I always forget that initially Paris is rather formidable. I forget because that memory is later overshadowed by the light and beauty and joie de vivre of the city, but at first….ooh la la.
Everyone is Paris seems to be in a hurry, moving quickly and purposefully. No lollygagging here. People seem to have a sixth sense about when the streetlights will change or even when waiting is simply not required. I patiently watch for the little green man, as most people do, most of the time – but at other times it’s like the crowd has been given a silent sign and they surge forward regardless of the colour of the little man. I run the risk of obstructing the flow if I don’t go with them, so I do, feeling just a little anxious that a gendarme or angry motorist will upbraid me.
Pausing to check my map makes me feel quite out of step, so generally I too try to stride along purposefully. The street names are clearly posted high on the sides of the buildings (although some signs are old, worn and a bit tricky to decipher), but of course Paris was not built on a grid, or indeed according to any plan. The first day I set off to find my school on foot, I made a wrong turn because I misread a street sign. Feeling panicky that I’d be late for class and have an irate professeur, I thought about asking the people rushing past me for guidance, but really they seemed so pressés, I didn’t dare. I found a Tabac and asked if I could buy a map. 5€ later, I had a fantastic little book with maps by arrondissement. As it turns out, I was about 2 blocks from the school, and made it exactly on time.
Some things have changed in Paris over the past 50 years (I lived in Montmartre for a year in 1963-40, when I was…quite young.) It does not smell the same at all. I have the most distinct memory of the smell of Paris from my youth – a strong and somewhat repulsive mixture of French cigarette smoke, garlic and urine. I don’t miss this odour. Well, maybe I do, just a little. The air seems very clean now. Fortunately so do the sidewalks, although even today the French do not clean up after their dogs as well as, say, Canadians do – so it is worth watching one’s step.
What I miss most are the little specialty shops, which used to populate every street. Some few remain: the ubiquitous boulangeries and pâtisseries (usually in the same shop) and the boucheries. But I have not seen a single charcuterie or epicerie, shops that sold charcuterie and lovely little French shredded salads, nor any papeteries or fromageries. In their place are many supermarkets, where the food is very good, but…it is not the same. It is, in fact, easier to shop in such all-in-one places as a foreigner, but it lacks the intimacy of the Parisian shopping of old. Still, the food is fresh and good. I bought a very basic package of chicken thighs – not organic or expensive or anything, cooked them quite simply and could not believe how good they tasted. Like chicken, not…whatever it is that most chicken tastes like at home.
The metros are cleaner and more automated, of course, but there are still long walks within metro stations to get from one ligne to another. The streets remain either very narrow – and the sidewalks even narrower – or wide – beautiful boulevards; there is little in-between. People are still both friendly and formal: “Bonjour, Madame (or Monsieur)” is de rigueur upon entering a shop – and they are rather more forgiving of bad French than in days of yore.
My first week here has been grey and rainy, but tomorrow, it will be springtime in Paris and I have the whole weekend to explore old haunts. Fantastique, alors!