because their labels are always in English, their products are high quality, and they sell a ton of pre-cut fruit and veggies that are not packaged in the store. For example, I was able to get trimmed and washed asparagus that was in a sealed tray, delicious aged prosciutto, chopped mango, small packs of baby carrots, and tons of berries. I kicked myself for not looking up if M&S had locations in Paris on day 1!
Accommodations and Packing
I baked and packed enough carbs to have 3 servings of starch per day - rice, oatmeal, whole wheat scones, and banana muffins. I also baked and packed two chocolate chip cookies per day so that I could have a treat at the end of the day with my chamomile tea, which I also packed. One of our absolute favorite things to do on vacation is watch a show in bed at the end of the night (no matter how late it is) with a tea and a treat and I wasn't about to pass that up! Other foods I brought included tuna, some bananas, and a bag of baby carrots for the plane
The kitchen in our hotel was small but more than sufficient. I brought my own small pot and pan, spatula, mug, plastic container with a lid, a few ziploc bags, and tiny cutting board. I also brought paper bowls, a sponge, a small bottle of olive oil, and a small salt shaker. I could have bought those things in Paris but it's not worth wasting money on necessities that I already own. The pack of paper bowls, for example, were purchased in NYC and have now accompanied me on 4 trips, finally meeting their demise on this vacation. This is the most food prep I have ever packed for a trip, mainly because I had not been to Paris before and because of the language barrier. In London or Italy, for example, I fared much better and ate out nearly every day.
Activities and Attractions
We spent most of our time walking and had to get a foot massage, to which I brought my own lotion. At the risk of sounding like a lush, I always pack a small tub of body lotion and mint essential oil just in case I need a massage on the fly.
Instead of sitting on a patio eating pastries, we sat at a fragrance bar called Nose, getting a consultation for over an hour. We browsed Gallery Lafayette, crossed over to the Left Bank in the 6th to visit an antiquities and curiosities shop called Alain Brieux, had another consultation and got some fancy toothpaste and skincare products at Buly 1803, and meandered over to some hidden speakeasy spots at night for drinks (see above).
We walked by the tourist attractions but didn't spend much time on that stuff, favoring instead to hang out and watch skateboarders while drinking a Peroni along the Seine, or trying to walk down as many tiny side streets and alleys as we could. The thing I love most about Paris is that when you think you're walking down a historic road, you suddenly turn a corner or cross the street and you're suddenly somewhere even older. The cross sections of history are incredible, and as someone with a strong nostalgic sense of imagination, I reveled in it.
You can't visit Paris without doing a little clothes shopping, since it's a fashion lovers dream. We spent some good time in Gallerie Lafayette, picking up a silk scarf, a yellow cap, and a perfume. There's a Kenzo store at practically every major intersection and Brandon picked up a nice polo from there too. Shopping on the Champs Elysees is a must, just for the romance of it. But we found there were better boutiques in the less touristy areas of the city.
Being an allergic traveler in Paris can be difficult if your expectation is to eat out every day. But with some advanced planning and a suite-style hotel, you can make it work. For me, step one was getting myself there and managing my food anxiety. I definitely plan to go back and am already writing down all the markets and shops that I want to go to. Grabbing some beer or wine (or your preferred drink), some fresh fruit and veggies, and taking a seat along the Seine is the perfect way to spend the afternoon.