Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2021
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A flâneur in Paris

When the city itself is the main attraction, ditch the guidebook and amble around

The ideal for anyone who loves Paris is to be a flâneur, one so at home in the City of Light, he goes exploring without a destination.

Such an elevated state: I’ve been wandering Paris for more than 40 years and never attained it. For the last five visits, my wife and I have quartered in rental apartments, from a week to a month at a stretch. On the fifth, we came close, but still there were maps, timetables and goals, as if we needed them to justify our being in so unique and magical a city.

This time, our apartment was a postcard pied-à-terre in a former 18th-century hotel in the Marais. The apartment ran off a cobblestoned courtyard on the ground level, something deeply appreciated by tourists used to gasping up six storeys to their beds. Stripped back to its 18th-century stonework and beam, it resembled a set from The Scarlet Pimpernel. The Internet site showed the bed perched on a landing up a narrow flight of steps. When I was 25, I would have thought this romantic.

The Internet display was, of course, testimony to the power of the wide-angle lens that can make a broom closet look as large as Saskatchewan. What’s more, negotiating that staircase for the morning pee called for the kind of agility that might flummox a Cirque du Soleil acrobat. And the toilet was so low to the floor, it felt like a potty.

But these annoyances faded beside an urban palette of fascinations that draws more than 40 million visitors a year. I scolded myself about this as I began my daily early morning quest for baguette and croissants.

I also remembered, and always will, my baguette trek on December 26, 1999, minutes after the great storm wailed through town, flinging eaves troughs into the streets and hurling a chimney through a roof so it killed a couple in their bed as their infant slept unharmed. The streets were filled with giant strips of metal and broken glass. It had felt like a day in Kosovo.

Market share

My wife and I revel in the street markets of Paris. Our new discovery was the Marché Beauvau (Place d'Aligre, 12ème; métro Ledru-Rollin), which was neither as big as the Marché Richard-Lenoir (Boulevard Richard Lenoir, between Amelot and St-Sabin, 11ème; métro Bastille) at La Bastille nor as expensive as Marché Président-Wilson (Avenue du Président Wilson, between Debrousse et place d'Iéna, 16ème; métro Alma-Marceau or Iéna). But on a Saturday morning, it rocked with vitality.

The Beauvau had thousands of old books for sale, and the locals were reading them, not staring robotically into iPads. There were buoyant West Africans and dour North Africans and an African street entertainer enthralling children by dancing with a goldfish bowl on his head. And, of course, the Parisians, who so often resemble characters from novels or movies and who unfailingly provide people-watchers with memorable moments.

For we foodies, there were billowing lettuces, the world’s reddest strawberries, passion fruit from Vietnam, eggplants that looked as if someone had polished them, scallops with roe in saffron arcs and slices of fresh, glowingly pink swordfish. The French take such wonders for granted.

One day, we negotiated the Marais to the old Jewish Quarter on Rue des Rosiers. It was a riot of a rue, eatery after eatery beckoning the falafel faithful amid a swarm of yarmulkes. At L’As du Falafel (34 Rue des Rosiers, 4ème; métro Saint-Paul), touted as the best of its kind in Paris, the servers were as madcap as the Marx Brothers and food flew out of the kitchen as if shot from catapults.

The obligatory nosh was the giant falafel sandwich, a CN Towers of crisp-and-soft falafels, grilled eggplant, grilled peppers, sautéed red cabbage, shredded white cabbage, tomato, onion, yogurt sauce and red or green chili sauce. Oh, that one could walk afterwards.

As the reader rightly surmises, I love food, and it was food that led to my downfall. One evening in the vicinity of Notre-Dame Cathedral, I rushed somewhat desperately into an automated public toilet.

Upon finishing, the user opens the door, it closes behind him, the toilet flushes and the clever cubicle sanitizes itself for the next customer. But no, not in my miserable case. As I exited, the damn door froze.

