Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Paris vs ... Anywhere Else

One common feature of many of the people who live in Paris is that they absolutely, categorically, without any shadow of a doubt, cannot imagine themselves living anywhere other than France's capital city.* A lot of these people were born and grew up in Paris, but plenty of them didn't. Some of them are not even French. In fact, a lot of them are not even French, and go to extraordinary lengths to stay in Paris, despite the absence of any reason to do so other than the fact that they cannot bear to leave.

I wouldn't go so far as to count myself among this group of people. Why, just the other weekend, we went to visit Understanding Frenchman's parents, and I spent several days dreaming of a life in rural Brittany surrounded by this kind of view:

But even I, with my distaste for crowds, dislike of pretentiousness and lack of appreciation of world-class art museums, am starting to say to myself, after only ten months here, that if I decided to live anywhere else, it would have to be pretty darn special.

There are, of course, lots of fairly obvious reasons for that, ranging from the great pleasure I take in not having the responsibility of needing to run a car to the endless range of places to meet friends for a drink, to just how wonderful those said friends are. But because I like to theorise about unprovable matters, I also have another hypothesis about how somebody who has a very ambivalent attitude towards Paris like I do can feel quite so attached after such a short space of time.

I'm pretty sure it's precisely because, as well as being wonderfully rewarding at times, living in Paris is often such a challenge.

When I first met Understanding Frenchman, I used to laugh at him for choosing where to get on the metro depending on where on the platform he wanted to be when he got off. Now I take a very geeky pleasure in knowing that my daily commute is similarly optimised. (I know the best carriage to get a seat in on the RER too, but that's one secret I'll never tell.) Knowing good restaurants which are neither the lastest extortionate bobo hangout nor just another tourist trap is highly satisfying when there are so many of the latter two to fall into. And when you spend your day surrounded by people who are largely indifferent to you, finding a salesperson who smiles or a bartender who cracks a joke is infintely sweeter.

I also feel that being in Paris gives me a sense of perspective on the world that it's easy to lose when you live in a less diverse community. Seeing about twenty homeless people in the half hour after you leave the house in the morning might not be the most uplifting way to start your day, but it definitely keeps you in touch with reality (and conscious of just how lucky you really are). And in a city of two million people, you are likely to be confronted fairly regularly by behaviours you don't really like, but again, that's the way the world is.

So I wonder whether living in Paris isn't something akin to being an elite sportsperson, for whom harsh daily training and tolerance of discomfort leads every so often to moments of intense elation. Perhaps amongst the capital's residents there's a feeling that if we stopped training, even just for a short time, we'd never quite be as fit and ready to face the world and the high points of life would never be quite as high again.

*And possibly New York. New York seems to be a kind of exception culturelle among dyed-in-the-wool Parisians.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Projet Potager

I'm sorry to admit that, after a strong start to the year and boosted by plenty of thought-provoking travelling in April, my 2014 blogging rate has slipped shamefully since then. It's not that I've been doing nothing at all of interest, but May has been a small-pleasures kind of month, and I'm not sure if the blogosphere could have coped with yet another post about how beautiful and charming Paris is in spring time. Just in case anyone feels it was missing though, here are some photos I took a couple of weeks ago on the Promenade Plantee, which is still gorgeous even if it no longer really counts as one of Paris' hidden secrets:

One thing I have accomplished this month, however, is a wish that I've had in the back of my mind for years: to create a little herb garden on my windowsill.

I found it more-than-a-little ironic that in the time that I've had this little dream, I've moved from a flat with a shared garden to one with a balcony to one with those cast-iron frames around the windowsill that are perfect for putting flowerpots on, to a concrete box with narrow windowsills that slope gently towards the main road below. Put simply, our current flat is just about the worst possible design for creating a window-garden.

On a more positive note, the Gardening sections of DIY stores in Paris cater almost entirely to people who don't actually have a garden. Along with giant flowerpots and strips of fake grass for your terrace, my local Castorama had a vast range of jardiniers and I bought a set of three boxes with trays and metal supports for 25 euros, along with some bags of potting compost and a selection of seeds. I got mixed flowers for the front windows, as the idea of eating fresh produce heavily seasoned with traffic fumes didn't appeal very much.

Planting seeds without a garden, or "bringing a whole new meaning to the expression "Kitchen Garden""!

So far, the flowers are coming up nicely but won't actually bloom until July. Basil has proved a challenge: the ones I planted from seed and carefully nurtured indoors throughout the cold weeks at the beginning of spring have disappeared, and even the plants I bought from the flower shop aren't thriving as well as I hoped. I've got some tiny thyme seedlings that won't be ready to use for a long time yet and some radishes with flourishing, healthy leaves and disappointingly skinny roots. The best success story has been some mint, which I bought in a pot from the grocery and re-planted and is producing new leaves faster than my friends and I can drink mojitos. I have the impression that window-gardening is harder than growing things in real ground because even aged about 5 I was capable of growing radishes, but I guess I'll have to hang in and be patient to see if everything grows eventually.

At least I'll have a subject for a blog post in a month or so.

Thursday, 1 May 2014

A Funny Thing Happened to Me in the Street the Other Day

I was walking through one of the posh suburbs of Paris. In front of me, a young couple who looked around high school age were strolling along, chatting in French, the girl with an unlit cigarette in her hand. I overtook them, and as I walked past, I heard the girl say, "It's so annoying - all the people we see are so obviously not smokers. You would think it would be easier to find someone to give us a light."

What  cracked me up was that as she said that, she switched to speaking in English, presumably on the assumption that I wouldn't understand.

Maybe in time she'll realise that that trick doesn't really work in Paris, and certainly not in the expat heartlands of the western suburbs. In the meantime, I'm enjoying trying to figure out what marks me out as "so obviously a non-smoker" to someone who didn't even realise that I might understand English.