Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Paris is Burning

Although the first several days after arriving in Paris were cold, gloomy and damp, they were perfect for catching up on sleep and warding off jet lag. For the past three weeks, however, it’s been a glorious Indian summer: clear, blue skies, no humidity and getting progressively warmer. Temperatures have broken through the 80-degree mark multiple times and the last gasp of summer is winning the weather battle for now. We’re close to experiencing the canicule (one of my favorite French words, meaning heat wave) because even the evenings provide little relief from the heat. Don’t let anyone tell you that Parisians don’t wear shorts. When it’s hot, they do indeed and the shorter the better. No, they don’t wear them with sneakers or Birkenstocks (those are the Americans and the Germans), but they do wear them with strappy, healed sandals and stilettos. And no matter the temperature, they sport scarves: striped and solid, bulky and delicate, muslin and wool (only men and women over 70 wear scarves of the silky Hermès variety). Most scarves are tied in a Parisian knot (fold it in half across the middle, drape it around your neck, insert the loose ends through the loop hanging in front and pull them through), although we've seen many more than on past trips of the loopped-multiple-times-around-the-neck-with-just-a-bit-of-a-loose-tail-hanging-down-in-front type. Over the past few sweltering days, many Parisians have kept their scarves in their armoires, but there are still the die-hards who continue to wrap their necks despite the temperature. Are French necklines more susceptible to the cold than the rest of the world’s? Or is it a corporate plot by the Paris scarf purveyors that has convinced the citizenry that they must cover their necks?

Since we’re now into October, I must admit that I’m longing for fall color and except for some luminous yellow poplars at Versailles, there is only brown to be witnessed. The French term for autumn foliage is les feuilles mortes, literally dead leaves, and I can see that it’s an apt expression of what we’re seeing in Paris. From green to gone appears to be the life cycle of Parisian leaves. The city of light has many splendors, but autumn color is not among them. I do recall some semblance of New England glory the fall I spent in Tours, but there’s no evidence of this in Paris. We’ll soon be deep into the countryside down in the Dordogne, Lot and Aude departments and we’re hoping to find some fall color once we’ve left the city. The flowers are fading quickly, their early brown spots exacerbated by the heat and the pink and purple dahlias have lost their crisp edges. I recently ran by the Tuileries flowerbeds whose brilliance we sat next to only last week and they’ve have already faded several shades, the lines among the colors blurred.

We took advantage of the beautiful weather and headed to the Bois de Boulogne over the weekend for a run. On previous trips we’d only walked along the border of the huge park on the western limit of Paris but we read that it is a great spot for runners so we decided to explore. Completely unlike what I expected, the park is covered with thickets of trees except for two lovely lakes and two giant hippodromes. I would have been better prepared about what to expect had I paid attention to the first part of its name: bois, meaning woods. I was looking forward to expansive green vistas and at least a few flowers since the Bois de Boulogne is described by some guidebooks as “one of the most spectacular parks in Europe.” While it is large, it’s definitely not my favorite park in Paris (I’ll take Les Buttes Chaumont, Le Jardin de Luxembourg or the Parc Monceau any day). I have to admit, however, that it was terrific for running. Hundreds of chalky, limestone sand paths criss-cross the woods and the circuit of the lakes was wonderful since the people-watching distracted me from the pains in my thighs. As on the city streets, you can immediately distinguish the French – the men wear running shorts à la Bill Clinton (the short kind he wore before his handlers convinced him they weren’t presidential) and the women wear long black leggings (they're fine with exposing their long bare legs in micro-minis on the Boulevard St. Germain, but certainly not while running in public -- mon Dieu!). Neither the men nor the women wear what we would call “proper running shoes.” Their footwear consists of Puma-like flats that appear to provide little cushion or support. Joe and I both did eight miles through the park, each taking our own route since my pace, compared to his, is anemic. That day the temperature reached a sizzling 88 degrees and we sat for a long time on a park bench trading stories of our individual courses and sucking back multiple cold water bottles. Parisians were out in droves and we watched walkers and runners pass by as we cooled down. Families with babies in poussettes, lovers with arms entwined and hands in each other's back pockets and groups of young-people-sweating-in-scarves leisurely ambled by. Parisians have perfected the art of strolling and try as we might, we still have to work very hard to deliberately walk so slowly.

Lower, seasonal temperatures in the 60s are predicted for the end of the week and we’ll welcome the change in weather. Surely the investors in scarf futures want cooler temperatures to prevail and I’m looking forward to wearing the two new scarves Joe bought me at the Boulevard Raspail's open-air market yesterday. Although he drew the line at getting a scarf for himself, we’re doing our best to be Parisian.

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