Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

December 12, 2017
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A Paris apartment

Two GPs and their boys spy on their neighbours when they rent a flat in Montmartre

''Mom, is that a prostitute?" my 11-year-old son David whispered in an eager, not nearly hushed enough voice. (Actually he used a much more vivid word that rhymes with floor, but this is a G-rated story.) His eyes danced with the sheer glee of the forbidden. He was enjoying the exposure to Parisian life that our Montmartre apartment afforded us.

My husband John and I had been slipping down a backstreet en route to Le Restaurant (that's its real name) with our sons Matthew, aged 14, and David when the sighting occurred. Two middle-aged women with heavily painted faces, clearly ladies of the night, stood poised for action on either side of the street.

I was shocked that my child knew this word and mortified that the women had overheard it. I was also amazed that neither the Louvre nor the Eiffel Tower had inspired the same level of interest or thirst for knowledge. David's questions came fast and furious. "Why does a woman sell her body for money?" and more disturbing to me as I have recently turned 40, "Who'd want to have sex with her? She's too old."

The dinner conversation that followed revolved around the nitty gritty of the oldest profession rather than the paintings of Degas, Manet or Monet which we'd seen earlier that day. Try as we might to steer our children's interests to more refined pursuits, we learned that their education comes quickest in areas that they are independently motivated about.

Back at home, Matt and David are in French Immersion. Having completed grades eight and six, respectively, they are both well on their way to being fluent. "Great!" my husband John and I naively thought, the boys could help translate while we toured around France for three weeks exposing them to French culture and history.

Unfortunately, our oldest son Matthew, through no fault of his own, became a teenager about three weeks before our trip. Translation: instead of helpfully intervening on our behalf with waiters, cab drivers or store personnel, he promptly announced upon setting foot on French soil that he was on holiday and would only be speaking English.

I quickly realized that instead of Frommer's or the Green Guide, what I really should have packed was Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish's book How to Talk So Teens Will Listen and Listen So Teens Will Talk. Fumbling through those early days of Matt's adolescence, it was clear that plans had to be adapted to accommodate his need for autonomy within the confines of our family's trip.

While John and I struggled to remember our grade 13 French, he rolled his eyes, revelling in pointing out mispronunciations and grammatical errors. David, seeing a chance to capitalize on the situation, offered to help but only for a fee.


Rear Window
The building in which we stayed at 14 rue Houdon is a white 19th-century apartment building with classic balconies overlooking the street on one side, and windows opening onto a quaint courtyard on the other. It's in the heart of Montmartre, a stone's throw from the Sacré-Coeur Basilica and the Moulin Rouge, in the neighbourhood where the beloved Amélie was filmed.

Far enough away from the tourist trap Place du Tertre, its location affords a glimpse of real life in the vibrant 18th arrondissement. A 10- to 20-minute bus or metro ride from most of Paris's museums, gardens and other major attractions, it is ideally situated, especially if you prefer the intimacy that a small village within a city offers.

The flat we had rented through www.haveninparis.com was a fifth-floor walk-up with a fully equipped kitchen, funky bathroom and suitably hip "shabby chic" décor. Erica, the owner, has a knack for combining antiques with modern furnishings.

The highlight of each day was the time that I spent on the wrought-iron balcony, drinking my morning coffee or sipping a glass of wine in the early evening, while watching scenes of Parisian life unfold below: parents walking their children to and from the école maternelle (public preschool) across the street or a woman hanging laundry from her balcony were all vignettes in my very own French play.

One morning, we came back from our visit to the Musée D'Orsay to find Matt snuggled up in our bed, happy as a clam, devouring The Da Vinci Code. I smiled as I silently agreed that lying in bed, reading a book and glancing up periodically to enjoy the multitude of terra-cotta chimney pots and rooftops for which Paris is famous, was pure indulgence.

John and I were so inspired by the beauty of what were likely mundane events for Parisians, that we frequently took out our cameras in an attempt to try to capture these moments: a young man perched on his balcony, chatting on the phone, likely making his evening plans; a father playing chase with his happily squealing daughter in the courtyard below.

But it turned out that Matt hadn't enjoyed the Parisian panorama as much as he had the time alone. Apparently, our rush to get out early and see as much of Paris as possible had interfered with his new grooming routine. On his morning alone, he had slept in, taken a relaxing shower, carefully styled and gelled his hair, sprayed himself with Axe body spray, applied his Old Spice deodorant, then cleansed his face with Oxy Pads. We came to the agreement that on some days we would have lazier mornings so that he could step out in style.


