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Paris Week 1 – The Mundane & The Magnificent

Our first week in Paris has come to a close.  It was a very good one.  Early in the week we tackled some errands that involved setting up house here; buying metro carnet packs of 10 tickets, getting a Monoprix supermarket discount card, buying a yoga mat, getting working French phones/phone numbers, buying key chains for the 3 loose apartment keys handed to us and a bunch of other everyday, boring tasks.  We took a bus with success.  A kind waiter at our neighborhood cafe taught us that to get an espresso with a dash of milk, we should order a noisette.  We learned that a neighbor in our building practices his saxophone in the evening after work, playing jazz that wafts magically through the courtyard whether you like it or not.  Another neighbor likes to listen to the Beatles. We sampled baguettes from our two bakeries downstairs and found one to be nothing special and one to be absolutely insanely amazing and less expensive (crispy outside, chewy airy interior –Eric Kayser boulangerie, 18 Rue du Bac).  I cooked a few dinners and washed some clothes thereby learning how to use all our appliances – the induction cook top, the dishwasher, the washing machine & dryer, the Nepresso maker and the vacuum.  I found the location of the school Lutece Langue where I’ll take a few weeks of French lessons.  We located the French university Science Po where Ally will take an economics class in July and Columbia’s Reid Hall where she will study for her fall semester.  We scoped out an apartment for her to maybe rent come September (teeny, tiny, truly mini, in a lively neighborhood but potentially a lonely situation) and decided on a host family experience instead.  All mundane yet important things to get under our belts.

In between we mixed in some wonderful Paris experiences. Monday night we attended a gallery opening at the Jeu du Paume on the edge of the Tuilerie gardens with my childhood friend Tanya who has lived here for 30 years.  Ally and I saw the incredibly immersive Klimt show at the Atelier des Lumières.  I expected paintings on walls and instead we walked into a cavernous dark warehouse sized space with moving images projected on the walls and floors in a flowing tribute to the artist, all set to classical music.  You sit on the floor or wander the space and the art just engulfs you.  Truly a unique way to experience art. (Go if you get the chance!)   

Ally and I did a free walking tour of some Parisian greatest hits – Place Saint Michel, Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Tuilerie gardens.  We met an Austrian friend and her daughter at Cafe Marly and dined together while enjoying the iconic view of the pyramids of the Louvre.  On Friday evening we toted a picnic dinner to the banks of the Seine and ate with all the other Parisians. Our meal of baguette, cheeses, rosé, couscous, fruit and carrots/hummus was simple yet wonderful as we watched the bateaux floating past in front of the Musee D’orsay.  Sunday we boarded a train and spent the afternoon out in Giverny, about an hour northwest of the city.  We walked Monet’s gorgeously blooming gardens with hundreds of other tourists and enjoyed a lunch al fresco before boarding a sardine packed (standing room only) train back to the city.

All in all, a week of both mundane and magnificent moments, juxtaposed.  Time will tell, but I anticipate that this will be the overall theme of our time in Paris. Perhaps nothing drives this idea home more than my morning walk.  At home in Concord, when I walk for exercise my usual route is already pretty scenic and special as I turn past the Colonial Inn, go down Monument Street, pass the Old Manse and cross the Concord river over the Old North Bridge.  If I go another way I can pass Louisa May Alcott’s house, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s house, the Concord museum…. basically a bunch of history that I feel lucky to be surrounded by in my everyday life.

Jardin des Tulieres

Here it’s that times a million.  Surrounded by Parisian commuters and people going about their everyday lives, my hour walk can take me past the Musee D’orsay and over the Seine on the Pont Royal.  On the other side of the river I am at the end of the Jardin des Tuileries  where it meets the Palais du Louvre.  I can turn right and see I.M. Pei’s pyramids at the Louvre or go left and walk the length of the gardens.  Wide gravel boulevards in the gardens are rigidly yet perfectly lined with trees and full of hundreds of olive green metal chairs set out for lounging in the shade.  Tourist couples in matching shirts make the peace sign and take selfies in front of the fountains. Other Instagram “celebs” pose, dressed to the nines, in their pseudo formal photo shoots that will garner hundreds or thousands of “likes.”  French garden staff tend to the plants and rake the gravel. At the far end is Place de la Concorde – a giant obelisk in a huge busy rotary.  Look straight down the Champs-Èlyées behind the monument and you can see far in the distance the Arc de Triomphe.  But if you stay at the end of the garden and go left you can see the city’s biggest icon looming majestically across the river – the Eiffel Tower.  If I loop back past the Orangerie museum where Monet’s water lilies are housed and then I’m back en route home.

It’s crazy.

And it’s what makes Paris so special. People just walk around doing the “mundane” – living their lives, doing their errands, getting the kids to school, going to the eye doctor and every single day they pass these incredible “magnificent” sites as though it is all perfectly normal.  But the truth is, this is isn’t how the rest of the world lives.  Most people don’t look up from their commute and see imposing, gilded, carved, ornamental world class architecture or historic monuments as part of their everyday life.  As an outsider, even one who lives in an incredibly “historic” American town, it all takes some getting used to.  It’s a little bit startling to be walking along, turn your head slightly and catch the Eiffel Tower lit up at night.

It would seem that living among all this beauty is what makes the Parisians such style innovators.  When your environment is stunning, it’s probably comes naturally to design objects and places and restaurants and shops that are also stylistically elevated and special.  I’m sure a ton has already been written about this phenomenon and it is no doubt what draws the rest of the world here in droves. Paris is the opportunity to live your “mundane” life AND have it be magical all at the same time.   I am grateful for the opportunity to do just that for the next two months.