It’s been almost one year since my wife and I have landed in Paris. After six months of catching up with friends, eating, doing some research, and some writing (in that order) in Verona, we took a quick post-Christmas flight into Paris last year. Between the 25th of December and New Years Day, we frantically scoured the city for an apartment that was suitable, juggling the often conflicting agendas of size, price and arrondissement. No easy task, as anyone who’s relocated to Paris will tell you.
But we found a place, and almost a year into the adventure, I fave a happy confession to make: Paris is one of the few things in life that really is all it’s cracked up to be. Legions of people–visitors, residents, writers–from around the world have articulated and dissected the historical, architectural, and cultural factors that contribute to the French capital’s magic, majesty, and mystery. I won’t try to amend their work or compete with it.
I’ll only add some passing observations based on my experience here.
Notably, Paris is unimpressed by many people and things because it’s seen many people and things. It was founded around the 3rd century B.C. Since then, it’s seen years of empire and days of revolution, the height of glory and and the depths of humiliation.
Napoleon and Nazis have both marched victoriously down its boulevards, certain that they would reign forever. Voltaire has sat it out in the Bastille, waiting for the king’s temper to cool. Victor Hugo scrounged for food and hid behind barricades with everybody else during one uprising. Picasso loitered with intent on street corners. The actor Bill Murray came for a three week visit and stayed three years. Oscar Wilde just died here.
So pardon the Parisians if hey shrug, fatigue et fatiguent, at contemporary, transient, and shallow definitions and examples of fame, greatness, and talent. We’ve built shopping malls skyscrapers, and subdivisions that work very well, and may even last 50 years. They’ve built monuments, churches, and palaces centuries ago that still take your breath away.
That said, Parisians are the first to welcome and encourage you when they discover you’ve come to their city as an artist, musician, or, like myself, a writer. Their customs accommodate you: sit in a cafe or a restaurant; spend as much or a little money as you like; you will not be asked to leave. Write, think, or simple watch the parade of passersby. The table, the view, and the city, are yours.
There is no need for a car in Paris. It’s possible to walk almost everywhere. Rent a bicycle from the city-owned and operated bike stands, ride it to your destination, and drop it off at another bike stand, and be on your way. If you feel the need, hop on numerable busses or take the subway, quickly, cheaply, and safely, anywhere.
It’s easy to argue that Paris is, geographically and culturally, in the center of Europe. London, Geneva, and Baden-Baden, Germany, are all about two hours by train from the city’s centrally located train stations. Milan is an hour and half flight. Barcelona is another easy hop.
That said, being in Paris is really what it’s all about. If you’re 80 years old and you want to sport leopard print pants on the Rue Honore, go for it. The inhabitants of the city are famously nonjudgmental, but don’t think that having or spending a lot of money is going to give you a pass on being polite.
Paris is civilized, and expects you to be civilized also. Manners matter. Speaking a little French helps. Being kind, courteous, and modest is a calling card to the natives. And it is the natives who hold the keys to its charming, and often hidden, kingdom.
Never yell in public. Never make a turn for the camera, said a well-born and well-bred friend. Elegant and effortless. Reserved and refined. Small courtesies are always acknowledged, whether it’s in the line at the grocery store or at the stairs leading to the balcony at the opera.
Paris takes its time, which can be irritating by the time someone finally waits on you in a retail establishment. It is also delightful, when, at that same store, they take almost a half hour to help you find what you’re looking for (whether it’s in their store or not) and then take the extra time to gift wrap it, present it to you with a smile, and thank you warmly for visiting.
Paris is decisive. Once it, and its citizens, have made up their mind, it is almost impossible to change it, regardless of the logic or force presented. You’ve never heard No said with such conviction as when it’s said by a Parisian.
Paris is contradictory. Highly sensitive to class distinctions, its citizens nevertheless address each other almost uniformly with equal respect. Bonjour, madame. Merci beaucoup. Greetings and expressions of gratitude are a daily exercise between close friends and total strangers alike.
Paris is curious. As the locals get to know you, their subtle questioning about which arrondissement you live in, whether you rent or own, how long you plan to stay, what you do for a living, as well as the quality of your French, gives you the distinct impression that you’re being weighed, measured, and evaluated very carefully. Just what the standards are and whether or not you’ve passed or failed the examination, well, that will remain, like much of the city, a mystery. There are worse things in life.
Un deuxième cafe, s’il vous plait…?