Though we have been back from France for a few days, I have no photos to post because I picked up a virus toward the end, and will take time to recover.
Weeks spent in any locale sets the place upon your bones, and you begin to shift your rhythms: the pace of walking, the scan of a street, the hours of meals.
Our apartment contained a small collection of Paris-themed books; I re-read Adam Gopnik's "Paris to the Moon" and quoted a paragraph in a note to a friend:
"Paris is the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been, cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look."
I wish I'd had those words at hand when someone asked, "Why are you going to Paris again?"
Gopnik, one of my favourite essayists (who grew up in Montréal), also wrote of his inability to ever truly penetrate Paris' inner life, despite his five-year residency, fluent French and access to the city's journalists and academics. But that will happen in any large city, especially in cultures where people do not have the reflexive friendliness of Americans. (I have lost that quality, so was startled when addressed without preamble by a young woman on a bus, who smiled widely and asked, "Where are you from?")
We lived neither as tourists nor residents, but in that in-between world of visitors, which means the local cheesemonger knows you enough to shake your hand, you are received in friends' homes, and might decide to do nothing on a given afternoon but watch the light shift across the park rather than tick off another attraction.
Some sights grew familiar but never routine; every day, we passed the skein of the Seine, running like a satin ribbon around an ample beauty's waist. Le
Duc repeated the words of a Parisien friend, who told him when he first
came to Paris at twenty: "It is impossible not to look at the river."
On one crisp Sunday, we walked by the Canal St-Martin and came upon the vast tent city at Stalingrad métro. The next day the dense camp would be torn down and many of the 3,000 there bused to "resettlement centers" in the region. There was none of Baudelaire's "luxe, calme and voluptué" at Stalingrad, but the long narrow space under the métro's elevated plaza was orderly. Men played cards, clothes hung from lines, the tents stood in rows.
Now, forty-some years after our first trips, we wonder—not, Will we come again? but, How many more can we make? And as we returned home to Canada, thousands from the camp were still travellng, unlikely to revisit the center of Paris, or their native lands.
There are many Parises: first, the exquisite jewel to which tourists come for the stirring vistas, the celebrated parks, museums, restaurants. Then there is the residents' Paris, long blocks of apartments furnished with bookshelves and (to North Americans) compact kitchens, walled courtyards, schools and offices, all overseen by a monumental civic administration.
The first two Parises intersect, in the markets and grands magasins, the concert halls and métro, in the public spaces claimed for a sprint, a picnic, a meeting under a tree. It's a generously-overlapping Venn diagram, but there will always be a private Paris for residents. (They can tire of so many visitors; a friend's partner stuck his head into a favourite brasserie, and lept out as if scalded, saying: "Trop d'anglais!")
And finally, there is the dim and desperate Paris of camps and squats through which increasing numbers of the displaced pass each month, which few tourists see, and residents watch, compassion competing with wariness. Such a place is hard to imagine, unless you had Depression-era parents who knew Hoovervilles. (The Occupy movement camp in Zuccotti Park was like a three-star hotel compared to the improvised shelters.)
Europe shuffles these masses like a three-card monte game: seen, hidden, moved, with no winning hand in sight.