Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Waking up in Paris

I continue to process my memories of the Paris trip and to try to fit my experiences into my existing mental framework. I'm also going through some of the photographs that I did not put in this blog on the day I took them. However, I want to start with a photograph taken by my friend and traveling companion Jay Hook.

This was taken on the morning of the first day I woke up in Paris. That morning we set out, eager and curious, to explore our new neighborhood, the Marais. What is so touching to me about this photograph is that I wanted to be photographed in such a photogenic, beautiful place, and I didn't really grasp that I would have many, many opportunities to sit in beautiful squares and parks and be photographed. (And sitting is, of course, the yin to walking's yang, the other half that gives the first half much of its meaning.) I had thought of Paris as a sort of highlights reel, and for all the planning we did, I thought we would hasten on foot from highlight to highlight. Before we left, I noted particularly lovely or noteworthy streets to walk down, but I didn't really understand that so much of the city was going to be such a pleasure to walk in, even the parts in between all the places I noted as special. Of course there were busy streets and traffic and crowds, but I was never very far from someplace like this, and even on the busy streets, the buildings were more often than not eye-catching, harmonious, and beautifully proportioned. The streets themselves were often lovely, either narrow and picturesque or broad and tree-lined.

Before I went there, I think I saw the city as something like a landscape where humdrum flat areas are punctuated by mountain ranges. On this first morning there, I thought this square was one of the mountains, a high point in the landscape. I didn't realize that to a large degree, it was the landscape, the quotidian experience awaiting me when I stepped out the door. Until Jay told me, I couldn't remember the name of this particular place, charming as it was, because I sat in so many like it. (For the record, the photo was taken in the Jardin Saint-Gilles-Grand-Veneur.) The monuments and churches and museums and big gardens were high points, but they were more like individual peaks in the Himalayas than like the Rockies rising up from the Plains. I can't help wondering how my perspective on the city would change further with prolonged exposure.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Midnight in Paris

This weekend I finally made time to see Woody Allen's latest movie, Midnight in Paris. It is such a loving and gorgeous tribute to the beauty and romance of the City of Light that I found my eyes filling with tears during the opening sequence, a leisurely tour of various Parisian streets and monuments set to Si tu vois ma mère (written and played by Sidney Bechet, although I can't find the name of the orchestra he was playing with*). I thought to myself that if the movie went on like that for another hour and half, sans action, I'd still sit there and watch it.

But of course I loved the story too. (Spoiler ahead!) It's long on magic and charm, with a bit of mystery that is simply part of the magic and needs no explaining, a Parisian time travel fairy tale for grownups. A group of Americans (Gil, a successful screenwriter  who wants to write serious fiction, Inez, his bossy, crass fiancée—no, I didn't like her, but she wasn't meant to be likable—and her conservative parents) are visiting the city on business. Gil falls in love, not just with the 21st century Paris he's staying in but with the 1920s Paris he somehow visits every night. The differences between the life he wants to live and the one Inez pictures for them are obvious early on, but it takes him a while to sort out which world he belongs in: Jazz Age Paris, the expensive Malibu home and lifestyle that Inez wants, or 21st century Paris by himself. I was enchanted by the scenes set in the 1920s (and in la Belle Époque, which he also visits briefly), and of course I was delighted to see present-day Paris, too, especially so soon after my own visit. Although the characters are sometimes painted with broad brush strokes, the movie is witty and observant and thoroughly enjoyable. And in the end, Gil makes exactly the choice I would have made in his situation.

The timing on this movie happened to be perfect; it's a love letter to a city that I have just fallen in love with. It's also about themes that have always resonated for me: time, memory, the pull of the past, the appreciation of the present. For all the nostalgia in which the movie is steeped, it ends with a message of hope for the future. Speaking of nostalgia, it was interesting to see which things made me most nostalgic for the city. It wasn't just the obvious things, like the river and the buildings I recognized and the sidewalk cafés, but little things like the street names on the sides of buildings, the green crosses marking pharmacies, the Vélib' stands with rows of bicycles available for rent. This sparkling tour of Paris past and present left me thinking of how I can spend more time there in the future.

*Update, 7/10/11: As far as I can tell, Woody Allen used this recording of Sidney Bechet playing with Claude Luter and his orchestra.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Whose streets?

Ever since I've arrived back home, I've been trying to articulate something about why the streets of Paris felt so comfortable to me. Part of it has to do with the fact that they seemed very well used and very well looked after. My first Sunday in Paris was Pentecost Sunday, which I was told was still a big enough deal in France that some things might be closed. (As it turned out, the only closure I ran into was the crypt at Notre Dame.) Still, as I walked through my neighborhood at around 8:30 or 9 in the morning, I saw what looked like city employees out sweeping and hosing down the streets. I saw plenty of shopkeepers or other staff keeping the sidewalk clean in front of a shop. Cigarette smoke was about the only thing I encountered that I found really unpleasant, and there wasn't as much of that on the streets as I had feared. (I think smoking is no longer permitted in some indoor venues, for which I was thankful.) I had read about problems with dog poop on the sidewalk, but I saw very little of that. I don't remember seeing much litter either, other than cigarette butts and sometimes Métro tickets.

