Thursday, May 1, 2008

Later this month, when I'm in Paris . . .

Now that it's May 1st, I can let that title phrase trip off my tongue . . .Happy 1st of May! As Polly Vous Français explains, les muguets des bois have a special historic association with the beginning of May in France. Last year, we arrived in Paris on May 8th, and there were still street vendors selling this fragrant and dainty flower. Here on my little island, the lily-of-the-valley are unlikely to bloom for another few weeks. I always associate them with my birthday later in the month. They're my "birthday flower," and my mom used to pick them and make sure there were some in a vase decorating my breakfast setting. Thanks, mom!

Since our trip is coming up so quickly now, I thought I'd try to answer the question my kids regularly ask: Why do we keep going back to Paris when there are so many other choices? This will be our fourth springtime visit in as many years, although this year at least we're branching out and including ten days in Portugal. Generally, we're restricted to about ten days, and, as I explained back here, it can be a challenge for us to take holiday time together, given conflicting work schedules. I shouldn't really leave before early May and Paul can't be away after mid-June; the outer two weeks within that time frame are a bit dicey. When I finally finished my dissertation and the European vacation we'd put off for so many years became possible, we still had the problem of a limited available time. Rather than try to charge around from country to country, racking up the transportation costs, we decided that by staying in a city like Paris, we could easily spend the full time without ever becoming bored, and we'd be able to relax in one hotel rather than packing and unpacking.

We were so fortunate that first trip to find a wonderful and affordable hotel. Because we'd been to Paris before, albeit 15 years earlier, we felt no obligation to see any of the tourist musts. Instead, we checked out smaller galleries, tracked down affordable, well-reviewed restaurants I'd read about in guides, window-shopped, people-watched, held hands, talked and talked, and generally just let serendipity be our guide. Having a fluently bilingual friend who lived in France and came up from the south to visit us gave us a few more insights than we would otherwise have had into le vrai Paris/France. Our similarly bilingual, very outgoing hotelier, Jennifer, encouraged our conversations in French, so that we grew more confident, and we decided we'd like at least one more visit. So we did the same thing the following year, and the rest, as they say, is history.

When Jennifer took us to the corner bistro to buy me a birthday glass of wine last year, we told her about our kids' bemusement at our compulsion to return, and she asked us what it was Paris represents for us. I've spent some time thinking about that since, and here's the start of a summary:
1. What Paris represents for us is, importantly, its emphasis on the "us." Those of you who have visited France will know the greeting, "Bonjour monsieurdame." While the feminist in me should perhaps be bothered by potentially being subsumed in this honorific, we are very much a joined-at-the-hip couple while there. Considering that we've lived in different cities for the last eight or nine years (and for five of those years, the other city was Ottawa, thousands of kilometres and several time zones away), I relish this together time.
2. Paris also represents our mutual love of walking. Even if we're not in the mood for chatting, or if, by day six, we appear to have exhausted all possible topics, the companionable shared physical activity repairs the rents that have weakened the marriage fabric during the busy year. As we walk, we store up our own versions of the many sensory delights and curiosities along the way, and these become a fund we draw on when we return to the demands of daily life back home. In this eminently-walkable city, our commitment to fitness year 'round pays off, and we generally cover 15-20 kilometres a day.
3. Paris represents a time when we alone determine what we want to do any particular day. While another city, Rome, for example, might require that we get out and see certain sights -- the Vatican, the Coliseum -- in Paris we feel free to choose a daily itinerary according to our whim. After so many years raising four children together and building careers, this freedom is a pleasure not to be taken for granted.
4. A corollary, then, of number four, is that Paris seems to represent a reward, at mid-life, of all those years when the luxury of an annual Parisian trip would have seemed unimaginable. Not just a reward, but a celebration of our good fortune in still having and loving each other, of being each other's best travel companion, even after almost 35 years together.
5. Paris is also important to us as a place where we have a reasonable ability in the language. For me, this evolved through a lifetime, perhaps out of my mother's determination to recover some of her heritage and pass it along -- her mother, my beloved Grandma, spoke only French until she went to school in Manitoba, sometime early in the last century, and was spanked unless she spoke English. Grandma still spoke French when she got a chance (at dinner, she would always begin by saying, Servez-vous, mes enfants), but she didn't try to pass it along, believing (albeit resentfully) that her children would be better off as anglophones. Mom used to get French records from the library and sit us down in front of Chez Hélène, a French-Canadian children's TV show (I'm really dating myself here, believe me!). At the Catholic separate school I went to, we had good French instruction, supplied by French-Canadian nuns, and I have a decent ear for languages, so I always felt I could at least express most ideas in French, if the listener was patient. Two years' university French means I can read novels competently, although I like to have a dictionary nearby. I've always regretted, though, not achieving fluency, and have always felt that if I could just get two or three months in an immersion situation, I might be able to get there.
Paul, on the other hand, is not a natural at languages. However, positions at his level in the Canadian civil service require he be bilingual, so he undertook training when he went to Ottawa several years ago. After working hard, either in immersion settings or in one-on-one full-day sessions, week after week after week, for well over a year, he finally passed the tests required. Not wanting to lose something he's worked so hard to achieve, Paul has a tutor come in for an hour here or there whenever possible, watches French television regularly (in Canada this is easy, and Paul, a political news junkie, has come to prefer the French offerings), and always has a French book or periodical on the go.
So for both of us, Paris becomes a place where we can try to push our language abilities back into service. Sometimes this is challenging, sometimes it's hugely satisfying, and often, it's as hilarious as David Sedaris suggests (if you haven't already read Me Talk Pretty One Day, you really, really must).
6. Paris also represents our burgeoning enjoyment of art and photography as we try to fit in three or four different gallery/museum visits each year. But more generally, our aesthetic sense is heightened by the city's architecture, light, fashion and style on the street, window-dressing. The visual is seldom taken for granted in Paris and being submerged in the city's beauty nurtures our creativity. Pointing out to Paul the details that draw me to a dress, shirt, belt, or bag in a window, I'm so gratified to have him paying careful attention to a particular textural element or a juxtaposition of colour -- these moments are less likely back home where the sources of such wonder are fewer and farther between.
7. And finally, Paris represents a shared knowledge of the city that we have begun to build, layer by layer. We feel competent (and even somewhat sophisticated), and we savour the sense of recognition we'll feel when we have our annual dinner at L'Avant Gout in the 13th or have that marvellous salad again at Le Nimrod or try to find the cafe on Rue de Grenelle where the hilariously-efficient owner takes orders and delivers plates with stunning speed. Once again, we'll have an amazing breakfast at Angelina's and feel almost ill at the richness of the chocolat chaud; once again, we'll break in the afternoon for a pampering tea and macarons upstairs at the Ladureée on Rue Royale.
Later, this month, when we're in Paris . . .

