“Let’s go to Paris tomorrow.”
As I said the words to Paula yesterday, it struck me that while deciding to move to the French countryside has enriched our lives in a thousand ways, number one for me is probably summed up by those five words – or more precisely, the last one. Tomorrow.
This ability to decide last-minute to run into the City of Light just for the day is built on three characteristics of our life:
1. Proximity. Our village is close to a high-speed train line, and exactly 267 kilometers (166 miles) from Notre Dame.
2. Engineering. France has built one of the finest high-speed train systems in the world. By car, we are an impractical three-hour drive from Paris. But the TGV delivers us non-stop to the center of Paris in an hour.
And, 3. Old age. That’s right, our discount cards on the TGV on account of being of a certain age make it affordable to travel to Paris quickly and at the last minute.
It is true that to be in love with Paris is to live inside a cliché. I mean, every time we go to the city, we wait for that special moment when we get a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower off in the distance, or catch the towers of Notre Dame. The day that fails to stir our hearts, you can put flowers on our graves.
But the clichés haven’t dimmed our passion for the city one bit. Indeed, our separate love affairs with Paris pre-date our love affair with each other by many years. No doubt, it’s one of the shared interests that made us closer. In the game of “I could never be with someone who . . .,” Paula and I share the version that ends with “. . . hates Paris.” We know people who do. We don’t understand those people. In fact, we’re pretty sure there’s something wrong with them.
And as we get to know the city better, our bonds only deepen. We’re there about twice a month, and its position as our favorite city in the world is unshakeable. We now have many “favorite” places to visit — public squares, lunch cafés, watering holes, people-watching places, dinner spots, and walking routes. We’re getting to know a more richly textured version of the city. Yet the more we know, the more we realize that, like all great cities, Paris is endlessly deep and surprising, and ultimately unknowable.
In the past two years, we’ve run to Paris at opportune or momentous times. We went to the city two days after the Notre Dame fire to see how bad the damage was. (Not as bad as we’d been led to believe.) We
watched the French World Cup men’s team win the championship at a brasserie in the Opera district, then strolled for more than two hours through streets teeming with raucous but peaceful celebration. Last winter, when we heard there was going to be a rare snowstorm in Paris, we rushed to the city while thousands were intentionally staying home. It was magical to watch the City of Light become the City of White.
On a slow middle-of-the-week day, both of us can travel from our TGV station in nearby Montbard to Paris and back on the high-speed train for about $75 total. There’s a 7 a.m. train full of commuters, and an 8 a.m. train half full of commuters, and that’s the one we usually take because it’s a bit cheaper (and because we’re lazy). After a non-stop ride of an hour, it deposits us at Gare de Lyon on the eastern edge of the city center, a stone’s throw from the Bastille. We can spend the day in Paris, then come back on either the 4:53 p.m. train or the 6:53 p.m. train. Either one has us sipping a glass of Champagne on our deck in time for dinner.
We’ve been there often enough now to have a routine. At Gare de Lyon, we join the river of commuting humanity heading to the No. 1 Metro. We go two stops to Saint Paul in the Marais, where our favorite breakfast place is a bustling café on the busiest street in the neighborhood. The server always recognizes us, and she knows our order by heart. Plus – and here’s what makes it the winner – they have one of the most generous pours for a glass of Champagne in the city.
We drink Champagne in the morning because we can.
Paris is a very old city, settled by a Celtic tribe – my people – on the banks of the Seine around 259 B.C. During the broadest expanse of the Roman empire, it was a town called Lutetia. It got its current name in the 4th century.
Today it is, as almost everyone knows, a city of surpassing beauty. The transformation wrought by Baron Haussmann under the direction of Napoleon III transformed Paris during the 19th century into one of the great world capitals, with the unmistakable architecture that we recognize today as definably Parisian.
In keeping with longstanding tradition, many in Paris hated Haussmann’s plan with passionate fervor, and only grew to love it after it was finished. This pattern has forever repeated itself in Paris, with everything from the Eiffel Tower to the Pyramid at the Louvre. Before Parisians can love a thing, they first have to hate it. It’s the French way.
