"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
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
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
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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