I just got back from two weeks vacation in Paris with the Izumi and the kids. We opted to spend all our time in one place and rented an apartment so that we could soak in the rhythms of daily life in the city at our own pace. As an American from Silicon Valley, two weeks in one go seemed positively decadent but after experiencing a Finnish winter, I now understand why two, if not four weeks at a go is a Finnish right.
Parisians have created a wonderful alternate reality, a rose-colored bubble to keep out the noisy efficiency of the 21st century. The Paris we experienced mostly doesn’t know about sweatshirts or bulk food. It’s important to look good to keep up the illusion. It’s OK, if not preferred, to wear bright red slacks and a shirt with white cuffs. People pull this off naturally, without looking the least bit pompous. When you visit a cafe, water comes to your table not rationed out in plastic cups but in functional stemware and a recycled wine carafe that says, “please rest easy, stay awhile.”
The bistros overflow not with tourists but locals, taking long, chatty lunches with co-workers or clients over home cooked meals that you need to slice with a knife and fork, all washed down with cool Rose and finished off with dessert and a demi-tasse of coffee. People eat to share the experience, not stuff something in the gut to stave off hunger. This is not the land of pizza slices or Subway food logs. Even the ice cream is artfully crafted into a bouquet to be marveled at before it is consumed.
Our apartment was in the Marias, a fashionable district on the right bank, (3ème Arrondissement if you must). Home to the Place des Vogues where Victor Hugo took and apartment and Henry II was mortally wounded with a lance to the eye while jousting to celebrate his daughter’s wedding. The surrounding area is fashionably hip and reminded us of Daikanyama or Aoyama in Tokyo. Packed on the main streets but more interesting on the fringes where you find the up and coming boutiques. We had a couple of guidebooks, Rick Steves’ Paris 2010 and the Eyewitness Travel Guide were good for a few walks but Izumi’s Japanese guidebooks were even better in pointing out interesting places off the beaten path (I would link to it but we left it behind in the apartment for others to use).
It was a stroke of genius to travel with Mimi, our small Terrier-Shizu mix. French people love dogs and Mimi was free to roam with us through the stores and was welcomed by her own bowl of water when we took her to lunch with us. The only regret is that dogs are not allowed in most parks and we had to leave her at the apartment when we chose to visit a museum. People say that it’s hard to get a waiter’s attention. All you need is a cute dog and you’ll immediately have half the staff fawning all over you, or at least your dog!
We settled into a daily rhythm of visiting one museum a day in order to pace ourselves. We would go either in the morning or late-afternoon to avoid the crowds, then spend the other half of the day out on long, exploratory walks with Mimi. Paris is such a great city to explore on foot so 2-3 hour hikes to investigate neighborhoods was the norm. We caught a break in the weather which was oddly cooler than the record-breaking heatwave in Helsinki. Average temperatures for the week was in the mid-20s (mid-70s Fahrenheit). In order to save a bit on costs (and also because the kitchen in the apartment wasn’t really set up to cook, we ended up making lunch our biggest meal of the day. Restaurants have great values during the lunch hours and you can fortify yourself with a two course Prix Fixe menu making anything more than cheese, pate, and baguettes for dinner unnecessary.
I was delighted to find the usual myths about the coldness of the French smashed during our trip. As mentioned before, having Mimi with us did a lot to charm people but also, because we walked the same streets each day, we began to recognize (and be recognized) by those we saw as we set out on our explorations. Strangers on trains were all polite and the instinctual civility of people who were quick to give up their seat to others or hold the door made things even more pleasant.
Our last evening, I mixed up the dates on my online reservation for the Eiffel Tower and expected there to be all sorts of trouble as my tickets were for the following day. The line for tickets that day was horrendously long so I prepared to have go at convincing the staff to give us a break and let us in a day earlier. Each step of the way as I steeled myself to argue our way forward, New York-style. I was met instead with a shrug and a, “fine with me, it’s really up to the next guy.” We went from ticket checker, to security guard, to ticket taker, to elevator operator before we finally realized that we made it all the way through to the second level.
We were driven to the airport the next morning by a cabbie I met the day before. He chatted colorfully all the way to the airport as we exchanged observations about the different places we had been. Sometimes he would start up a topic, other times it was me, lots of back and forth. He was originally from Algeria and observed that the Mediterranean cultures were definitely more chatty than those in the North.
Arriving back in Finland that evening, my few half-hearted attempts at conversation were as futile as trying to set fire to wet leaves. An icy stare on one word answers from our driver squelched any attempts at conversation. I felt like Kermit the Frog, my curiosity kept at bay by his forearms, laced with menacing tattoos. The rest of the drive home was silent, punctuated only by the breathing of our driver through his nostrils. Vacation over. Back to Serious-land.
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