People were generally polite; I was very rarely on a street that had no other pedestrians, and as heavily traveled as the streets were, everyone had to be polite to keep the experience from being miserable. What I felt was a subtle but distinct sense that the streets belonged to the people who were walking on them, and it was important that they be pleasant places.

In some parts of the US—not everywhere, but it's not uncommon—public areas seem like something you have to get through to make it from one enclave to another, a sort of no-man's-land that might or might not be well-tended or pleasant. An enclave might be home, an office, a store, or a mall: someplace that belongs to a distinct entity. Public spaces often feel like an afterthought. Theoretically they belong to all of us, but here that sometimes seems to translate into belonging to no one. Even in Bloomington, which is not a dirty city, you run into trash, especially fast-food trash, on the sidewalks. Several summers ago, it took me months to find out who was responsible for a path that I used to walk to work every day; trees and shrubs were growing over the path, making parts of it impassable and pushing pedestrians into tall grass bordering a shallow ditch along a busy street. Eventually someone figured out who the owner was and told him or her to fix the problem, which he or she did, in what struck me as the most begrudging way possible (someone showed up with a back hoe to trim the shrubbery, which of course looked for weeks like...well, shrubbery trimmed with a back hoe).

Maybe property owners in Paris have the opposite complaints, about official entities who are forever hounding them to keep their property from infringing on public comfort; I don't want to romanticize the city just because I know it so little. All I can really say is that because so many people walked and took the subway, and because parks or green spaces were everywhere, and because most people seemed to treat public streets and even subway stations as worthy of a certain amount of respect, the experience of being out and about felt very good.

I'm reading The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris, by John Baxter, and was struck by the following passage. He is describing the ease with which Parisians navigate the streets compared to new visitors:
Well, this is their habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Because that's how Parisians regard the city—as an extension of their homes. The concept of public space doesn't exist here. People don't step out of their front door into their car, then drive across town to the office or some air-conditioned mall. No Parisian drives around Paris. A few cycle. Others take the métro or a bus, but most walk. Paris belongs to its piétons—the pedestrians. One naturally goes à pied—on foot. 
I have to disagree about no Parisian driving; I'm pretty sure a lot of those motorcycles I saw belonged to Parisians, and surely not all the cars belong to visitors. But still, this echoes a lot of the things I'd been mulling over and trying to articulate. It's no wonder the place felt like home to me; any place that belongs to its pedestrians is bound to!

Bathrooms in Paris

I suppose a logical corollary to any discussion of food and drink is a discussion of bathrooms. Public restrooms are indeed, as I had heard, much more scarce in Paris than in most big US cities. However, although I often had to wait in line for a public restroom (nothing new there; I'm a girl so I'm used to it), and sometimes even pay to use one (typically half a euro or less), the European restrooms I saw were much more private, and I never encountered a really dirty one. The doors and walls in the stalls typically go clear down to the floor, which was a pleasant surprise.

In an apparent response to the bathroom scarcity, public toilets appear in surprisingly roomy sanisettes at random intervals along Parisian streets. (The standard model evidently does not accommodate wheelchairs very well if at all, but for a public toilet sitting in the middle of the sidewalk, they are more spacious inside than I had expected.) A map of the neighborhood typically appears on the outside of the sanisette; as you approach one, you may be unsure whether the people clustered outside are waiting to get in or just consulting the map. These unisex bathrooms are cleaned automatically after every use. Many of them are free, and my understanding is that by 2014 all of the ones in the city of Paris will be free.

The first time I used one turned out to be one of those adventures that are more amusing after than during, but the second time was much nicer. For starters, the first time I used one, it took me a long time to find one so I was mildly stressed to start with. Then I was not sure the door was locked. After I got in and pressed the "close" button on the inside, I couldn't understand the voice that greeted me in French as soon as the door was closed, mostly because it startled me to be spoken to at all. I wasn't sure if it was telling me the door was locked or telling me to lock the door, and I couldn't see an obvious "lock" button. So it wasn't 100% clear to me that I had done all that was necessary to avoid being walked in on, and I was on a very busy street corner. (I learned later that as soon as you close the door, the "occupied" light comes on outside, and you are safe. I realized later that the button with a pictograph obviously representing someone talking would probably have repeated the most recent message for me, but at the time all I could think of was that I hoped it wouldn't talk to me any more. I hear that some play music.)

Here I must say a word about French toilets. All the ones I saw were designed to be low-flush, and hence were more cylindrical than the ones in the US, with smaller tanks. You almost always have a choice of two buttons to push to flush, depending on whether you want a big flush or a little flush. Either way, the tank seems to fill up quite quickly afterward, leaving me feeling, back here in the States, like my toilet is a huge water hog because the tank takes forever to refill. (I never saw a normal-flow toilet anywhere in Europe, which made me wonder why the low-flush technology hasn't caught on more in the southwestern US. I really did like the low-flush toilets, and I'd like to install one in my house.)

