Forget about “Old Europe.” While Paris is as old world as it gets, the City of Light has been a watering hole for change ever since the Romans built administrative offices on the Left Bank of the Seine centuries ago.
At any given time, a Parisian is either talking on a cell phone, eating, drinking coffee, or seated in a cafe doing all three. I assume they work someplace but that’s an afterthought. When they pull up a tiny chair at a sidewalk café, they extricate themselves from the business of the day - the world can wait.
ptatlarge has arrived in late spring and tout le monde strains to be outdoors on a spectacularly blue sky Sunday. The ones with the maps are the tourists. On any given day, their array of digital devices soak up gadzillions of pixels to capture the history, art, architecture, monuments, squares and scenes on the river Seine.
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The world-class Paris Metro hums through stations every two to five minutes. Electronic signs display the names of the trains coming and the time they’ll arrive, and they damn well arrive when the display says they will. The only thing they have in common with their cousins in NYC or Boston is the graffiti sprayed or scratched onto the surfaces.
You can reach any district in the city, from seedy Monmartre to swanky Louvre in minutes. Over 4 million people a day use the Metro. Occasionally a dapper man with an accordion sets up inside the door. For a few magical moments, it feels like the spirit of Edith Piaf, “The Little Sparrow,” floats through the quiet rumble of the train.
Up on the surface, ooo la la, Paris is visually stunning. The Boulevard Périphérique that rings the city seems to have locked it into an architectural time warp. Look down the narrow side streets, many of them still cobblestone, and you’re gazing at streets that resemble an eighteenth century etching.
Paris is stubbornly retaining its sense of scale. Six stories is about the limit for most buildings. Paris is so totally non-American. No big box stores, steel and glass skyscrapers, miles of blazing neon. It doesn’t seem to be devoured by a consumer economy. Its swagger devolves from its history not its height.
Considering the whopping number of cars jockeying through rues and boulevards, the degree of horn honking is minimal. But the whine of motorcycles, which are like a plague of locusts, is often overwhelming. And yes, you can still spot a cyclist with a two-foot baguette or two poking from the backpack.
Is it a coincidence that the word insouciant is derived from French? I’m not naïve enough to think that Parisians don’t have family problems, marriages on the rocks, or business failures but there’s an uncommon amount of laughter and smiling going on here. Does drinking wine with lunch make that much difference?
And where is the hauteur? I see smokers, animated sidewalk cafe story tellers, waiters who bring food and drink on time then let me sit and watch the world go by, water trucks daily rinsing the streets, tons of really small cars that can park on a postage stamp and use thimbles full of high priced gasoline, but I experience none of that Gallic disdain that I’ve been warned about.
I walk by bakeries and brasseries and am lifted into another dimension with the aromatics of baking bread or garlic being sautéed in butter. And I drink vin ordinaire for less than three bucks a glass. Could my high school French be that disarming to the locals? I begin to think that this whole French arrogance thing has been cooked up by the Italian Ministry of Tourism.
Paris seems to be in a state of equilibrium in which traffic jams, strikes, noisy elections are taken in stride. The legacy of writers, poets, painters, revolutionaries, and royalty here is breath taking - Picasso, Monet, Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Hemingway, Stein, Louis XIV, Marie Antoinette, Rodin, Degas - the list is longer than several baguettes. With this history, why would the Parisians even think we Americans were worth the effort to get haughty about?
It’s not paradise. Paris hasn’t escaped the political malaise that has crept into the mainstream life of other urban centers. It has growing pains as we do. It’s just not in a rush to crush its past to embrace its future.
But, ahhh, I miss the magic of those narrow cobbled streets, the church steeples, the public squares - both the tiny jewels and the colossal - and the proud mantle of history that drapes itself so un-self-consciously over the City of Light. April in Paris was magic.