11 comments:

  1. I can really relate to all of these, especially #4 and #6. So much of what I thought I'd forgotten about Art History comes rushing back in Paris. This will be our second trip, and even though there are many other destinations on our "to see" list, I imagine that we will return to Paris again and again. Paris is a great city to reconnect with your sweetie...amour seems to be in the very air there.

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  2. Oh, this is such a lovely post and I feel like in some many ways all of your associations of what Paris means to you fit the way that He-weasel and I feel about Paris. Really lovely exploration of all that you, we and many love about Paris. I am off to re-read your post to my He-weasel; I know he will enjoy your Paris post as much as I have. Merci! And, Happy May day and birthday week.

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  3. Pseu and LBR: Of course I knew you two would "get" this post -- Paris is our "us" city, but I bet I could have a good time there with my internet francophile friends as well!

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  4. Lovely post. I'm particularly moved by how much Paris is something spectacular for both of you but for the you that is the couple as well.

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  5. p.s not sure why it took me so long to do it. I am bad at updating my blog roll--but I added you to mine.:-)

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  6. I agree - what an absolutely lovely post! I especially enjoyed what you said about it being a reward for you and Paul after the years of childrearing. That's the sort of thing my husband and I are looking forward to. Unfortunately, I gave up French in my last year of secondary school in Scotland, but I studied German at uni and lived in Germany (near Strasbourg) for a decade before going to Canada. My first boss's wife was French; I used to babysit their kids occasionally and speak toddler French with them. Now, of course, I have joined the French hiking group here, so most Wednesdays during the school year I get to practise. I am treating it almost like an anthropological study too - we meet at the French lycée in the morning, so I observe the kissing and the clothes! The ladies are very patient with me. My hubby is also a federal employee (DND) and is, on paper, bilingual but that is a fluke due to his doing very well on his 6-month course almost 20 years ago! My husband and I have both been to Paris, but separately before we met, so I really hope we can take a trip whilst we are here; if not, I know it's something we will do after the kids have left home (and I'm picking up lots of tips from you, thanks!). Patricia P.S. Sorry for the long comment!!

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  7. Thanks, Gina.
    LBR: thanks for including me in your blogroll. My sidebars are long overdue for a redo as well.
    Patricia: Your life is full of opportunity right now, sounds like. I hope you do manage to get the chance to get to Paris together, if not in the near future then, as you say, after your kids leave home (you'll be surprised at how quickly that happens -- really!)
    and p.s. don't even think of apologizing for the length of your comment -- I always enjoy what you have to say.

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  8. Beautiful, It must be so lovley to walk in harmony, I envy your french. I loved the bi-lingual packaging you have in Canada, I was pants at languages at school but I know that if I was immersed I could at least speak it.
    Paris is definately a complex city of many layers, I have been many times yet each time I have seen something new. I am looking forward to lots of photos!

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  9. Opps sorry forgot to say I tagged you.

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  10. Alison: I love that expression "pants at languages." Presumably one can also be pants at math, pants at cooking, pants at . . . oh, the possibilities are endless. Is it a pan-British bit of slang? or is it local? generational? any idea of its derivation?
    Thanks for tagging me -- I'll get to that meme very soon.

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  11. I actually do not know where I get most of my expressions from. I spent most of my time in Canada translating my conversations as they are littered with the things.That and a rich vocabularly of expletives handed down lovingly through generations of my mothers family!

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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