Travel: A winter in Paris
Finally, after 43 years, I take a metro, climb up the station’s dirty stairs, and ignore the drizzle to goggle at the Bastille square.
Parts of this urban patch are being repaired. Dumped wires and pipes, fresh coats of cement, long barricades and traffic diversions are everywhere. The golden statue of Mercury atop a column stands as if a traffic cop is watching the grey morning’s hustle and bustle.
This can be a slice of any city’s life, except that I am standing right on the old cobblestone outline on an otherwise neat pavement near Rue Saint-Antoine. Most Parisians believe these stones are the marks of the iconic Bastille fort – the centre-stage of the French Revolution!
I should have had goosebumps. But ever since I got married, my revolutionary spirit has been all but dead.
Also, it’s too cold. And as I have put fashion over utility, the chilling gusts of February wind easily pierce through my two layers of flimsy winter wear.
Art of living
A small, pretty square is tucked behind those typical Parisian high-rises, away from the big Bastille roundabout. It has a few lively cafés, a macaroon store and busy pedestrians – everything that makes this neighbourhood, Marais, so attractive.
We walk past the smallest gas station – two machines with three short barriers on the footpath –towards a larger square, Place des Vosges that boasts a beautiful, huge park, innumerable art galleries and the house of Victor Hugo.
Paris celebrates art and literature more than any other city. The city has been home to many of the world’s top-notch artists, painters, poets and authors. It’s here, at the gates of Galeries Lafayette, the city’s foremost departmental store, that Pablo Picasso, 45 and famous, spotted a 17-year old Marie-Thérèse Walter and said, “I am Picasso”. The girl retorted: “Who?”
Results of their dramatic love story adorn the walls of the Picasso Museum, the house where Picasso shifted after a stint with Montmartre. A small hotel on a narrow street has a plaque of another genius: Oscar Wilde. The author spent his last few months here. Terminally ill, Wilde didn’t let go of his wit. “Either the wall paper goes or I go,” he announced. Unfortunately, he went first.
Facing the Seine, Shakespeare and Company is a reincarnation of the original bookstore that shut down during World War II. From George Bernard Shaw to Ernest Hemingway to James Joyce, the doyens of literature had often visited the original store. The new version is a Mecca for the world’s book lovers.
My wife too, enters the store. After half an hour she comes out without a purchase. “I can get all these books on Amazon,” says the pragmatic woman.
By now, I desperately need a pair of gloves to prevent my hands from freezing. Ruchira doesn’t appreciate big brands. So I locate a cheap store that, from the outside, seems to offer a variety of choices.
The shopkeeper finds one pair that fits me. I pay 5 euros and wear them immediately. Later, after many women give me a strange look in the queue to enter Pompidou Centre, I realise it’s a pair of lady’s gloves.
Feels like home
My Schengen visa is about to expire, I am in my early 40s and flight tickets are ludicrously cheap: these were reasons enough to go to Paris.
Some friends disapprove the idea of tourism in the bitter Paris winter. Many more offer encouragement. Padma Rao, my colleague at Hindustan Times, tries to give me a crash course in the French language and concludes, “You are hopeless.” Kunal Pradhan, another colleague, enthusiastically suggests two excellent restaurants (I try one of them for coq au vin). Padma also introduces me to her friend, Parisian author Olivier Cabiro. We quickly exchange a few mails to fix a morning meeting.
I pull out my nuclear option against winter: a Jeremy Scott jacket with fluorescent yellow, pink and green splashed over thick layers of lining. I got it at 90 per cent discount at a stock clearance sale in Delhi, simply because no other customers touched it.
We meet at République, one of the epicentres of the ‘yellow vest’ protests. Sure enough, the suave Parisian, bewildered by the riot of outrageous colours, puts it mildly, “I really like your jacket!”
Olivier and his beautiful wife Sylvie invite us to their home for dinner. Over champagne and a sumptuous dinner prepared by Sylvie, we chat for hours about life in Paris. She tells us that the best way to enjoy Paris is to sit at a café and indulge in people-watching.
Olivier describes Parisians as an unhappy lot always complaining about either the traffic or the government or the metro. “Then the Parisians must be like the Delhiites, na?” I wonder.
The Diwali of life
One day we reach the top floor of the sun-baked Eiffel Tower. On another, we climb up the Arc de Triomphe. The two iconic monuments highlight different shades of Paris. One gives you a sense of detachment, the other makes you feel like a local.
We also spend hours at the Louvre but end up loving Musée d’Orsay more. We shun many touristy places to visit the Panthéon. The final resting place for many French doyens (Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Marie and Pierre Curie, to name a few) is right next to the University of Paris. The location can’t be better. Before one enters the underground crypt containing the tombs, one has to walk through the bustling energy of youth, signifying the unstoppable cycle of life.
Since I am not so philosophical, I concentrate on a small café that sells only crêpes. It’s a runaway hit among students. I follow Sylvie’s advice and spend a long time there with a huge crêpe and a cup of coffee till my wife complains that I am ignoring her and only looking at other women.
We complete six days in Paris and feel happy that we’ve seen a lot. We come to Montmartre on the last day of our trip. And after an hour, everything we’ve seen so far starts fading away.
It’s a festival of colours. It’s a Diwali of human life on the undulating terrains of Paris. A woman is blowing soap-bubbles for unknown children to play with. Couples are head over heels looking at the dazzling city down below. The painters are everywhere with their myriad colours. Many are eager to sketch portraits, others are immersed in their creations.
The narrow lanes brew romance and vitality. The buildings look very different and the city’s character has changed for good. There’s a positive vibe all around.
We walk down to a small, flat piece of land surrounded by trees and small houses. The hill rolls down further. Under the sunshine, the plaza looks like a smiling bride. There’s a small café with a long line of customers eager to sit down and soak in the surreal beauty. This postcard of daily life in Paris seems to be straight from a Claude Monet studio.
Gloves and love
In the evening, we choose a tiny café, La Petite Rose des Sables, for our last dinner in Paris. It has four small tables and is run by a lady old enough to be my grandma. A placard says, “Mama can’t speak English”.
We order chicken, meatballs and wine. Old Madame Zouzou brings two shot glasses brimming with liquor to the table before disappearing behind pink chequered curtains.
After some time, she returns with our food and wine. Halfway through our meal, she offers mushroom salad and with a broad smile says in French, “On the house.” This, we realise later, is the beginning of a long journey of complimentary food, cakes and drinks. It makes no commercial sense for her, but the old lady’s eyes glitter as her last two patrons for the evening enjoy a hearty dinner.
We somehow finish our meal consisting of several courses and ask for the cheque. Old mama instead brings a pair of plastic red roses. Sensing that it must be very cold outside, she also gets woollen caps for us. For free, of course.
We try to pay for the caps. She refuses to take any extra money and tells Ruchira that she looks a lot like her daughter.
I am definitely coming back to Paris, to spend hours at that tree-lined Montmartre plaza and have a meal at grandma’s kitchen.
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From HT Brunch, April 14, 2019
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