France: Paris

In our last contact, we took you through Belgium en route to France. Now we bid adieu to our few hours in Belgium and enter the territory of France making a beeline towards the village of Sedan, our last stop before taking up residence in Paris.  Sedan is known for its castle which is thought to be the largest fortified medieval castle in Europe. Part of the castle is now a hotel and that is where we spend the night.  

The town itself is situated on the Meuse River and looks to be not very well-to-do but nonetheless interesting, with the area along the river and the old town being the most interesting.  We wander around in the early evening looking for someplace to have a meal but as usual, our timing is bad. French restaurants don’t start dinner service till 7 pm at the earliest. We hold out and in the end have a very nice meal in a place along the river.  Our medieval fortress room provides us with rock-solid sleep.

The next morning, we take our time and stop for coffee in the town of Charleville-Mézières. This is the birthplace of the French poet Rimbaud and home to an international puppet festival. We have our coffee in the Place Ducale, a beautiful large baroque square built in the 1600s by the Italian Prince Charles de Gonzague.

Having put off our entry into the capital till afternoon, we finally gird our loins for the drive into Paris and the neighborhood in the southwest—Boulogne-Billancourt—where we have an apartment.

Driving in Europe is fun, terrifying and often hilarious. It is a short drive from Charleville-Mézières to Paris but naturally, we bog down as we approach the périphérique or ring road. We are determined not to get sucked into its vortex and forever go around in circles.  Mostly we do an excellent job, with Robert driving and me white-knuckling the “oh shit” handle as I yell out “turn here!”, “no there!”.  (We score much lower marks the next morning returning the car to the rental company at the train station across town).

So here we are—in Paris. What can I say? I am certain more words have been penned about Paris than just about any other place on the planet. Do I really want to add some more? We muse on the remarkable infrastructure that holds this place together. How large modern cities manage to function is bewildering to me no matter where they are, but a large modern city with the population density of Paris, built on a medieval foundation defies the imagination.  It is hard not to be in awe of the magnitude of Paris’s beauty and the magnitude of the effort that goes into keeping her decay in check. I would hate to be the mayor…and many people do hate her.

Our apartment in Boulogne is both charming and a tad shabby. But there is beautiful light with great views from this 8th-floor rookery-with-balcony. We are happy here. Finally free and on foot, after our unfortunate detour returning the car, we begin wandering. The Paris soundtrack is surround-sound at its most unmelodious but somehow a necessary accompaniment to the kinetic flow of people and assorted vehicles. We adjust and start to get into it. Hopping on and off metros, descending deep into neighborhood alleys, tracking down the elusive “best boulangerie” and going hog wild food shopping at the weekly marché.

In our first week, we meet Thomas Paris (yes, his real name and the “s” at the end is pronounced), an ex-IT guy turned walking guide.  He speaks English with a slight British stiff upper lip and is truly in love with his city and wants to show us all the neglected corners where things are nonetheless happening.  Our first encounter is an afternoon touring art galleries with his friend Laure, followed by a long interlude at a quaint little cafe hidden in the back of a bookstore, where we get to know one another, hit it off and plan another rendezvous. 

Our first week is also marked by the arrival of our friend, Ewa and her brood. In Holland, we talked about a rendezvous in Paris and they make it happen.  We spend a joyous few days with them and I am surprised to find myself in the role of translator/tour guide. Given that they have never been to Paris and it’s free, I guess they have to make do with me. We do all the touristy things that neither Bob nor I had any intention of doing but seeing it all from their eyes makes it a real pleasure. L’Etoile, la Tour Eiffel, le Louvre, les Tuileries, Notre Dame—you know, the biggies.

Coincidentally, my second cousin, Ladan, and her husband Dan are in town for a medical meeting, so at the weekend, Bob, Ladan and I spend a delightful rainy afternoon lunching and walking through the Jardins de Luxemburg. 

This leads us to another rendezvous with Thomas who takes us garden hopping through the rain to various “hidden” parks and gardens in the neighborhood of the University of Paris.  This includes big parks like the Parc Montsouris as well as neighborhood pea patches, a “green” apartment complex, and a small square where sections of the original underground aqueducts—the early source of water to the city—are on display.  

Our evening wanderings bring us to the original factory of Les Gobelins textiles and tapestries. The Gobelin, a Flemish family, set up shop in this location in the 15th century. The original workshop now called the “Chateau de la Reine Blanche” (it is not a chateau and there was no White Queen but somehow that is how the building is known) is where the dyers worked and where the Gobelin family began making their fortune.  Back then, the area was a dirty suburb of dyers and tanners on the banks of the Bievre River—badly polluted and now underground. As the family’s fortunes increased they bought other workshops and the area became known for its colors—particularly its cochineal red or carmine.  It was eventually taken over by King Henry IV and then his grandson, Louis the XIV, to provide textiles for the court and as royal gifts. The little building has been completely renovated and turned into apartments, so the tour was short but rich with history.  Our evening ends in the courtyard of the main Hotel Gobelins with a concert in the rain and the Chamber Orchestra of Paris performing serenades by Anton Dvorak and Max Bruch. What a day!

Other roamings on foot include a walk along the Seine in the Bois de Boulogne where there is actually a campground—you can park your RV, set up a tent, or rent one of their little gypsy carriage cabins, all in the beating heart of Paris; a Montmartre crawl; a visit to the Sun King in Versailles; and also his brother, Philippe the Duc D’Orleans, at the Domaine de St Cloud and finally La Villette.

The trip to La Villette (expo grounds that include the Paris Philharmonic) is our last encounter with Thomas and Laure. Our five-hour promenade takes us to a tiny, rustic, well-hidden Russian Orthodox Church, the last draw bridge in Paris, a walk along the Canal de l’Ourcq and the Centquatre-Paris, an amazing creative arts center on the site of the former municipal undertaker! Again, what a day!

And, we come to the end of our Paris stay. When all is said and done, it is the city I love most. Not sure why, but it has always felt like my place. The pace is exhausting, the noise level maddening, the “frenchisms” frustrating, but…I love it. The city is expressive in a way no other city I know is.  Sociologists say we are formed by our environment. Deserts, mountains, flat plains, cities, small towns and remote places—play a role in shaping the lives of their inhabitants just as much as the inhabitants shape their environment. This is the lens from which I view Paris. Of all the senses, I see Paris as a verbally expressive city. The city where the french culture reigns and the french language expounds.