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  Weekly Feature (May 10, 2006)

Nine Nights in Paris



"One night in Paris is like a year in any other place," goes an old rock song. What can I say about nine nights? A lifetime, nearly, to have had such a surfeit of pleasure! Looking out on the rainy tarmac of Charles de Gaulle airport, I reflect on nine nights in Paris. Paris is so much more than just a large city, filled with the usual hustle and bustle.

The centre of Paris was designed by Baron Haussmann, with wide boulevards and buildings restricted to five stories, a lower, more human height. The light is different here. Perhaps caused by the reflection of the sun or the hazy skies above its polished granite buildings, Paris's nickname, "The City of Light" is an apt one.

In Paris, thereís a museum on every corner it seems. On my first day, I just happened on the Musee du Picasso as it opened for the day. For the next two hours I toured and was amazed. A special exhibit outlined Picassoís special relationship with Dora Maar and featured her photographs. Most interesting to my students might be her series of photos of the painting of his masterpiece, The Guernica. The museum projected the photos in sequence so one could observe the steps Picasso had taken in the paintingís creation. That experience alone made my trip worthwhile, for the photos had only been discovered in 1997 and were on display for the first time.

People walk in Paris and as they walk, they talk, and talk and talk. Pay attention and Paris will soon be in your ears. Soon enough, it becomes a part of the experience of being here. The rhythm of Parisian French is so definite that outsiders stand out, even if they speak perfectly acceptable French.

Cell phones work everywhere, even in the longest Metro tunnels. More than once, I was party to a lover's quarrel conducted unabashedly while clinging to a swaying pole on a crowded train. But Parisianís donít just argue over the phone; on my last morning there a young woman had gotten out of her boyfriendís car and, in the middle of the intersection, was conducting an emotional conversation. The cars went around and the pedestrians continued on their way, barely acknowledging the scene!

The smells of Paris are a constant delight. Baguettes, warm from the oven, stand up in bins, filled constantly throughout the day, and the croissants, the tartes au citron, the palmiers, the gallettes aux pommes, tantalize in the brightly lit pastry display cases on every street or corner. Wrapped in the middle with a waxed paper, a baguette is rarely carried the whole way home untouched--a bite out of the end of the warm crusty bread is a frequent sight on the streets of Paris.

Strong coffee, served in tiny cups, scents the air at every corner cafe, restaurant or brasserie. Tobacco, in elegantly long, thin Gauloise or Gitanes, strong French cigarettes, is unapologetically smoked in every restaurant, cafe, on the street, and even in the long halls of the Metro underground. In Paris, I saw more smokers in five minutes than I see in a week in Vancouver. At lunch, people enjoy their wine and linger. Though Parisians hurry through the halls of the Metro, when it comes time to sit awhile, they do.

There is a special kind of joy to listening in on the rhythms of the language of Paris from the terrasse of a cafe for the first time in many years. A waiter would not dream of cleaning your table or encouraging you to move on. The price of your coffee is the price of admission, as high as six dollars a cup in the nicest places, but what a view and worth every penny!

I never tired of sitting, watching the life of the city pass me by in the cafes of Paris. From bicycles ridden by people riding without a helmet, wind in their hair, to scooters driven by men in a suit and tie, from the "hautest" of the haute couture, to the oddest couples, Paris is a visual feast. Well-dressed women, heels higher than any mortal should walk on, pass the time with men wearing old berets and walking along in worn out sneakers.

How did I fit in? Badly, but then the Parisians knew I wasn't one of them. My baseball cap garnered the most stares, as almost no one wears a hat in Paris, especially not a cap. The words "Lee Valley" were greeted with some puzzlement, for it represents a garden tool company in Canada, a truly foreign thing to see in Paris! More than once, I looked up to find a Parisian staring at my head, perhaps wondering where on earth I had come from.

To their credit, however, the people of Paris seem, especially away from the major tourist attractions, to both accept and welcome my reasonably fluent, but badly pronounced French. Often I felt the thrill of making an enquiry, understanding the answer fully and then going on my way.

After an absence of twenty-two years, I returned to Paris to celebrate my fiftieth birthday. But, really, the birthday was only a pretext to come here again. Now, after being here for the longest visit of my life, I know I must return. Al Purdy, near the end of his life, wrote a poem titled, "To Paris, Never Again." That is a sad thought, but before he died, he did return to this city for one last visit. As shall I, if I have the chance and the means to do it again.


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