Thursday, July 23, 2009

Seeing Paris on My Dime

La droit, la droit! Splish splosh, splish splosh! Derrière, derrière!” It was one o’clock in the morning and my French friends had been taking me on a nighttime tour of the City of Lights. We had just spent an awe-inspiring time on the lawn of the Eiffel Tower taking photographs of the engineering marvel lit up and glowing golden against the night sky. I thought the show was over as we drove past the Grand Palais on our way back to Montmartre when four people started gesticulating and telling me in French with no little urgency, “Look to the right, the right! Behind you, behind!” I was turning every which way in the front seat trying to figure out what the excitement was about. All I could see on my right were the trees that lined the quai along the Seine. But when Christophe sped up and made a quick turn onto Pont Alexander III I saw it. The Eiffel Tower, which only a few minutes ago had shown like a giant flame in the night, was exploding white and blue, like fireworks. It kept flashing with abandon (Martine’s splish splosh), as if someone had plugged an electrical cord into a wet outlet. The car went silent as we reveled in the spectacle. Then just seconds later someone flipped a switch and the structure that dominates the Paris skyline just disappeared into the darkness, as if it never existed.

So ended my whirlwind trip to Paris.

It was only my third visit to the city. Each time has only been briefly. There is too much to see and do, so learning Paris’ neighborhoods one arrondisement at a time means that it will take a lifetime to know the place (I’m willing to put forth the effort). However, Martine and I did our best to cover as much ground as possible during the day, while Christophe (with help from friends Jean-Claude and Raymonde) helped entertain me at night. I won’t give a blow-by-blow account of this journey. Instead, here is a quick run down of things I love and hate about the city.

Things I Love
1) The warmth and hospitality of people like Martine and Christophe, and Jean-Claude and Raymonde (and their dog LuLut), many of the shopkeepers (especially at The Red Wheelbarrow bookstore), and strangers on the streets.

2) The perfect serenity of Musée de l’Orangerie, where you will escape into the soft focus of Monet’s Le Nymphéas (The Water Lilies). The interior space was constructed specifically to house these large and extraordinary paintings, and to allow visitors to sit, and stare, and soak it all in under the canopy that filters the natural light. For those who will never get to Paris, click here and take the virtual tour at the museum’s website. You can also view an extensive collection of Cézanne, Renoir, early Picasso, and other artists near the turn of the century.
Renoir's "Peaches" (perfect for a July afternoon)

3) The extensive metro/bus system (and beyond, the national train system that got me there quickly and in comfort) that allows you to traverse this immense city cheaply and quickly. It remains a mystery to me why my own country still insists on maintaining its love affair with the car.

4) The Paris parks, big and small. In particular, everyone must visit Les Tuileries, the Jardin du Luxembourg, and Place des Voges (the oldest planned square in Paris). In a city with so much traffic and so many people on the move on narrow sidewalks and metro cars, it soothes the soul to take a rest in the green garden chairs at any of the many parks and squares in this city.
These chairs are waiting just for you at Le Tuileries

5) Walking through the metro tunnels, hearing a violinist (but not seeing her in the underground labyrinth) playing a Georg Telemann piece as you exit the train then returning in an hour or so and hearing her playing Samuel Barber. I loved hearing flamingo guitar on the streets of Montmarte, klezmar music as I exited the metro in the Marais, and a gypsy violin as I walked the morning streets to the train.

6) The beauty of the architecture that is clearly valued by the residents of this city. Martine and Christophe may live in a small space at the foot of Montmarte, but they know the history of their renovated Art Deco-era apartment building. The city knows that they are custodians of historical treasures, so they find the way to make the old and new work together.
A random balcony near the Rodin Musée

7) Montmartre at night looking like something out of a Van Gogh painting. The warm glow of the café lights under the low awnings, the artists walking the streets with easels packed under their arms, the waitress with her hair wrapped in a scarf and leaning against the wall outside the door of a restaurant kitchen with the glow of sweat on her face as she stares into spacing smoking a cigarette are all images we’ve seen before on canvas from another age.
From the top of Montmartre, 10 o'clock on a Sunday night in Paris

Things I Could Live Without

1) The traffic. It is absolutely terrifying. I don’t know if there are any driving rules. I do know that on many major streets there don’t seem to be any lanes marked, and I never saw a speed limit sign, and tailgating at a hair’s breadth distance is a national pasttime. So I let out audible gasps as Christophe expertly wove his way through the streets, squeezing in between cars, avoiding the motorcycles buzzing through any free space between cars, and making all the correct turns when there didn’t seem to be any visible intersection or street signs.

2) The desk clerk at my hotel who decided I needed to be schooled in the pronunciation of my room number “45” at 11:30 at night when all I really wanted was my key and bed.

3) The exhaustion (and sore feet) that come with trying to navigate so much of the city in a day. I’d love a longer and more leisurely visit some day.

4) Shops that close on Mondays. It seemed the ones we wanted most, like the small grocer (Thanksgiving) that specializes in American food products that Martine wanted to see, were closed. The French take their leisure seriously, and for that I admire them. A day off is really a day off to relax with friends and family. However, Monday was the only day I could be there. I guess that means I have to arrange another visit – however, it will include different days of the week.

A random resident of the Marais

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