There are two ways to look at
summer in Paris when you're a native and not planning a summer
vacation: You can be desperately jealous of all
the Parisians who have fled the city for the mountains or the
seashore or the country - or be insanely happy to be in Paris
without the Parisians.
I've always belonged to the latter
category. I like summer in Paris, finding it at its best without
all the Parisians and their collective, and contagious, stress.
Granted, there are a few drawbacks. Some of your favorite shops
shut down and it's not always easy to find your (twice) daily
baguette. In fact, every daily errand becomes a veritable expedition
as you try to figure out which boulangerie/boucherie/fromagerie
is open on what street and on what days.
For in a weird ballet of openings
and closings, some stores stay open in July, others in August,
others from mid-July to mid-August. The challenge
for those of us who remain in town is a) getting this down pat
in your mind so that you don't run errands for nothing and b)
being prepared to walk a long way to get your clothes cleaned
or buy a steak.
- But not being able to find your favorite place open is nothing
compared to not finding your favorite place at all! As I walked
to the Place Gambetta on my way to foray for food at the wonderful
food shops on the rue des Pyrenees, I discovered to my horror
that the news kiosk on the corner had purely and simply disappeared
Right up there next to last month's
closing of one of the neighborhood's two charcuteries, I counted
this as one of the truly horrid disasters to befall
our quarter. What, I speculated, would happen if the fellow selling
the Wall Street Journal, The Independent, The Herald Tribune
and a host of Turkish, Italian, and other foreign language papers
from exotic lands vanished? There are other newstands around
but none offered such a variety of publications. Being a newspaper
addict, losing the kiosk would be tantamount to a coffee lover
losing his local café. I needed my daily fix!
I immediately strolled over to
confer with my favorite newspaper salesman, Ali. Did he know
what this was all about? Since Ali knows most of what is going
on in the neighborhood, I was fairly sure he'd have a clue.
"Not to worry," he
told me. "They're putting up a bigger and better stand."
But, he said, that won't solve the problems facing Parisian "kiosquiers",
many of whom work in spaces so small they are known as "standing
coffins". Compared to a "kiosquier", Ali's set-up
is heaven. He holds court in his own shop where he has a lot
of room to walk around in and arrange the daily and weekly arrival
of newspapers and magazines. He has time to chat with the regulars
and besides newspapers, sells buttons and thread, greeting cards
and various and sundry other items.
A kiosquier, on the other hand,
stands up all day long in the equivalent of a broom closet, squished
amid the special supplements and magazines and
newspapers he or she often can't sell and can't return until
a certain date. The crowning indignity is that none of the stands
have toilets so if the
kiosquier is working alone, he or she either has to close the
stand to go find one or in the worst case, end up peeing... in
a bottle. (I didn't make
this up - I read it in a magazine that did a special article
on the plight of Paris's kiosks). Small wonder that some 60 Parisian
newsstands have closed. We're all happy they are there - but
no one would ever want the job.
- So in the end I didn't lose my favorite newsstand. Another
good summer surprise amid the obstacle course of daily life is
Plage, Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe's contribution to summer
fun. Let's see...Before Delanoe, Paris in summer was hot and
noisy and polluted
and most everyone here wished to be somewhere else, say, for
example, on a lovely beach with palm trees whose leaves swished
in the breeze. Dream on...
Did the Mayor read minds? Last
year for the first time City Hall saw to it that a large piece
of Paris near the Seine was transformed into one big
"plage", complete with... sand and palm trees. With
two million visitors, It was such a raving success that this
year's Paris Plage, which will run
from July 20 to August 17, promises to be even bigger and better,
starting with the importation of 2500 tons of sand as opposed
to "only" 800 tons last year.
Only one problem with Paris Plage:
you can't take off from the beach to swim in the Seine. Cleaning
it up will be the next major move. (And tough luck if you're
feeling the need of a cool swim in one of Paris's pools - better
check first as 50 per cent of them are closed. You got it: CLOSED
in July and August. Go figure.) In any case, thank God for Delanoe.