So in my first sanisette, I pushed the small flush button, and nothing happened except that a voice told me something useful. I was fairly rattled by this point; I got that it was telling me I had chosen an option that conserves water, but I couldn't figure out the rest. Maybe it's telling me the little flush is out of service? I pushed the big flush button, and got another useful response in French that went over my head, and then pushed the small button again once or twice, waiting for something to happen. Eventually I gave up, washed my hands, and departed, befuddled. I believe now that nothing happens until you push the button to exit, and then the bathroom goes into flushing/cleaning mode in preparation for the next person. I hope it took my multiple button pushes in stride.

One last word on this indelicate but essential subject. I had read online that toilet paper is often scarce in public restrooms in Paris, so I brought along about a dozen of those small packets of Kleenex that you can carry in a purse or pocket. For what it's worth, I never needed to use any of them. Even if I had needed some, I probably wouldn't have needed a dozen packets, so this was definitely overkill. At least I'm all set for the allergy season.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Paris and cosmic rays

I just stumbled across this Scientific American blog post, which describes early 20th century efforts to understand the source of a newly recognized and mysterious radiation: did it come from radioactive elements in the earth, or from the sky? The Eiffel Tower was crucial to the story of how one scientist obtained the first significant evidence that some of this radiation (what we call cosmic rays today) originates well beyond our atmosphere in cosmic events such as supernovas. I had no idea that Gustave Eiffel argued that the tower had potential as a scientific research station, but he was correct. (One of his suggestions was that an observatory be placed at the top of the tower. I love this idea, but the lights of Paris—not to mention the lights on the tower itself—would make observing most objects very difficult. I wonder if there are any efforts to make the City of Light more dark-sky friendly?)

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Food in Paris

Before I went to Paris, I somehow gathered the impression that restaurant meals typically last a couple of hours, and that the American tradition of carry-out is not to be found. Maybe in the higher-end restaurants, meals do run long; the dinner hosted by Untours on the first full day of my stay lasted for three highly pleasant hours, from kir to raspberries with whipped cream (there were about 10 of us at dinner that night). But even our most expensive meal, the dinner at Ma Bourgogne (€91 for dinner for two and a carafe of wine, which is nowhere near the high end of luxury dining) didn't last more than about an hour and a half. Carry-out is everywhere to be found, and although it often was tourist food (sandwiches and crepes any place tourists gathered), it also seemed to be pretty standard Parisian practice to grab something at a bakery and eat it in a nearby park or maybe at a table outside. I enjoyed many such meals and came back with ideas for quiches I want to make at home. Spinach and goat cheese quiche seems to be a staple, as does salmon quiche. I had a very nice slice of quiche Lorraine in Chartres.

I lacked confidence in my French and thus missed some opportunities to dine in restaurants or visit wine bars where I would have been called on for something more complex than "Je voudrais une tranche de cette quiche, s'il vous plait" or my absolute favorite, "Un comme ça, s'il vous plait." (That's one reason I want to go back, so I can build my language skills and try out more of the food and wine on offer.) Still, I had some excellent restaurant meals, which I obtained by a combination of using what French I had and pointing at the menu. I had some great salads and omelets, and I noticed that ham seems to play a crucial role in many dishes. I read online that you can find vegetarian food fairly easily in Paris, but if you are asking whether a salad includes meat, you need to ask about ham specifically, as Parisians will sometimes describe a salad as meat-free even if it contains ham. Evidently ham is not always considered meat. I find this a somewhat sympathetic viewpoint; for years I have joked that pepperoni is not a meat but a condiment. At any rate, although I generally do not eat meat, I ate plenty of ham in Paris, and it ranged from OK to very good. Paris might be navigable for a vegetarian, but in my experience, being a vegan would take a fair amount of work. Most of my bakery take-out meals were either sandwiches with cheese on them (my favorite was a baguette with fresh mozzarella, tomato, and basil at the Tuileries Gardens) or quiches of all kinds, which of course contained eggs and cheese.

Regarding the menu: You must remember to call it "la carte," because "le menu" is typically a set course of dishes at a fixed price, which might or might not be what you're after. In my experience, it does not hurt to ask specifically for the menu after you are seated. One of the more perplexing moments in dining was at a place near the Musée d'Orsay. I think people stopped in there for drinks alone as well as for meals, which we did not grasp right away. We seated ourselves, and when the waiter came to our table, there was a moment of awkward silence until he asked, "Vous voulez manger?" We hadn't realized that it wasn't obvious that we were there for lunch, and were briefly taken aback by the question, but managed to say that yes, we wanted to eat.

I bought my wine at the Monoprix, which had a small selection of bottles out on shelves in the regular grocery area but also had a little cave, or wine cellar. I enjoyed everything I bought there. I also gazed into the windows of the wine shops, but never did go into one. Next time.

Language was really not all that much of a barrier when it came to food. It is worth noting that I experienced absolutely no rudeness. If you start out with your best French, at least a hearty "Bonjour, madame" or "Bonjour, monsieur" and as much French as you can muster thereafter, my experience is that people will meet you at least halfway. I have to admit that I didn't always get what I expected, especially when asking for bread, but I liked everything I got. And how often can you say that?