Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Sunday in Paris

Notre Dame - where else?
Before diving back into the book that’s occupying all my hours and will continue to do so until December, I want to grab the chance to prolong an excellent, battery-recharging weekend I just spent in Paris. If you haven’t been there yet, stop what you’re doing immediately and go. The song praises ‘April in Paris’, but you could substitute any month, with the possible exception of August, when the Parisians themselves are on holiday and the place is taken over by foreigners (like me).

The minute we climbed the steps out of the RER and saw the trees, the Boulevard St Michel and the familiar architecture, stresses vanished and we knew that life made sense (even though, only a few hundred metres from where we stood, Sartre had explained so eloquently why it didn’t). Paris is magical – it’s beauty, history, romance, freedom, love, art, architecture, nobility, humanity – as well as bloody good food and even better wine.

And I wanted to share just one of the days – last Sunday. After breakfast at a terrasse looking onto the Luxembourg fountain, we wandered through the Jardins du Luxembourg. London boasts (justifiably) of its parks but those in Paris are of a different order. Dappled shade, all the usual impressionist stuff, trees and open spaces. People everywhere but no sense of crowding. On the pond, model boats, especially two magnificent schooner rigs. Bizarrely, one guy preferred his submarine. It was big and painted the usual sinister black. He launched it; it set out
Luxembourg Gardens
across the pond then it submerged. I need someone to explain to me what pleasure he got out of that. It had a mast thing (presumably an aerial for the radio controls) on the conning tower. On top of that was a tiny green square of material. And that was all you could see, moving along about two inches above the surface. There were the ripples of the wake but no sign of the boat.

All around the edge of the water, very young kids perched and leaned, their parents either deep in chat with friends or welded to a mobile – an obvious demonstration of the French passion for individual freedom. ‘If le petit Bertrand, aged 2, wants to topple into the pond, that’s his inalienable right.’ None did.

Everywhere under the trees – nearby and in the distance – groups of slowly moving Taekwondo practitioners wove their moves. Others performed slow rituals with actual swords, sliding them so close to their bodies that I was surprised the ground wasn’t littered with ears, slices of buttock or other, even more important organs. There were donkeys, ponies, families, couples, readers, joggers, walkers. People sat on the hundreds of chairs spread around the place – so much more inviting than fixed benches. The sun was hot and ‘le tout Paris’ was there enjoying it.

Free concert
We wandered away, down the rue Bonaparte and past a shop I always need to look at. This time in the window there were letters from Louis XIII, the Empress Josephine, Zola, Montesquieu, Sartre and others. Then along the Seine past the Museé d’Orsay, across the river to the Louvre and the Rue de Rivoli. There, as we stood waiting to cross, two young French women asked us the way to the Louvre. We were able to point to the building opposite and say that’s it. I’m not implying they were dumb or anything. It’s just that, around the back and sides, away from the glass pyramid and the amazing approach to the Palais du Louvre, it looks like everything else.

But it still makes Buckingham Palace look like a shed. When I look at the vastness and the glory of the construction, with all the statues and columns and gothic frilly bits, I have conflicting feelings. First, it’s a triumph, a glorious demonstration of what humans can do. Second, it was all built so that one individual who got lucky because the right sperm and egg fused could say ‘Hey, look how cool I am’. On this day of sun, however, the guy’s hubris was forgiven. The palace that people had built for him looked magnificent.

I forgot to mention that, at various points in our meanderings, we’d stop and marvel at the number of significant places we could see around the skyline. Paris is stuffed with them – our particular count on this trip was the Panthéon, the Eiffel Tower (of course), Notre Dame, the Tour St Jacques, the Grand Palais and even, way up north, the Sacré Coeur.

And on and on.

Then, six o’clock, in the tiny church of St Julien-le-Pauvre, the requisite bit of culture. We’d bought the
cheapest tickets for a Chopin recital by Teresa Czekaj. We were at the back and the side and could only catch occasional glimpses of her head as she moved. Needless to say, the performance was astonishing. It’s impossible to create so many complex sounds at such speed with only ten fingers but she did it. But, in my proletarian way and with an eye to which wine we’d try later, I couldn’t help thinking that culture was bloody expensive. We’d paid 20 euros. Then, in the interval, a man suggested we move into some of the empty seats up front. We did so and it was an amazing experience for which I’d have paid twice as much. We moved to a pair of chairs set beside a pillar at the side right at the front. The piano was less than 5 metres away and Ms Czekaj was facing us. The pillar hid the rest of the audience so it was as if she was playing just for us. We saw the music in her face – she was smiling, angry, sad, serene – all sorts of things, and it added a sort of commentary to the music itself, made it even more affecting. And being so near to the Steinway, nothing was lost in the acoustics of the church. The 40 minutes or so of that second half could have been forty seconds or a month – everything was suspended.

Dinner at Balzar and a last wander up the Boulevard St Michel through the still fascinating crowds. Not a bad day.

So if any of you are thinking of buying a place there, I’d be happy to look after it for you while you’re away.


  1. No, Bill. You need to buy the place and I'll look after it when you are away. OK? really enjoyed reading this and now I'm doing a wee jealous stamp on the ground with a petted lip, cos I want to go.
    How about letting us know of your other days in Paris? What happened Saturday, Monday?

  2. Michael,

    To begin with, if I had such a place, I'd NEVER be away from it.

    And next, blogging is a luxury. I have a b****y book to write. Anyway, Saturday, Monday, Tuesday were more of the same, interspersed with bouts of swallowing confit de canard, choucroute, choux farci, haricots verts, céleri rémoulade, poulet fermier rôti,various terrines and pâtés, and bottles of Sauvignon blanc, Bordeaux Supérieur, the occasional Muscadet and Moulin à Vent and one very expensive glass of Calvados.

  3. Oh wow. That takes me back to trips to Paris, and to sons playing with boats, trying to topple in.

  4. Yes Sheila, the life of a toddler in the Jardins du Luxembourg is a perilous thing.

  5. I loved this article, Bill, and I would love to visit Paris. I've been concentrating on the Pacific rim and Hawaii for vacations thus far. What a lovely experience, especially sitting so close to the Steinway and Ms. Czekaj. I'm green with envy.

  6. Hawaii sounds a good substitute to me, Jean. On the other hand probably not. In fact it was at this time last Sunday that we were listening to the Chopin and I'm ready to go back.