Friday, January 14, 2011

A Paris Love Affair

In The Sopranos episode Cold Stones, Carmela Soprano and her best friend Rosalie Aprile take flight from northern New Jersey mob life by jetting to Paris.

Meandering the boulevards, musea and churches, Carmela gushes uncontrollably about the city, its signature architecture, its culture, its squares, its bridges - just about everything one comes to think about the self-style City of Light. For Carmela, it's a spiritual awakening, the realisation that there is another life outside her marital car wreck of lies, evasion and deceipt.

While most of us are not seeking such contrast to a life in organised crime, it's hard not to wax as lyrically. For some, Paris is a noisy, traffic-clogged migraine waiting to happen, frustrated by indifferent waiters and made hazardous by streets peppered with dog poop. For others - and here's to whom my subs get paid - it's an intoxicatingly beautiful city, by turns prompting curiosity, swooning and shear enjoyment just to be out and about.

Spend anything more than a business daytrip to the city and you'll quickly become taken in by its charm and knowing beauty: every neighbourhood invites you for an hour, for an afternoon...forever, ensnaring you with the escapist prospect of living in one of those small but airy, big-windowed apartments, with the smell of freshly-baked bread wafting up from the boulangerie below.

If this already smacks of cliché it's because Paris is almost unreal; like a Vogue cover model, it can be too attractive. Stroll down another of Baron Haussman's perfectly planned streets and you're not only confronted by a the bewildering, myriad corner brasseries in which to drop in for a livener, but also an ambience as unique as your fingerprints. 

The thing with Paris is that even though you know what you'll get when you turn up, you still can't feel dissatisfied. It's like a theme park you never tire of revisiting. It's all there for you, waiting as you walk through its gates - the Seine, the Louvre, the Champs Elysées, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and the royal palace. All these landmarks are within one open-topped bus ride of each other, a Universal Studios tour without rubber sharks.

No city can offer the same scale of overwhelming drama in its vistas as, say, Yosemite, but the grandeur of the buildings lining the Seine and the almost audaciously ornate architecture surrounding the Louvre and the royal palace (despite its inherent anachronism) will leave anyone in a state of awe as gape-mouthed as any other world wonder.

Now, before you think I've been retained by Nicolas Sarkozy himself to big up his capital city, let me state that I still hold affection for my native London: I'm proud to have grown up in its leafy suburbs, proud to have worked in its choking midst, and proud to have spent some of the most enjoyable days of my life in its music venues, restaurants, art galleries and all the other places the make visiting and living in London such a rich experience. And, while I'm at it, I still hold candles for Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco, the other cities I can enjoy unconditionally. Paris, however, holds different currency. In overhauling a medieval city - some say for the better, others for the worse - Haussman's renovation worked wonders in creating a city for its people.

There is, though, more to the appeal of Paris than urban planning alone. London is comparable in bustle, New York equal in vibrancy, and Rome, Vienna and Prague in architectural interest, but what all lack - and Paris has by the bagload, oversized, WAG-style Vuitton bags - is romance. It flows through Paris like the Seine itself; it is alive in the character of every street, every street corner, and every street corner cafe.

It is also, surprisingly, more laid-back than you might expect. Of course, being on the Metro at 8.30 in the morning carries its proximity and claustrophobia issues, and by laid-back, I don't mean the way Madrid, Barcelona or Milan ooze chilled-out cool. But there is a subtle, even gentle manner to which Paris carries itself: at 11am on a Monday morning, when the office-bound in most other metropolises would be cursing the mountain weekend e-mail clogging up their inboxes, the Parisian is in a bar quietly sipping a thimble of coffee, perusing Le Figaro or conversing with a neighbour about national politics. Or Carla Bruni.

Its tempting to scoff at such apparent reluctance to take gainful employment seriously. Or show fear at the sight of gangs of wealthy, elderly (and almost exclusively) women marauding through the 8th arrondissement on shopping trips, all Gucci sunglasses and Prada handbags. "Haw," you might say, "these are just actors, hired to manage the expectations of gullible American tourists".

It would generally be wrong to look at Paris only through rose-tinted RayBans. It is not totally the chocolate box cliché it might think it - and  apparently, I - would like to think it is. Driving is mostly easy, but there are times when you can't help hearing the voice of Alec Guinness intoning: "Use the Force, Luke", as you squeeze between  taxis hell-bent on competing for your lane, regardless of you actually being in it.

Not all of it is so attractive to look at, either: the downright ugly 'grand arch' of La Defense, not to mention the neighbouring mountains of steel that house this district's ghetto of banks, corporate HQs and management consultancies are, thankfully, a sideshow, a mere reminder that big business needs big buildings in which to make big money. 

Straddling la Périphérique are edges to the city that have grown tougher in recent years, with racial and social tensions venting themselves periodically and the far-from cosmopolitan French melting pot boiling over. 

Then is also the French propensity for industrial militancy; a day's journey into, out of, or across Paris can swiftly be irritated by wildcat strikes breaking out over the most trifling of issues. But even being the capital city of post-industrial Europe's most unionised economy cannot detract from the copious reasons Paris is rivalled by a scant few and probably bettered by none. 

Paris has mastered the art of intertwining modernity and classicism. The Louvre extension, with its remarkable glass pyramid (and, now, its own subterranean Apple Store), exemplifies this perfectly. Throughout the corporate Parisian landscape, offices sit behind traditional street façades, hiding the cleverly incorporated modern architectural designs within- the use of natural and artificial light.

It is a wonder anyone gets any work done at all in Paris. There's a cafe, bar or restaurant on just about every square meter of real estate, and from petit-dejeuner until last knockings, they all seem to be full and bustling. Again, temptation makes you think that it's all an act, but it's not. Parisians really do make time to enjoy the finer things in life.

Paris isn't a city, it's a novel that engages you and won't leave you alone. It is the most enriching cinematic experience you will ever pass through a box office to see. As you witness that Parisian strut - a combination of elegance and indifference - you realise you're not walking through a living museum, and you're not even looking at a place, but you are watching the most well-rounded, multi-layered and intrinsically fascinating character ever written. Perhaps that's what's drawn writers, poets, philosophers and intellectuals of all shades over the decades to its dens of discourse. I know I can't wait to get stuck in.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Simon,
    Admit it ... you're really missing Eindhoven, right? Seriously, you're lucky to be living in such a beautiful city!