Sunday, 27 April 2008

Off the Boil in Paris

Just back from a tenth anniversary trip to Paris, the tenth anniversary, that is, since I first took my daughter to the self-styled 'City of Light'. Actually, there are several cities that call themselves that, including Springfield, Massachussetts, which, far from being light-filled, must be one of the most benighted cities I have ever set foot in...But I digress.

Paris to me now is more familiar (and therefore infinitely less exotic) than Prescot, the uninspiring Lancashire town where I was born but haven't set foot in for nearly forty years. I suppose, once you start becoming jaded with and cynical about Paris, you are sliding dangerously into a state where you are royally pissed off with life in general. I'm not quite there yet . For instance, I don't feel like that about London. But London has an energy, a buzz, a sense of moving forward. Paris seems stuck in a time-warp, which, I suppose, is part of its eternal charm. It is beautiful, yes. Who could sit on the quais on the Isle Saint-Louis on a balmy April afternoon and begrudge the overwhelming beauty of Paris? But for me, this time, the real beauty was in the unexpected and unfamiliar sight of the Canal Saint-Martin, a newly boho-ed (or Bo-Bobo-ed, as the French say - an amalgamation of bon chic bon genre (posh) and boho (bohemian) gentrification. Walking a few blocks east from the seedy Boulevard de Strasbourg, where we were staying (conveniently close to the Gare du Nord), we came across a newly landscaped city park bearing the sign, 'Paris respire'. And this was certainly the case, with the evening sunshine playing on the cleaned-up waters of the canal, beside which young people, purposeful and energised, were sitting and drinking. If I lived in Paris again (and I have lived there three times in my current limited lifetime), I would seek out a base near the Canal Saint-Martin in what used to be the horribly un-chic tenth district. My daughter, of course (bless her), is still captivated by the sights of the fourth, fifth, seventh and first - Notre Dame and the Pyramid du Louvre and the blocks around the Jardin de Luxembourg and University. The joy for me, this time, was seeing Paris through her eyes, my own having lost the rose-tinted specs. I hope she gets to live there too one day. Everyone should have a shot at living in Paris, even if it's only for a month, even the month of August when they surely must place a restriction on the number of tourists entering the museums. It is still only April, and still we would have queued at least an hour for tickets to clock the Impressionist jewels in the Musee d'Orsay. When I first visited Paris, some forty years ago (God!), the big tourist groups crowding out the Mona Lisa were mostly Americans and Japanese; now they are Eastern Europeans, Russians and Poles and Romanians, all having their shot at Paris. And best of luck to them, too.

The only real downer was the lack of hot water in the hotel on the evening we arrived. But were offered a free breakfast (not much of a compensation, given the bread and jam nature of the French petit dejeuner), and the water was hot again the following evening. I made do with boiling water in my trusty travel kettle (a must in France - in fact, France is the only country it gets to visit these days) and splashing my muckiest bits, my irritation with the antiquarian plumbing and the rubber ham and croissant quickly dispelling as soon as we were out on the boulevard where there was an utterly surprising and captivating number of wig shops. (Why? For the Afro-French ladies living in the district? For the filles de joie of Saint-Denis? ) Sod the hot water - we were in Paris.

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