Just over a year ago, Patty and I stayed overnight in Paris on the way to Normandy. We were in a ‘boutique hotel’ on the eastern edge of the city, situated yards away from the peripherique, the ring road that surrounds Paris and effectively marks its boundary. From our hotel window we could see, yards away on the other side of the peripherique (in the area called Porte de Montreuil), the apartment buildings of Paris proper, while on our side of the road it was all concrete tower blocks, and tangled little roads lined with scrapyards and casinos. In the morning we got up early in order to cross the city to Porte de Maillot, where we were picking up a rental car. As soon as we had gone across the roundabout above the ring road we passed into Paris proper, a transformation as clear and immediate as stepping through the looking glass. Even the few yards of that part of Paris around the Metro station offered an encapsulated view of what makes Paris Paris: the tabacs near the street corners, which are little huts festooned with newspapers and magazines for sale, plus cigarettes and lottery tickets; the trees spaced at regular intervals at the edges of the sidewalks, each inside their own little hooped guard rail; the condom machine on the wall outside the pharmacy, right there in the open; the automated toilets with their corrugated sides and curved doors that make a space-age swooshing noise when they open and close; the identical facades of the Haussman-style apartment buildings, with the big wooden doorways at ground level, the wrought iron balconies, and the dormer windows peeping out along the roof line.
As we descended into the metro station, there was a smell I recognized from previous visits: a sort of burnt dust smell, which presumably comes from a combination of the recycled air and the burning rubber from the brakes of the trains. I had to summon up some half forgotten French to buy our tickets and to navigate the complicated network of tunnels to arrive at the correct platform. It was less than two weeks after the US election of Barack Obama, and I was wearing a baseball cap bearing the slogan ‘Obama 08’. I had already begun noticing that people were acknowledging my hat with the faintest of smiles, a brightening of the features. But the man at the ticket desk, who was a black guy with a shock of dreads, broke into the absolutely biggest smile when he saw what I was wearing. He didn’t know that I wasn’t American, but he assumed that I was, and I said to Patty that this showed how Obama had already changed the image of the US in France.
Coming out of the Porte Maillot Metro station on the other side of the city, we emerged on the western end of the Champs Elysees to a grand view of the Arc de Triomphe, about half a mile away. It was typical weather for the time of year—overcast sky, but mild and warm. The light turned everything grey or off-white, the colour of old milk, but Paris is a city that looks marvellous in any weather. This is not true of other places I’ve lived, particularly English and American cities. We picked up the keys for our rental car from the Europcar office, situated beside the giant roundabout on Porte Maillot, and before we went to the car, we bought some things in a small supermarket in the below-ground area of the conference centre-mall-car park where the rental company stored its cars. Even here, in an out-of-the-way part of a huge purpose-built edifice, this supermarket was stuffed with the most choice things: slices of fine meats, cheeses and wines from all over the country, juicy fruits, wafers and chocolates, fresh baked croissants and breads, fine coffee. All at a price, of course, but it demonstrated to me once again the difference in attitude towards life that separates most French people from most Americans. In the US, once you go outside the big cities, there is a uniform awfulness to the food available in small towns and at roadside restaurants that would embarrass even party apparatchiks from former Communist countries. The French don't mind paying a little more to obtain better quality food.
All of this came to me on an early morning journey across Paris that lasted less than two hours.
I have many more memories of Paris that I accumulated from past contact with the city: a school trip of seven days when I was thirteen; working at an ad agency there from 1985 to 1986; return visits after that short residency to see friends; visits with girlfriends, some of them French girls who I met in England. That longer stretch of time there in the mid 1980s, which lasted nearly six months, was what formed my feelings for Paris. I had lived outside England before then—five years in Germany as a child, then a difficult time in Madrid before going to university—but this was my first time in a foreign country with the means and the time to relax and enjoy it properly. There were tensions involved with the job as a copywriter at the ad agency, of course, but really I did the job fairly well, and was able to feel for a short while what it was like to dip more than a toe into a foreign culture and the daily (and nightly) life of a grand old European city. I spent a week there in 1996, and then passed through on a business visit in 2000. That was the last time I was in Paris. On this most recent visit, I was there for too short a time to notice any big changes. But the little things that I noticed on the streets seemed to be the same, or similar to how I remembered them. Spending a few hours there was like having a quick shot of strong espresso: a pick-me-up, a reminder to the self to go back one day for the full café au lait with the pain au chocolat on the side.
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