Diane yips with joy as she spots a small opening in the densely parked traffic right across the street from my flat. She jolts her little red coupe to a halt in the miraculously convenient space, which turns out, on closer inspection, to be a pedestrian crossing. Noticing my raised Sydney eyebrows, she shrugs and says, “C’est Aout,” as she opens the boot and helps unload my bags.
Paris in August. Midsummer madness grips the city.
And Parisians (including even the despised parking flics, apparently) flee en masse to Brittany and the Lot, abandoning their city to the pillage of millions of British, German and American tourists – not to mention the inescapable Japanese who claw their way in through Charles de Gaulle airport.
This is exactly the wrong time to visit the City of Light. Late September is perfect. Even grey December, with sleet lashing the cobblestones like a Pissarro painting, is superior. But I have no choice in the matter since Jeanne-Marie, whose flat I will occupy for the next 10 days, has made it clear that it would be incroyable, quite unthinkable, for a Parisienne to take her holidays at any other time.
The jostling, ill-tempered queue at the Paris Bureau de Tourisme snakes into the Champs Elysées. Huddled masses shuffle in the pouring rain past signs on the wall of the Musée D’Orsay – a made-over railway station displaying the masterworks of the Impressionist age – which inform them they have another 30 minutes to wait before the art museum opens.
As for the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, forget it. These are the world’s most-visited tourist attractions, with more than five million visitors a year (and all of them seem to have arrived in August). You can queue for hours.
In the ’70s, an enterprising American tour company ran a competition for the fastest time to do the “Big Three”: the top of the Eiffel Tower, the Mona Lisa and Notre Dame cathedral. The winner, mounted on roller skates, finished in time for lunch (which tells you something about Americans’ cultural sensitivity as well as their athleticism). In August it would have taken nearly that long just to get into the Louvre.
And then there are the fermetures annuelles, the annual closures. It’s not just the non-touristy bars and restaurants that have the shutters closed (I took a list of five of food writer Jeffrey Steingarten’s recommendations, only to find them all shut); it’s some of the great attractions, too.
The Orangerie, the handsome Palladian villa in the Tuilleries Gardens that houses Monet’s magnificent waterlily panels, is shut for renovations. The retrospective of the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, the 20th century’s greatest photographer, at the Bibliothèque Nationale is fini. Look up the website of the two Paris opera companies and August simply does not exist.(The calendar goes June, July, September, October.)
It’s a Gallic version of Spike Milligan’s experience the first time he crossed the Tasman. It was Sunday and New Zealand was closed. During August a lot of Paris is closed.
Luckily, I have been coming to Paris as often as possible since I was an exchange student here and fell in love with the place, back in those halcyon days of the Fourth Republic when a foreigner really could survive on $5 a day.
I have “done” the grand sights (or as many as one can – it would take a month to have a proper look at the million-odd pieces the Louvre has on display): the dazzling dome of the Sacré Coeur by night, Napoleon’s forbidding tomb in Les Invalides, the galleries and gardens of Versailles. For those, read the guidebooks. They’re not what this story is about.
For me, Paris’s charm as a city that reinvents itself every time you visit does not come from the great monuments but from the small things you discover if you approach the place with the right attitude. That is, not with a guidebook in one hand, a list of 43 sights to see in a week, a lack of appreciation for the challenges of exotic plumbing, and the absurd but persistent preconception that the French are the rudest people on earth.
What could be ruder, by the way, than a sweaty, thrusting American rushing up to a stranger in the street of a foreign country and demanding, “Where’s the nearest Metro station?” Fortunately, I gathered my wits sufficiently to reply: “This is Paris, France, buddy; not Paris, Kentucky. They speak French, not English. Show a little respect for your hosts by at least learning to say excusez-moi.”
Paris, more than any large modern city, is still a collection of neighbourhoods, each with its own character and cachet. When the rich folk who live on the historic Ile St Louis, where Gerard de Nerval once walked his lobster on a lead, have to cross a bridge (because the island is smack in the middle of the Seine) they talk about “going to the city”.
The way to appreciate this is not by staying in one of the large hotels but by arranging more modest digs, such as a rented apartment or a house-swap, which is what I did. In my case, Jeanne-Marie was a friend of a friend, but there are half a dozen websites where (for a fee) you can browse thousands of homes of would-be swappers around the world.
(One I stumbled across, SuNSWap.com, has 39 places in Paris on its list, including one splendid-sounding apartment in a 15th-century building directly across the road from Notre Dame. Be aware, however, that what you’ve got can determine what you get, and that there’s hardly room to swing a frog in many Paris apartments. Many are 20 square metres or less.) Jeanne-Marie’s apartment is brilliantly located in the 17th arrondissement, not a flash or particularly historic neighbourhood, but only 10 minutes’ walk from the Arc de Triomphe. It’s on the ninth floor of an apartment block with access via a lift the size of a coffin, and protected by an obstacle-course of locks, including one that looks like a medieval instrument of torture that slides a steel bar the height of the door.
Jeanne-Marie’s friend, the helpful Diane, is also a woman of a certain age and a world traveller. I don’t discover until later, over a flask of red wine, that Parisians’ fascination with Australia has been titillated by Culture Pub, a popular TV show, which a few nights earlier had broadcast an advertisment urging safe sex, supposedly made in Australia, which featured a man with a singing penis.
The apartment has heavy, eccentric furniture that looks as if it has been in her family for generations, the walls decorated with a hunting scene and a Balinese batik, but there’s a nice view over the slate rooftops from the balcony and a bottle of Champagne in the fridge. The plumbing, electricity, gas and phone are the usual incomprehensible tangle of wires and tubes and levers but, fortunately, Eleanore, the African maid, arrives to rescue me.
