Transforming Paris

“You finally got me to Paris,” Says my daughter teasingly as we emerge from the warren of corridors that connect Gare de Lyon with half a dozen Métro lines and RER stations. She has a point; we’ve been living in France for five months, and I’ve made several daytrips from Lille, but P hasn’t been anywhere south until today. We didn’t even fly in through the capital, coming instead via Chunnel train from London.

Yet I wasn’t aware I’d been pushy about it. I probably just talk about Paris a lot – not only reports from my day-long promenades, but loads of nostalgia hazily amalgamated from my four prior trips – 1988, 1989, 1993, and 2003. P was born in 2011, which makes Paris a part of my prehistoric life, roughly on par with “when I was your age.”

We are here enroute to the actual prehistoric: Paris is Stop One on our journey to the Vallon Pont-D’Arc caverns, and we’re only here for 24 hours. I’ve chosen activities designed to steer us away from autobiography; even though I could take P to any of a hundred streets in Paris that have some past significance to me, I prefer to make uncontaminated new memories. Since P came out as a girl only last month, this is our first solo father-daughter excursion. I’m probably putting more weight on it than I ought to.

We stop to buy nail polish – matte purple and sparkly pink – then we find our hotel. And my love for Paris surges back, double-espresso-strong, because it turns out the hotel is on Rue Crémieux, a street I’ve never heard of before but which is perfect. Narrow, cobblestoned, and closed to vehicle traffic, both sides are lined with potted trees and pastel-painted housefronts, many of them decorated with trompe l’oeil murals or other visual treats. You can’t dislike a city that features this street – not on anyone’s Top Ten or even Top Fifty lists, but merely existing, quietly and stylishly being Paris.

The hotel room is also quintessentially Paris, in that it is cramped and Spartan. In the tiny breakfast nook, I paint P’s nails, then coax her hastily back outside, because I know that I’ll go nuts if we’re stuck inside for too long. But walking with P is also a risk these days; she wants to “play as we go,” an open-ended role-playing fantasy that demands just enough of my attention that I can’t always navigate effectively. I triple-check our route and we’re off, into a crisp winter afternoon, across Pont d’Austerlitz and into the Jardin des Plantes. None of the kiosks are open so I can’t warm up with a coffee. I tough it out and tag along as P spins out a vivid narrative involving goblin-hunting robots that breathe fire, or something.

Paris is forever dishing out double-edged inspiration. I can’t capture the city in words nor turn it into a personal narrative; it’s too vast, too casually foreign, and though it’s not as fast-moving a metropolis as NYC or even London, it’s still slippery, morphing from one Arrondissement to the next – and changing as I do, with each subsequent visit. In ’93, I fell madly in love with Parc Viviani, a tree-lined trapezoid nestled in the shadow of Notre Dame, and I vowed to write novels there someday, slumped on a green wooden bench, thoroughly naturalized and complaining about how all those putain tourists make meh butt tweetch.

On a recent daytrip, however, I sat in Parc Viviani again for the first time in over a decade, and I made a startling discovery: this place is ugly as hell. The oldest tree in Paris is a tottering, drunken wreck, and the fountain is a Boschian nightmare in ten hues of pigeon-shit. In the meantime, I’ve started my France novel-writing project, and largely abandoned it (thanks to the need to homeschool) without even bothering to check in with Parc Viviani. Too cold to write outdoors anyhow.

The Jardin des Plantes is ugly too, although I expect it would be lovelier in summer. We visit the Museum of Geology on P’s request, but she quickly grows bored of the giant geodes and soon we’re back outside, hunting-gathering from one closed kiosk to the next until we finally find a shack that will serve P a hot dog. I finally get my coffee, but she chooses pop, and by the time we’re done our al fresco lunch, her fingers are frozen, and all of a sudden Paris is TERRIBLE.

I escort her back across the Seine, searching out distractions as we go. “Look at these two buildings,” I say, pointing at Les Salons Vianey and DASES, “The old and the new, side by side. That’s what I love about Paris.” P responds with tears; the pain in her hands is too great to acknowledge my sentimental take on architecture. I carry her back to the hotel and promise to find warmer gloves tomorrow, knowing she probably won’t wear them anyway.

A couple of hours later, we venture out again for supper. The Paris service industry has a global reputation for rudeness, but I’ve met snobbier and more resentful waiters in Toronto, where tipping is actually expected. I find the effort to speak French is usually enough to win them over here. P is over-hungry and over-tired, but the Maitre’D in the Italian restaurant understands perfectly, and serves her plain spaghetti without having to be told twice. However, when she spills her lemonade, we are suddenly invisible, and I’m left on my own to scavenge enough serviettes to sop her up.

That’s the Paris Accord: we can all play nice if things are going okay, but your problems are your own to resolve. In other words, it’s all in the attitude you bring with you. A tourist who bursts into Notre Dame, all Anglophone bluster and entitlement, will be greeted with confirmation that Parisians don’t give a merde about foreigners. But if I come bearing a smile – a genuine respect for the city and its residents – then they’ll return the favour, even if my child is tired and whiny. I wish the city could teach P that lesson – that the love you take is equal to the love you make – but it will take her many more visits, I think, to catch up to me.

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