It is time to feel Paris's heartbeat and sense her vitality, this lady of the Seine, grande dame of Europe.
We walk from the cafe, heading north to the Seine and then east to the glorious statue of St. Michael, a dramatically violent scene frozen in bronze. The day is bright and nearly perfect, and humanity is everywhere. Throngs of tourists from all over the world make the whole city appear restless. Everyone is dressed as you would see them in San Francisco or other light-hearted cities with four seasons. That is, with an eye to what is pretty, trendy and attractive. Slim bodies dominate every view. Very few individuals are obese in this town. Unfortunately, many smoke, and I try not to think about their lungs, hearts and future health problems. So much else about the French lifestyle is healthy that I am amazed they embrace cigarette smoking so blithely.
The day is warming up, and I am wearing too much clothing. It was suitable for a flight of nine hours in the dark, but now I am liable to perspire with the least provocation. Luckily strolling is easy because shop windows arrest my progress constantly. I cannot help myself; I admire almost all of them. Every window outdoes the last, displaying whimsy, art, fashion and style. I try to choose the most interesting to photograph. I am very quickly finding myself frustrated, delighted and dizzy with choices. I hope I die in such a state of mind.
There are some narrow streets that I prefer to the broad avenues because of the sense of what might be possible to find behind them. Doorways are grand, and they are forbidding, standing like keepers of rare, highly guarded secrets. This is what Paris makes you do: Imagine. You see massive facades, immense baroque structures built of dense blonde stones, curliqued and curving leaves modestly covering fat cupids and angels. I can imagine the stone masons who built them and the people for whom they were built hundreds of years ago. And yet, there next to them are windows exhibiting the sleekest of modern kitchen designs and austere chic interiors. Vespas and tiny cars that look like toys purr past on boulevards and everywhere you hear the tapping heels of walkers and French people chatting between themselves. The language is just comprehensible enough to me that I understand about every 10th or 20th word and make up my own sentences with them.
It is not to say Paris is perfect. Peek under her petticoats and find a layer of dirt and grime, the trash left behind by heedless citizens and visitors. Find also miles of grafiti lining metro routes, freeways and apartment buildings. Other urban blight is present, but I, like every other visitor, choose to overlook the tired areas of blight and perpetuate the charm, panache and giddiness for which Paris is famous.
Notre Dame cathedral's place is carpeted with tourists, everyone posing for each other's cameras. This spot is the exact center of Paris, and a bronze circle indicates it to be so. We decide that there is no way we are going to stand in the long snaking line to see the interior of the famous cathedral, so we walk west on the north side of the Seine - the right bank - past the grand buildings that flank the river. The massive grandeur of French officialdom, past and present, is at first beautiful, then imposing and finally exhausting to keep focused upon. I am fading fast, and I must sleep.
We return to our hotel, which is ready at last. A nap turns into a several-hour crash of body and mind coping with a nine-hour lag of time. Finally I stagger to the shower and freshen up. It changes my personality; I am human again and ready for a meal.
We are off to try Le Polidor, a well-known eating establishment in the Fifth Arrondissement. It is warm in the early evening when we step out onto the narrow street, and the city is humming with moving crowds. Again, store windows distract me, but so does the dappled light filtering through chestnut and mulberry trees along Boulevard St. Germain. And so does every pretty young woman and handsome man, every dash of color and splash of style. Paris is both lively and mellow, as if dipped in a warm wine. Young students are out for the evening, many of them smoking outside of cafes or standing in clusters or rolling past on bicycles.
The backdrop of French language is a burbling white noise to me, like a babbling brook, and it runs like a thread through every scene, tying attitude, value and expectation into one whole. Separately, the bits and pieces of Paris might be whimsical, beautiful, stark or plain, but the language and what it represents to me about the people who speak it tie all into one physical place called Paris. It is enigmatic and elegant all at once, and so the city seems to me the same.
Dinner at La Polidor is a very tasty and charming experience. It has been in business since 1865 and shows its bruises and sags, but the unmistakable golden patina of traditional French cuisine and style runs very deep in all that you see and eat there. I love my duck confit. It is exactly the meal I am looking for. Real food, simply prepared, grounded in centuries-old tradition that is unpretentious and proud.
The young throbbing pulse of Saturday night is beating hard once we re-emerge onto city streets and lanes after dinner. It is such a balmy evening that no Parisian in their right mind would be left indoors. It is time for a good walk to aid digestion and see more of our city region. Pont des Artes is spread with picnic blankets and lounging youth, living simply but well, on the bridge itself and on the banks of the Seine below. Thousands of people are out along the river, watching it, eating together, murmuring and laughing. It is very peaceful to see. The bridge itself consists of a boardwalk-style surface bordered essentially by a chain link fence set very low on both sides of the bridge. A few light standards and benches are arrayed attractively so that it seems more like a park than a bridge. The most unique feature that has emerged since it was built are many thousands of padlocks attached to the links of the fencing, each with a tiny inked-on message alluding to lost mates, true loves, parents or children.
After crossing the bridge, a sad and mournful cello's echoing notes pull us toward the Louvre area, and then a flutist playing Bach lilts and lifts its notes to the cupolas and arches. The glass pyramid designed by I.M. Pei reflects gray and silver hues off its surfaces in the Louvre courtyard. A small boy whizzes past on his in-line skates, weaving and curving gracefully and then ducking between startled tourists as he rounds a corner suddenly, out of sight, gone like a wisp. So went the day, and then the night, flowing with youthful energy, grounded in a sense of the layered past.
Causes Christine Bottaro Supports
The Nature Conservancy, California State Parks, The United Way