The inner flâneur

The next day I found respite in the Place des Vosges (4ème; métro Bastille or Chemin-Vert), the oldest square in Paris, created by the tolerant, progressive and tragic (he was assassinated by a Papist fanatic) King Henri IV. Completed in 1612, it remains one of the great civilized pleasures of Paris, a symmetrical orchestration of lawn and trees, walkways and fountains contained by arcaded galleries and 36 red brick residences.

It was a fine, sunny late afternoon. Families were throwing balls. Young smoochers were writhing like cobras in the grass. A string trio played at the Rue de Birague entrance. Flush tourists were lunching in the gallery restaurants. Tourists paused in front of the Maison de Victor Hugo (6 Place des Vosges;, where the beloved author lived from 1832 to 1848, and which is now a small museum .

By now, we were borderline flâneurs. At least, we weren’t leaping out of bed at dawn for a forced march to the sights. Instead, we’d linger over breakfast: the amazing strawberries from the market, toasted baguette, garlicky cream cheese, buttery croissants baked as we slept and dark French coffee, cup after cup. Liberated from our inner tourists, we left as late as noon.

One of our discoveries was the Viaduc des Arts (119 Avenue Daumesnil, 12ème; métro Gare de Lyon or Reuilly-Diderot;, 1.5 kilometres of elevated railway that once ran east from the Bastille through Paris. The old vaults beneath the viaduct have been converted cleverly to galleries and workshops. We watched artisans toiling over soiled and torn old paintings at L’Atelier du Temps Passé. “It is my life,” a young woman told me, applying a painstaking brush stroke to a ravaged canvas.

Atop the viaduct, the tracks have given way to a baton-shaped park and promenade, a treetop tour of the neighbourhood’s shuttered, domed and chimneyed rooftops. Sumptuous greenery from smoke trees to bamboo framed the passing parade of walkers, joggers, hand-holding lovers and seniors with half-opened books.

Orsay event

This visit, I had a promise to keep to my wife to take her to lunch at the Musée d’Orsay (62 rue de Lille, 7ème; métro Solférino; I’d long managed to escape this one — I’d been told it was expensive and inferior — but my wiggle-room had run out. We did a hurried tour of the great art museum forged from a railway station. How, we wondered, do you absorb a Monet or Van Gogh in a room packed with tourists snapping away with their iPhones, nattering on Blackberries and chewing gum at the same time?

The restaurant was not so bad: the room was classically opulent, aproned servers displayed good humour, the passing plates raised our hopes and prices weren’t any worse than the average Parisian bistro.

We ordered platters pairing beef carpaccio sliced thickly enough to taste like real food with bresaola, air-dried salted beef, both dressed in olive oil and capers and scattered with fresh arugula and generous shavings of Parmesan. Simple? You bet. Only a genius could spoil it. A bottle of chilled Anjou rosé showed up in a stylish-looking clear plastic shopping bag, the ice bucket.

Eyeful of Eiffel

Something else we’d avoided all those other times was the Eiffel Tower (Avenue Gustave-Eiffel, Champs de Mars, 7ème; métro Bir-Hakeim; Suddenly we were nearby and pourquoi pas? Panoramas — too remote — too bland, have rarely moved me, but I was in for one of the big surprises of my life: it wasn’t just what we would see, but when.

It was an hour before dusk. The incomparable panoply of 18th- and 19th-century rooftops glowed in the golden wash of the day’s last light. The view in every direction was magnificent, the light illuminating the shining dome of Les Invalides, the Seine a shimmering blue ribbon threading among them.

We lingered, photographing the Arc de Triomphe and Invalides in the purple light between dawn and dusk. And later, the Tower itself, popping with strobes, as it has since the Millennium. It was an enchantment, a bedazzlement, a spell. I could love Paris because of its light alone, light as a living creature, as an entity as tangible as architecture or art or food. Camera slung over my shoulder, I might become a new kind of flâneur, following sun and shadow across the city and finding joy in whatever fills my eye. The City of Light had become a city about light.

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Showing 1 comments

  1. On February 14, 2012, Jamal Uddin said:
    Hey how about some of us nonfrench speaking lost souls in Paris?Must we learn the language well before venturing out?

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