In which I head to the spiritual home of all Proustians, and discover sunshine, big moustaches, grumpy waiters and spectacularly good roast lamb.
I have a day and a night in Paris, on my way to a writer’s retreat in the Loire Valley. I’m delighted to be catching up with old friends from New Zealand, Rachel and Chris, who are, by wonderful coincidence, also in town en route to a wedding in Oslo. We are dining and staying the night with a mutual friend, Becky, who’s currently living and working here. The timing couldn’t be more perfect.
Of course, one never really needs an excuse to visit Paris. It’s a place I dreamed of visiting from the age of 10, when my brother sent me a postcard of the Pompidou Centre, with its crazy futuristic coloured pipes on the exterior of the building. It was love at first sight before I’d even got there, fuelled by a steady diet of French films, a heavy dose of French post-structuralist critical theory, and and the memory of all the bright young things who partied and died here: Marie Antoinette, Picasso, Gertrude Stein, Serge Gainsbourg, Oscar Wilde – and, briefly, Carrie from Sex and the City. Paris is the birthplace of the four cornerstones of civilised modern existence: cinema, the metric system, the macaron and oral sex (the last one according to Foucault, anyway).
Paris is a place that delights tourists in much the same way that New York does, by presenting enough of the well-hewn cliches about “Paris life” to correlate with a first-time visitor’s fantasies. The wild boulevards are tree-lined, the cafes langorously paced and filled with chic-looking people drinking coffee and smoking in a guilt-free haze. Waiters with black aprons and Village People moustaches grimace at tourists and open bottles of Evian with their yellowing teeth. Immaculately dressed women in high heels walk little dogs on leashes through the Luxembourg Gardens. Debonair men with five o’clock stubble wear perfectly draped little scarves with leather jackets. The Art Nouveau-era Metro signs and shopping arcades effortlessly recall the era of Proust and the Belle Epoque. The views of the Seine are breathtakingly beautiful. Even the instantly recognisable Eiffel Tower manages to astound with its clean lines and startlingly modernist construction – and it’s chocolate brown (who knew?). Somewhere, there’s always a piano-accordion player cranking out the soundtrack from Amelie on a street corner.
There’s another side to Paris, of course, that first-time visitors may not see or choose to see. The streets are covered with discarded cigarette butts, Metro tickets and chewing gum, and the train stations are grim and filthy by comparison with other European cities. Parisians hailing from the former Empire states – Algeria, Tunisia, Senegal – don’t appear to be having as an exalted a time as their European compatriots, and there are beggars everywhere. Life in central Paris looks charming and well-appointed, but provides a smokescreen from the ugliness and unrest of the banlieues encircling the city. Unlike London or Berlin, which tends to wear its ugliness and disrepair alongside its beauty, Paris is an ageing courtesan, expertly applying layers of powder and a beauty spot to distract onlookers from the ravages beneath.
For today, anyway, I’m happy to revel in the simple pleasures that Paris offers in abundance to we of the bourgeoisie: good food, an easy pace, and a relaxed urbane energy that one can slip into like a favourite pair of silk pyjamas. Becky’s apartment is in a 300-year old building with a private courtyard. You push open a heavy iron fortress door, and suddenly you’re in the 18th century. I climb up four flights of winding stairs, panting slightly as I realise I’m not as fit I should be, and relieved that I only brought a small suitcase.
I shower and change, and then take a stroll down the road to the Luxembourg Gardens. It’s a hot sunny day and the gardens are full of Parisians taking the sun and eating delicious little ice creams. In keeping with the stately grounds of the palace (now housing the Senat, the upper house of the French parliament) and gardens, everyone seems very well behaved. There’s no drunkenness, no yobs with their shirts off, and definitely no one peeing against an ornamental palm tree. The large assault rifles carried by the gendarmerie standing guard outside the Senat might have something to do with the subdued atmosphere, but it’s all very pleasant.