Yet despite its ancient roots and its occasional stubborn conservatism, one of the things we love about Paris is that it is one of the most progressive 21st-century cities in the world.
A couple of years ago, with the city absolutely jammed with traffic, the mayor decided to eliminate traffic from the roadways along the Seine, and turn the riverside roads into pedestrian-only promenades. The commuters are still outraged, but the promenades are alive with walkers, bikers, kids, ice cream shops, lovers, playgrounds and college students. It has made Paris a better, more civilized place.
Recently, the government announced new plans for the Peripherique, the gridlocked ring highway that circles Paris. In order to deal with the congestion, they’re going to reduce the road from three lanes to two, reduce the speed limit to 50 kph, or around 35 mph, and plant trees. This will turn the Peripherique from a parking lot into a gently moving urban thoroughfare. It will also force all of the truck traffic that uses it as a means to circumnavigate the city to push themselves farther out on the expressway system, and away from the city. The air will be cleaner. The commute into the city will be more manageable. More people will probably take clean public transit. Trucking companies and commuters are, of course, outraged.
And in the most progressive project of all, Paris is in the middle of a massive upgrade and expansion of its Metro system, already one of the most efficient in the world. The goal of the project is to make it much easier for the working class and suburbanites to get to and from work each day. It involves 200 kilometers of new tracks, 68 new stations and 35 billion euros of new spending over 15 years. It might be the biggest public works project in all of Europe. And it is predicated on the notion, now quaint in America, that it’s worth spending public money for the common good.
All of that lives in the background on a typical day in Paris. It is a grand, romantic city, and so of course, its life unfolds in captured moments and small stories. One walks the streets and glances down narrow alleys, split by morning sunlight, that are virtually as they were 200 years ago. Lovers kiss on a street corner, or as often yell and wave their arms at each other with just as much passion. Tourists walk too slow as frustrated commuters eye-roll their way past on the crowded sidewalks. A brief rain transforms a city that you didn’t think could get any more romantic. An old man wearing a beret rides his bicycle,
a baguette sticking out of his backpack. My camera loves Paris even more than I do. It’s hard to walk one block without encountering breathtaking images of urban life amid beautiful architecture.
Parallel with this daily magic, we now go to Paris to do mundane things as well. Today, we’re shopping for blue jeans. And I need some more tea, which I drink every morning, from Mariage Freres, one of the oldest tea purveyors in Europe. And we need some more Champagne coupes from Café de Flore, because when one drinks, one breaks a glass or two from time to time. We love the everyday city too, the one with the Levi’s shop and the Uniqlo.
On a typical visit, we’ll usually have an exhibition we want to see before lunch. We’re going today to visit the newly reopened Resistance Museum. We’ll eat like Parisians, which is to say outdoors, slowly, while watching the great parade of humanity pass by. Then in the afternoon, we’ll run errands, or just pick a neighborhood and walk miles and miles in the world’s greatest walking city.
If we get back to the train station early, one of the most elegant restaurants in the city, Le Train Bleu, is upstairs at Gare de Lyon, in a cavernous Beaux Arts space, and if there’s a spot in the bar, it’s a great opportunity to get a head start on cocktail hour before dashing for the train.
On one evening earlier this year, we were sharing a glass of wine with our friend Didier in his apartment near Le Jardin du Luxembourg. He has lived and worked in Paris most of his life, and also has a house in Flavigny.
We were talking about life in retirement, which we are now living and Didier can see on the near horizon. I asked him how much time he might spend in Flavigny, and how much in Paris, when he no longer has to work.
While he nursed his glass of Burgundy, Didier ruminated on the question.
“I always imagined that I would spend most of my time in Flavigny, because like everyone else who lives in the city, I can tell you all the reasons why Paris is horrible,” Didier said. “All Parisians can tell you how horrible it is. But the truth is, it’s hard to imagine living anywhere else.
“So I know I will still be here a lot after I retire. I need Paris to feel alive.”
We know what he means.