Margaret and Dick   


July '10: Ah, Paris

We have a pact:  if our marriage is ever in trouble, we’ll go back to Paris to rekindle the romance.  Paris can do wonders for marriages that aren’t in trouble, too.  Almost thirty years after living there, we find Paris as magical as ever.

We crossed the country on the night couchette train, which has the advantage of dropping you reasonably well-rested in the center of town just in time for breakfast.  Fifteen hours later we were still walking – blister time! – and headed for the Champs-Elysees.  But wherever you wander, there is a sidewalk café to recharge your batteries.  Here are vignettes and images from our three-day visit.

After so many years away, we allowed ourselves to be tourists.  Yes, we saw the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Elysées, Notre Dame, the Latin Quarter, Père Lachaise cemetery, Rue Mouffetard, the Pompidou museum of modern art.  We favored small neighborhood restaurants over those in the guidebooks that are, of course, full of tourists.  Here Margaret blows her diet with a starter of beef marrow with garlic on toast.  She reports that a little of this dish goes a long way. 

A three-day Metro pass let us cover enormous distances and jump from one end of town to the other at will.  Walk walk climb climb walk climb walk climb – and that’s just making connections in the sprawling Chatelet Metro station.  Thirty years ago, Cybele and Chris learned the connecting tunnels by heart, surprising us with wrong-way shortcuts.  The Metro is an adventure in itself and a fertile source of vignettes. 

  • A young woman, probably a student, reads Goethe’s Faust.  An elegantly dressed older woman unabashedly reads over her shoulder.
  • A dozen string musicians, probably a high school orchestra, performs the Pachelbel canon at a busy broad intersection in the Chatelet station.  More earnest than talented, they are helped by the bright acoustics and draw an appreciative crowd.
  • An Andean woman of considerable talent plays the pipes, and the music echoes evocatively down the long hallways.  Her husband shakes a wooden rattle with one hand and displays their CDs with the other.
  • A gypsy woman with horribly deformed feet sits on the floor begging.  Had we had seen her thirty years ago as a child, same place, with the mother who maimed her?  Tough way to make a living.
  • The ugly tourists always seem to be American.  This is not to say that all the Americans are ugly tourists.  But when we see a whining kid, a sulking teenager, a complaining woman, or a loud man, it’s usually an American.  We fall back into our old habit of speaking to each other in French in the Metro.

We took a French-language guided tour of tiny Ile St. Louis, with expensive mansions facing the Seine, famous residents, and hidden courtyards.  The gifted guide, who has been running this tour forever, is “the only person who can open for you the doors of the most secret and surprising places, the private courtyards of the most prestigious residences”, as advertised on his website. 

He would also mention, in a low voice, the identities of some of the famous residents and local eccentrics.  We were not disappointed. 

The people scenes were the best.  The Iranian tourists wide-eyed at the Eiffel Tower, the Saudis buying deluxe on the Champs-Elysées while delirious World-Cup soccer fans zoomed by waving national flags out the windows. 

We skipped museums except for our old fave the Pompidou – appreciated by tourists and well-loved by locals, including school kids on the art field trip of a lifetime among the Braques and Picassos.

Outside the museum, a clown was frozen in place.  I tossed a coin into his basket and he sprang to life like a wind-up toy.  Then, beckoning me to approach, he constructed an elegant flower bouquet of balloons and presented it gallantly to Margaret.  Further down the street, we gave the balloon bouquet to a little Brazilian girl in a stroller.  She beamed up with pleasure, as did her parents.

One morning we went to sprawling Père Lachaise cemetery to escape the crowds and the heat.  The “best address in Paris” is the final resting place for many dignitaries (Chopin, Balzac, Molière, Wilde, Piaf, Bizet, Colette, Delacroix, Proust, Modigliani, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Richard Wright, Jim Morrison...).  But far from being an outdoor museum, it’s still a major cemetery for the city of Paris.  Here, for example, is room for one more, if you’re interested.  And rich.  And dead, of course.

We encountered some American tourists as we were leaving.  A student was trying to explain to two older women how to find a particular grave in among the winding roads and chockablock graves that cover almost 120 acres.  Most people are looking for Jim Morrison, go figure!
“Here, we’re done with our map.  Would you like it?”
“Oh, no, we can’t read maps anyway,” said one of the ladies.
We thought but did not say, “Well, then, you’re screwed.” 
The student happily accepted the map.

Rue Mouffetard, in one of the oldest and liveliest neighborhoods in Paris, is full of little restaurants and shops but is also a thriving neighborhood.  We joined an elderly resident in a shady mini-park to escape the crushing heat.  She welcomed our company.
She described life in the retirement home next-door as wonderful:  good food, attentive staff, and great people-watching from this bench.  “Taking care of old people is not easy.  Believe me, I know what I am talking about – I know myself.”  She described with nostalgia her annual visits to the south of France during the prime of her life.  “That era is over for me.  Don’t take for granted your ability to climb long flights of stairs.”

Point taken.  And no need to wait for a marital crisis to enjoy Paris again.

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