In Amélie's Footsteps
In addition to the scenery, we relished the routines that became part of our daily lives at 14 rue Houdon. Matt's independence was encouraged by allowing him to take part in our morning bread run to one of two delicious nearby boulangeries, Au Levain d'Antan (6 rue des Abbesses) and Toro (59 rue d'Orsel).

Freshly baked pain au chocolat or croissants aux amandes for breakfast and a baguette for a picnic lunch were bought mere steps from our Paris home shortly after the doors of these shops opened at 7AM. Although a consummate fan of pain au chocolat, I now know that I prefer the croissants stuffed with almond paste and sprinkled with almonds and icing sugar. Erica boasted that these were two of the best boulangeries in Paris, so much so that she had friends from other arrondissements make the trek to the 18th for their pain au levain (sourdough).

After a quick shower and change, we would leave our flat. Climbing down the many spiral steps, we greeted neighbours and the concierge with "Bonjour!" Stepping outside our front door, we were instantly amid the buzz of life in the quarter.

Walking past hip clothing boutiques, such as Patricia Louisor and Anis, with artfully arranged window displays, and cafés with people sitting outside enjoying their morning coffee and newspaper, we made our way to the Abbesses metro station. It's worth mentioning that it has one of the two remaining Hector Guimard-designed Art Nouveau entrances in Paris. It's also worth noting we always had a raincoat and umbrella in hand, because you never know when it will rain in the City of Lights.

Varying the metro or bus stop at which we would get on or off allowed us to see many of the different vistas that this charming neighbourhood has to offer. One day, we got out at the Jules Joffrin metro to climb the steep steps on that tree-lined cobblestone street that goes up and over "the Butte," (as Montmartre is affectionately called by the locals). The view of the cobblestoned stairs was made famous by the black-and-white Brassaï photo.


Feast your Eyes
On the evenings that we decided to eat in, we would get off at either the Blanche or Pigalle stop, grazing along the market stretch of rue Lépic towards home. We'd make a quick stop into a charcuterie for pâté or saucissons, a pâtisserie for decadent desserts and an épicerie for fruits and vegetables.

Pretending to be Parisians, we scrutinized and smelled the produce, searching for the freshest melons, ripest tomatoes and crispiest green beans. Erica was right: with fresh baked quiche Lorraine and fantastic spit-grilled chicken readily available, the instructions she'd left for the oven were superfluous.

Dinner in hand, the return route took us along rue des Abbesses past the see-and-be-seen crowds sipping apéritifs in the late afternoon sun on the patio of Le Sancerre, a very trendy local brasserie.

On another day, the boys humoured me while I poked my nose in and out of the array of fabric shops along rue d'Orsel, marvelling at their rolls of luxurious damasks, silks and velvets, as we made our way to the Barbès-Rochechouart metro station.

When asked what they liked best about living in a Parisian apartment for the week, Matt and David agree that it was the subway. Erica had wisely recommended that a week-long subway/bus pass would be the most cost effective way to get around Paris.

The boys loved having their very own photo ID card and tickets that gave them access to the excitement of that underground world. Watching well-heeled French women with their tiny dogs tucked under their arms, students studying their notes on their way to the Sorbonne, or backpackers heading towards their youth hostels, the energy of that exotic metropolitan domain was infectious.

David was particularly in awe of a vagrant next to whom I had sat down. He had David's undivided attention for the duration of that ride. The man was fast asleep with mouth open, drooling, shifting only occasionally to a more comfortable position; he came perilously close to my shoulder several times, much to my offspring's amusement. Breaking his gaze only for a fraction of a second, David turned and whispered to me, "Mom, has that man been here for days?" Ah, the sights and sounds of Paris.

I think living at 14 rue Houdon for a week reminded us to be interested in everyday life, in the people and things we saw. As Henry Miller, who also spent some time in Paris, suggested -- "the world is so rich, simply throbbing with rich treasures, beautiful souls and interesting people. Forget yourself."

By the end of the week, Matt was able to put his adolescent angst aside long enough to enjoy his family and himself. He now admits that he is looking forward to our next adventure.

 


Debra Parry is a family physician at McMaster University's Campus Health Centre. Her husband John Laird is a family physician in Guelph. They went to Paris with their sons (both French Immersion students) as part of a three-week trip to France. This was the family's first vacation to Europe together. Despite the fact that their eldest son recently became a teenager, the family is still looking forward to travelling together, and plan to spend a week with extended family in the Virgin Islands this December.

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