In the Orangerie – a building that I’m always disappointed when I visit to discover that it doesn’t contain orange trees – there’s an amazing exhibition of photographs of Paris during WWI. There’s a formal composition to most of the photos, but most of them are of ordinary people and situations, that seem to pulsate with life. It’s amusing to see how little the Gallic profile seems to have changed in 100 years: the locals still have broad faces and deep set eyes and big noses and robust jawlines, though teeth have appeared to improve since then. Most of the men sport spectacular moustaches, and everyone, male and female, are wearing hats. It’s heartbreakingly poignant seeing the excitement and optimism in the peoples’ faces as war is declared, and to see those looks disappear as the war drags on, replaced by expressions of grim determination. The photos hint at the social upheaval created by the war: women are photographed working as postal clerks and engine drivers, and there are some striking portraits of immigrants from the French colonies – Vietnam, Chad, Senegal – working in munitions factories for the war effort.
I’m reminded of the chapter in Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life where he talks about Proust looking at paintings in the Louvre and trying to match them with people he knew in his own life. de Botton says that this exemplified Proust’s assertion that “aesthetically, the number of human types is so restricted that we must constantly, wherever we may be, have the pleasure of seeing people we know.” de Botton asserts that this is one of the grand purposes of art, and of Proust in particular – to feel at home everywhere. “[W]orlds that had seemed threateningly alien reveal themselves to be essentially much like our own, expanding the range of places in which we feel at home.” It’s a lovely thought, and seems to explain the enduring appeal of photography, which helps us feel a connection with the long dead from the past, and see ourselves in them. I make a mental note to re-read How Proust Can Change Your Life. It was certainly a fun read the first time around.
Then I’m off to meet my delicious French friend David and his even more delicious boyfriend Cedric. David and I have had a long debate about Cedric over the years. I didn’t meet him until last year, when I was convinced that he didn’t exist. Now that I have met him, I keep telling David that Cedric would, clearly, be much happier with me as his boyfriend. David politely disagrees, and so we must all go on living this pretence of happiness. It is difficult, but like Celine Dion, my heart will go on.
Our date starts off somewhat eccentrically, at a short concert of medieval English choral music at the Church of St-Germain-des-Pres, directed by a friend of David’s. Cedric tells me that St-Germain is one of the oldest churches in Paris, and it looks it: like most Gothic monsters, it’s very dark inside and has tiny windows (glass being rather expensive in those days). I tell Cedric that I think this would be a perfect place for our wedding. Not quite getting the joke (or politely pretending not to), he earnestly explains about the separation of church and state in France, and how marriage is primarily a civil ceremony. I really don’t mind where we get married, as long as Cedric says “I do.”
After the concert, which is lovely – polyphonic music of that era needs to be thrown up to the vaulted roof spaces drink. David has to do rather a lot of work, as my French and Cedric’s English isn’t quite good enough for us to tell each other what we mean to each other, but somehow we muddle through.
Then it’s off for dinner with Rachel and Chris and Becky, who have been shopping up a storm in the Marais all afternoon. Everyone is dressed up and looks wonderfully chic, if somewhat fatigued from carrying Rachel’s shopping bags home. It’s a glorious evening, full of wine and amazing food and conversations that feel like they’ve just been picked up from yesterday.
The Americans at the next table look on in horror as we order the cote d’agneau and the cote de boeuf. I want to assure them that it’s all ok – Chris is an oncologist specialising in bowel cancer, and he says red meat is fine as long as we eat up our green veggies.
The lamb is particularly good, cooked to melt-in-the-mouth perfection, and there’s a bed of potatoes and onions cooked in the juices of the lamb that we hoover up. Rachel and I each order a mille fieulle, which is, we both agree, the closest thing we’ve each come to an orgasm with all our clothes on in at least a week.
Afterwards, we walk home. Chris and Rachel are slightly drunk, but who can blame them, since they’re in Europe on holiday without their children. Their next stop is London, where they’ll be staying in my flat while I’m in France for the week. There’s a long complicated conversation about what to do with my keys when they leave, which I realise is perhaps best had in the morning. We end the evening in the cool airy living room of Becky’s apartment, drinking T2 tea and nibbling on chocolates, and watching the evening slowly fade to black.
Becky kindly invites me to come and stay for a long weekend over the summer. I’ll definitely be back, especially once I’ve got some more of In Search of Lost Time under my belt. Though my visit a few years ago to the Carnavalet Museum to see Proust’s cork-lined walls and small, uncomfortable looking iron-framed bed was a bit of a disappointment, there are many more Proust haunts I want to visit yet.