One thing no one could have forecast
was this year's sizzling summer. Paris has had depressingly frigid
and rainy months of July and August so I
personally am not complaining about the heat spell. This IS a
northern clime, however, and people here aren't used to living
the way the Italians
and the Spaniards do, with their shutters closed during the heat
of the day and everyone inside their houses until it cools down.
No, here in Paris,
everyone goes out as usual, the result being a lot of wilted
listless looks and frayed tempers. Some stores and cars are air-conditioned
but many are
not, the reason being that it's not worth having air conditioning
for the few days a year the temperatures soar to unbearable.
Fortunately our car IS air conditioned
which has given me the opportunity to ride around in it this
week with great pleasure. I even found myself
dreaming up excuses to get into it and away from sweltering Paris.
"Let's get out of here!", I suggested to a good friend
who readily assented. We hopped into her little orange Citroën
convertible and one hour and a half later were comfortably installed
at a sidewalk table at "Les Vapeurs" restaurant in
the charming coastal town of Trouville, a small popular seaside
community on the Norman coast. After feasting on shrimp and mussels
and whelk and mayonnaise and cold white wine, we sauntered to
the seashore, cast off our sandals and sank our bare feet luxuriously
warm sand. Le paradis!
That was Monday. On Wednesday
my son and I drove out to our country place west of Paris, an
hour and a half away from our apartment in the east of the city.
It takes a while to get off the peripherique (ring road) and
highway but you know you're on your way when you hit the green
and gold fields and see the farmers harvesting wheat.
You also know you've left Paris
when you get in a line at the supermarket and it takes twice
the time it does in Paris - I mean, who's in a rush out
there? The benefit of getting out on the road was that I had
my 22-year-old son as a captive audience (and he me). We both
thanked the heat for allowing us to catch up with each other's
lives and spend a pleasant moment in air conditioning!
Had we driven further, we would
have been in Chartres, one of my favorite places to go. But we
had errands to run and weren't being tourists that
day. Chartres, whose magnificent 12th century cathedral I have
visited many times over the years with greater and greater pleasure,
would have to wait.
AND SCINTILLATING LIGHTS ON THE
EIFFEL TOWER - The country's great but who can resist the lure
of the city? Back in Paris,
I admired the Eiffel Tower's new sparkle. Every night from sundown
to 2 a.m., the 324 meter (1,063 feet) high tower lights up ten
minutes before the hour with dazzling blinking lights. It's as
if the most beautiful woman in the world has donned her very
best dress to honor her admirers.
Behind a beautiful dress, of
course, is a designer and an army of seamstresses. Behind the
Eiffel Tower's dazzle are some 20,000 light bulbs, 40 kilometers
of electrical wiring, 60 tons of metallic parts and an investment
of 4.55 million euros. It all looks so easy. However, workers
installing the lighting had to contend with high winds, rain,
sleet and snow, gawking tourists and the scary height. Fortunately
the head of the company in charge of setting up the new lighting
is....a professional mountaineer.
THE CANAL - Another fun thing to do in the summer in Paris: the
three-hour boat ride that takes you down the Canals of Paris
to the Seine. You can either board the boat at the Musée
d'Orsay and travel to the Parc de la Villette in the east of
Paris, or vice versa. We chose to start from the Parc de la Villette
and end up at the Musée d'Orsay. I never tire of floating
past the romantic streets of Paris some 26 meters above the Seine
and slowly descending a series of 19th century locks as tourists
I even learned a new piece of trivia from our guide. As our boat
went past some cinemas, he asked us if we knew who the most famous
French actor was. No one could really come up with much of anything
and in any case we were all wrong. The answer: Rin Tin Tin! The
famous actor dog is buried in the Dog and Cat Cemetery in the
Paris suburb of Asnières, a quirky place to visit once
you've done all the major sites.
- For French students, vacation is a time to rest and relax.
And for French students who have passed the "Baccalaureate",
the French school leaving exam, it's a time to celebrate. This
year 80 per cent of those taking the exam succeeded - in spite
of mammoth teacher's strikes. (Cassandras say that because of
the strikes, some teachers scored higher than usual to make up
for their absence but that's hard to prove).
