Tuesday, October 11, 2011


If you’ve never yet been to Paris, 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). Paris is magical – it has beauty, history, romance, freedom, love, art, architecture, nobility, humanity – as well as excellent food and even better wine.

I want to share just one of the days my wife and I spent there on our last visit. 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 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 (cell phone) – 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.

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 a bit 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.


Mark W. Danielson said...

No matter what time of day or day of the year, Paris is one of my favorite cities. I've been there routinely for the past 15 years and never had a bad experience there. The food is amazing and people dress nicely.

Bill Kirton said...

Have to agree with all that, Mark. Parisians have a reputation for being arrogant, selfish, etc. (which to me is all part of Frenchness anyway), but there's a celebratory quality to life there and an open invitation to anyone to share it that I find uplifting.

Jean Henry Mead said...

I would love to visit Paris and experience what you described, Bill. The concerts, cafes, French pastries. . .

Bill Kirton said...

You must, Jean. It'll be everything you dreamed of and more.

Jaden Terrell said...

I"ve never been, but i would love to.