One of the great advantages of having your own place – for me at any rate, though I guess many holidaying home-makers wouldn’t feel the same – is that you can do your own shopping and make your own meals if you get sick of eating out. Or you’re broke. The neighbourhood markets (forget Rungis, the industrial wasteland that replaced Les Halles in one of the great acts of cultural vandalism) are always worth a visit.
So I’m up early the next morning to jog down the Champs Elysées, where everyone, particularly the nattily dressed roller-blading cops, will look at you with complete contempt unless you are wearing the latest in athletic gear.
On the way back, I call in at my local markets, staggering home with a cannon-ball of Poilâne sourdough, a kilo of reine-claudes (greengages), a bottle of blood orange juice, some free-range ham carved from a great hairy leg, and a runny piece of Livarot of such eye-watering pungency it would get me serious jail-time if I were caught trying to smuggle it back through Customs. Forget your baguette crust dunked in milky coffee. This is a proper breakfast.
You could, actually, spend your holiday quite pleasantly without moving out of a neighbourhood like this. It has one of the most beautiful parks in this part of Paris, an elegant walk that runs along the Boulevard Pereire, full of fragrant roses and flowering vines, pear and bay trees and several inscrutable bronze sculptures.
Within a couple of minutes’ walk I have Blanchet the baker (a real five-times-a-day baker, not one of those industrial kitchens that cook up rubbishy pre-mix), Chez Fred (a Lyonnais bouchon serving black pudding and other solid staples from the belly of France), and Le Bistrot Gourmand, an old-fashioned bar with a copper-topped counter, Gauloises butts on the floor and a lively clientele.
“Look at this,” says one of the habitues one evening, thrusting a cartoon from an afternoon Metro paper in front of me. It shows a couple being led by a doctor into a morgue, presumably to identify a relative. The man is saying: “How would I know what the old duck looks like. I haven’t seen her for years.”
That’s the other thing about last August – the heat. It reached 40C and Parisians weren’t used to it. All the doctors, nurses and public servants are away on holiday at that time, of course. In France, 11,000 people died and the bodies are still stacked in refrigerated trucks outside the overflowing morgues.
Enough morbidity. What’s branche (trendy) in Paris this summer, I ask another friend. English pubs, she says. (I had already noticed, sacre bleu, a Molly McGintys among the artists on Montmartre.) Salsa. And bricolage.
Bricolage? Do-it-yourself. Sounds pretty boring but you just know the Parisians are going to have a twist on it.
We dive into BHV, a department store on the swanky Rue de Rivoli, and there in the basement, among the hammers and the Holland blinds, is a little museum of antique wood- and metal-working tools and, naturally, a neat little cafe (Cafe Bricolo).
Salsa. Well, that doesn’t need explaining to a Sydney audience but Paris has just gone mad for Latin dancing/style/food. Try the Barrio Latino on the Faubourg Sainte-Antoine, a wonderful retro venue with a vaguely Louisiana feel to it, sprawling over four floors with lots of wrought iron, sofas and Tiffany lamps, where the BCBG (bon chic, bon genre, or trendy) Parisiennes twirl in the arms of caipirinha-fuelled Latinos.
Pubs. Well, if you have to, hop on the Metro to Bercy where Club Med has fashioned a sort of urban resort called the Cour St Emilion around an old cobbled street of wine-cellars. It has cafes, trendy stores for things such as art supplies and high-class cats, a nightclub and, yes, a pub that serves drinkable draught beer (admittedly, mostly imported from places such as Belgium, where they understand such things better). Who says Paris never changes.
I could tell you a whole lot more, such as where to find the amazing pet cemetery (OK, it’s in Asnières), understanding row-boat etiquette while courting in the Bois de Vincennes, where to shop for perfume (Sephora on the Champs Elysées), where to get great absinthe in once-dingy Belleville (Cafe Charbon), how to sample 30 great Bordeaux wines without leaving Paris (L’Ecluse on the Place de la Madelaine), or the best place for upmarket arts and crafts (Viaduc des Arts near the Gare de Lyon).
But that would be spoiling it. Leave your guide-books at home. The real magic of Paris is that it is a city that allows you to discover it for yourself.
Getting there: Four airlines fly from Sydney to Paris with one stop: Singapore Airlines (via Singapore), Thai Airways (Bangkok), Cathay Pacific (Hong Kong) and Gulf Air (Dubai). The author flew Qantas-British Airways-Singapore Airlines.
Staying there: Three other large and well-established home-exchange websites with properties in Paris are Homelink, Intervac and International Home Exchange Network. Membership ranges from about $40 to $280.
Travelling tips: You will be treated much more cordially if you make the effort to learn a little French. Alliance Francaise (9267 1755) is running a special “French for Travellers” course, four evenings a week for three weeks, aimed at beginners. It costs $450. Bonjourdefrance.com is a simple, fun website where you can learn such things as the French term for hangover (“gueule de bois” – literally, “wooden gob”). There are a number of what’s-on guides, including the comprehensive Officiel des Spectacles. A good English-language website is understandfrance.org. Gault et Millau is the more adventurous of the restaurant guides; Michelin the more reliable. Scores of Paris landmarks, from the Eiffel Tower to the Rue de Rivoli, are filmed around the clock by webcams. See paris-live.com
Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 22 November 2003
Word count: 2293
Geographic area: France
Photographs: Ben Hills, Tim Clayton
Caption: City of charm …
1. A restaurateur checks the scene
2. A harpist plays in the rain at the Sacré Coeur
3. Visitors cluster around the Mona Lisa at the LouvreCaption: Flavour of Paris …1. A game of petanque in the park