Thursday, April 26, 2012

Paris recap

Hotel de Ville - possibly my favorite building in Paris
Well, I’m back. Returned from an all-too-brief sojourn in Paris, which was spent cramming in as much face time as possible with my colleagues (a pleasing amount of it in sidewalk cafés), along with a few jaunts to local landmarks and a fair amount of mooching around the Latin Quarter. I hadn’t been in Paris for more than a weekend in 20+ years, when I spent a few months there as a student, and it brought back a flood of memories—most of them positive. I was struck by that when talking to a younger friend of mine who was also visiting, whose first impressions of Paris years ago were overwhelmingly negative, and has never liked it much since as a result. It made me feel very fortunate that it’s firmly ensconced as one of my favorite cities, and it made me think about what it is that I love about it particularly. I came up with a few things:

Walkability. I walked more in Paris last week than I normally do in a month here in Missouri. I lived as a carless person for more than 10 years, and walking is one of my favorite activities and modes of transport. Central Paris is chockablock with interesting stuff to see, do, and eat, but is pretty contained for such a major city, so you can walk for a half-hour or an hour, see a lot, and get to any number of destinations. And if you get fed up with walking, there’s bound to be either a nice café or a Métro stop not too far away—both of which make walking a much more feasible prospect.

Reality. Yes, Paris is a huge tourist destination, and as a result is riddled with the cultural caricatures and commercial junk thought to appeal to the perceived lowest common denominator of taste and experience. But alongside that—sometimes literally—it is Parisian business as usual, the daily business of millions of people living and working in a complex urban ecosystem that has been growing and developing for centuries as the cultural and commercial heart of France, and which can absorb the vagaries of tourists along with any number of other incidents that occur in the daily round. Case in point: my visit to E. Dehillerin, the renowned kitchen store, where local chefs and clueless visitors are treated with the same brisk courtesy, and where the complicated system of actually making a purchase (involving at least 3 employees) remains unchanged, regardless of how many people are in line. It may not be the most convenient way, but it’s their way, and I’m glad to have experienced it.

Food. Of course, French food is known worldwide, and justly so. Having said that, it is possible to get mediocre or even lousy meals in Paris, and I’ve had a few. But what I really love about food in Paris is how it is taken for granted as a central part of daily life, and the infrastructure is ordered accordingly. This means that, cliché or not, you really are never far from a café or a small market. There are open-air markets in the busiest parts of the city, and in this age of big-box chain everything, everywhere, I saw multiple independent butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and pastry shops just in the part of the 5th arrondissement where I was staying and working, less than 10 minutes’ walk from throngs of tourists at Notre-Dame. (The contrast with where I live now, where the nearest supermarket is a 20-minute drive away, couldn’t be more striking.)

And so, back to realities of daily life here in the Midwest, where there are no warm chaussons de pommes and café crème waiting for me around the corner at breakfast time. But it’s nice to know that they’re out there somewhere.

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