Monday, September 24, 2012

Paris: The Last Hot Hurrah

The studio we’d rented for our first month in Paris became home for our final eight days. Perhaps because of its location on the always-shaded inner courtyard of the 150-year old building, it was somewhat protected from most of the outdoor heat and was a relatively cool sanctuary. We reluctantly went about unpacking our bags for the final time on our Gap Year. When it came time to stuff everything back in, our year in Europe would be over and we would be filling our duffels for the flight back home.

We listened to the familiar sounds in the apartment building: the couple making breakfast next door, the cougher upstairs and the opening and closing of the heavy front door. After our peripatetic year, we’d circled back to Paris. When we’d arrived 12 months earlier, the weather had been cool and rainy with fall in the air and in contrast, it was now the sticky, hot summer. Indeed, we’d come full circle in returning to Paris and had run through the seasons of Europe.

Paris was a ghost town. It was our first time in the city in the second half of the summer and although I'd heard how deserted the place is in August, actually witnessing it so empty was a little eerie. All was quiet along the banks of the Seine. I half-expected to see tumbleweeds rolling down the Boulevard Saint Germain past Les Deux Magots. Ordinarily, I find that there’s a surface sparkle of color set against the never-ending French vanilla cream of Parisian buildings, but even the local color seemed muted in August’s indolence.

We arrived in Paris on a Thursday afternoon and the calm was palpable. Are we sure it’s not a Sunday, we thought. But then the next day dawned and even at the height of what should have been the morning rush hour, Paris remained asleep and it was Sunday once again. There were so few people on the streets and any we passed were not speaking French. The locals had abandoned Paris for the mountains and the shore and left their fair city in the hands of the tourists. Life in Paris is slow in August and mirrored the tempo the waning days of our year had taken. We were in sore need of some unscheduled down time to mentally and emotionally prepare for returning to the States. And thus our time in Paris was dictated by our internal rhythms without haste or schedules. We awoke each day with no agenda and eschewed temporal exactitude for serendipity -- a luxury we were keenly aware would too quickly disappear once we set foot back in the real world. It was our last gasp of spontaneity for a while.

The temperatures exacerbated Paris’ summer pace. Everything and everyone was in slow motion because of the heat -- over 100 degrees with a healthy dose of humidity in a city where air conditioning is hardly de rigueur. The weather was such that even with no movement at all while we sat quietly in the shade on a bench near the Eiffel Tower, we were bathed in sweat. Perspiration puddled on our upper lips, dripped down our temples and dropped onto our thighs. We considered joining those young and old who resorted to jumping into gushing fountains for relief but in the end decided to head to an awninged cafe for cold drinks.

It was soon pillbox countdown time. Every Monday morning I mark the new week by replenishing my vitamin pillbox. I felt so profoundly the inevitable passage of time as I dropped the tablets into their daily slots for the final time in Europe. So few pills remained and so few days to go. Our flight would leave Friday and here it was Monday. The final week’s countdown had started.

There was some final, gentle exploring of neighborhoods unknown we’d decided to embark upon and found ourselves in northeast Paris along the banks of the Canal Saint-Martin. There’s an energy along the canal, much like that found in quartiers all over the world where young people flock together, play their instruments outdoors and enjoy endless conversation. Quirky boutiques and trendy cafes line both sides of the canal and iron footbridges cross now and then from side to side. We stopped for an early dinner in an industrial space turned funky bistro serving up Indian fare looking out on the canal. I’m sure the other patrons – young, hip and international -- wondered about the 56-year old interlopers in their midst.

With just two more days and a wake-up left to our Gap Year and desperate for the relief of some serious air conditioning, we decided to indulge in a capstone lunch at a fine restaurant. But finding such a venue was no easy task since almost all were closed for the entire month of August: Lasserre, Taillevant, Le Pré Catelan and others. I envisioned all the finest chefs of Paris in starched toques sipping umbrella cocktails at tiki bars along the Côte d’Azur.

And then Joe suggested Le Jules Verne on the Eiffel Tower. All associations with the doomed engagement of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes aside, our meal was magnifique. We had no expectations other than a beautiful view but not only was the panorama priceless, the food, the service and the wine at this Alain Ducasse restaurant made for a wonderful memory. As I sipped my Sancerre in a long-stemmed wineglass, I reflected on all those times over the months when we’d lacked goblets of fine crystal or even a simple glass and settled for white wine in plastic cups. And here we were dining on the second level of the Eiffel Tower. We had certainly mastered the art of turning on a dime from budget traveler basics to the finest Europe had to offer.

On our return home, we’ll surely be asked to play parlour games about our favorite countries and cities and I will be reluctant. Picking favorites is inherently reductive and divisive by definition, whereas the reality is so much more complex. To select one or two is to eliminate the others and this is a relegation that just doesn’t seem fair. So many factors went into making almost all the places we visited special.

But in the end, we are human and we do indeed have our preferences. The most frequently asked question will likely be: which was our favorite city? And the answer to that one will be easy. It is Paris hands down, no question, without a doubt. We haven’t yet visited all the world’s grand cities, but I suspect that had we, the City of Light would remain our most beloved metropolis both in Europe and on the planet.

As we prepared to leave Paris, I thought about the thousands of couples who had made the city their own since we’d left the previous fall. And with the spirit and conviction that only true love can deliver, I knew deep in my heart that no one else’s attachment to Paris was quite like ours and never would be. Paris is paradise for me and for Joe and we were already making plans to return again and again.

Pictures of our adventures:

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