The "Bac" is all important
- and difficult. France is one of the only countries in Europe
requiring students to take Philosophy, a subject they
are tested on at the "Bac" -- and it ain't multiple
choice. This year's choices of essay questions included "Is
dialogue the path toward truth?",
"Why are we sensitive to beauty?" and "Is happiness
a private affair?" I've always thought that the French complicate
their lives much more than we
Anglo-Saxons do but perhaps that is because they have simply
been trained to think in a more complex way. Nothing's black
STRIKES - Well, nothing except the strikes which
have paralyzed the country since this spring. First it was the
teachers, unhappy about a reform that would decentralize the
highly centralized educational system. In addition to the teachers
strike, an attempt by the conservative government to reform the
current costly retirement system brought thousands of angry citizens
to the street. At one point, too much was too much and just when
you thought that every Frenchman in the country was for the strikers,
thousands of people who were angry with all the work stoppages
took to the streets to stage a counter-demonstration!
Summer came and with it a strike
by actors and technicians furious at the government's attempt
to augment the number of hours they need to work to
collect unemployment insurance in their downtime. The result:
the closing of most of the country's finest and most prestigious
Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, two of the biggest. French actors
are already more privileged than most people who choose that
profession. In the States, most actors are waiting tables; in
France, a generous country to its workers, part-time actors collect
unemployment during the time they are not working.
Statistics show that France has
the fewest number of strike days in Europe. It's really hard
to believe since it seems like someone is always on strike.
But that's normal: France is a country of groups with certain
privileges. When a group, whether teachers or civil servants
or actors, see the end to
these privileges, they do what comes naturally - in France: they
take to the streets. That's their right, of course. However,
much damage has been done as the festival cities, the SNCF and
RATP, and large and small companies have lost major money.
And where are all these enraged
citizens now? On vacation, of course. They've got to rest up
for September's strikes! Get ready, everybody!
-All the contention and social strife was put aside on Bastille
Day when the traditional military parade on the Champs-Elysées
took place among greater security than usual after a deranged
right-winger tried to assassinate President Jacques Chirac at
last year's parade. This year Chirac, who stood and waved to
the crowd as usual from his car, was entirely surrounded by the
impressiv ely clad Republican Horse Guard. Hard to get through
The night of the 13th, many Paris
firehouses opened their doors for the traditional Firemen's Balls.
We strolled over to the one in our neighborhood around 11 pm.
It cost 3 euros to get in and once inside, we were struck by
the conviviality of the scene. Babies and grandmothers, young
couples, tatooed types, groups of girls, groups of guys, blacks,
whites, Asians all mingled together. Some danced to the music
emanating from the hard rock band (I always imagined dancing
to the tunes of Edith Piaf - how wrong I was!), others sat down
to chat and drink their champagne or beer or...Coke!
And all were happy to be in the
company of their heroes, the Parisian "pompiers", who,
in my opinion, are as handsome as can be! I'm not alone -
July 13th and 14th are traditional nights for romance and the
pompiers have their pick! On the evening of July 14, the scene
changed, radically. The Firemen's Ball in our multi-ethnic and
"not very rich at all" neighborhood gave place to a
party on the swanky terrace of the Hotel Meurice where we were
invited to the enormous duplex of a friend of a friend of a friend.
It's always fun to live in a
city and see things you never dreamed about. On the terrace,
which looked directly over the Tuileries gardens (more trees
than one sees from below!) and had a 360° view of Paris,
we sipped champagne (better than the champagne at the Firemen's
Ball!) and oohed and aahed at the view of Sacre-Cour, the Eiffel
Tower, La Défense and the fabulous fireworks the City
of Paris puts on each year at Trocadero. As we reluctantly left
the party, my husband glanced at the door and saw the room rate:
12,000 euros. "I think he got a room rate," our friend
remarked, and we all laughed. Even with a BIG discount, it wasn't
anywhere near our range!
The sight I will never forget
from that terrace wasn't the fireworks, which was the reason
we were there. No, the best and most memorable sight from
that superb terrace was a huge perfectly round orange moon floating
between the towers of Notre Dame. As we drove back home, I caught
another glimpse of the moon. It had become even larger, had almost
doubled, it seemed. It had turned a shimmering white and floated
high, high, high in the sky.
A perfect Paris moon. A perfect