Back in the old INSEAD classroom with my friend Guy Desseaux
A 40-year reunion and a few days in Paris were good fun. Walking around Paris with my notebook like a child on a school trip, I saw the city through new eyes…
25 June 2015
It is hot but there is a gentle breeze on which floats the idle evening conversation of three old Parisians. In their T-shirts and grey cotton trousers, they look cool. Beside, there is the noise of the street. Motor bikes idle, their throaty engines roar as the traffic lights change. Moto-bicyclettes whine like sopranos in the choir of traffic, while cars rumble sotto voce in the internal combustion engine chorus.
Aux Jardins du Père Lachaise has a green and orange sunshade, its broad stripes protect the fruit and vegetables from the noonday sun,…. but in the early evening, everything is shaded in the narrow street by the five-story apartments. Oranges neatly arranged set the tone followed by the bananas, their curving yellow bodies making a splash of colour. Inside vegetables surround the cash point and eager shopkeeper. Trade is brisk now, helped by yellow stickers which mark prices and exceptional offers on time-dependent fruit.
Girls in loose cotton tops saunter, their peachy backsides delightfully smooth. Each cheek provocatively fills the tight jeans as they walk: left leg, right leg,…
A diaphanous dress is suddenly interesting as a woman carrying a bag steps from the shade into the bright sunlight and her legs, dark and enticing, are clear beneath the now see-through material.
At Le Relais – Café, Bar, Sandwhichs variés – the television talks to itself and the sweaty patron seated beside his zinc. ‘Heh…’ a tirade of Spanish follows from four workers enjoying an evening beer on a small table in the street outside Le Relais.
Another bus comes around the corner carefully avoiding the refrigerated lorry parked just a little too close to the corner for the driver’s comfort. These scenes are repeated across the city tonight.
Mondays are quiet. It is eleven in the morning. ‘La canicule est arriveé.’ The dog days of summer are here. The 11th arrondissement is calm just a susurration of conversation in the café and the murmur of slow cars outside.
Down Boulevard Richard Lenoir, there is a welcome breeze in the wide boulevard. In the distance above the trees a golden angel, la Génie de la Bastille balletically balances on a golden globe in honour of those Frenchmen and women who defended the barricades in 1830.
Spiky metal posts restrict parking on Boulevard Henri IV with its tall plane trees. Gone is the higgledy-piggledy mass of cars parked at crazy angles. The old Convent des Célestins has now become a barracks. Republique Française emblems adorn its limestone block walls. Garde Républicaine is chiselled in gold letters, but the strong handsome guardsmen in their striking blue and scarlet uniforms are unfortunately absent.
Snub-nosed bateaux mouches, floating greenhouses, glide up-river past Notre Dame. Fine weather, historical buildings and the cathedral itself are a profitable combination for the operators. The boats are full.
Quai de Béthune is on the small Île Saint-Louis, now covered in buildings and tarmac roads. Apartments with tall windows stare at the Seine, their doors decorated with scrolls on the pediments overseen by cherubs with fat cheeks blowing away evil spirits. Their shutters closed against the heat. Here by the river lived Baudelaire and Pompidou, it is a desirable location.
Notre Dame becomes clear above the quayside lime trees. But Quasimodo is inactive; the bells are silent.
Across the river, the black finger of Tour Montparnasse threatens white apartments in the city to the south.
Lime trees line Quai d’Orleans. Number sixteen proudly announces – by way of two small blue plaques – “Gas on all floors” and “Water on all floors”. Another floating greenhouse pushes a bow wave up-river.
Notre Dame is best seen from Quai d’Orleans. Symmetrical flying buttresses escape from the circular chapel like water from a colander. Above them rises the circular roof and directly behind the thin filigree spire tapers to a point on which is mounted the thinnest of elongated crosses. On either side stand two robust towers.
It is a fine testament of man’s ability to revere his God.
A bench in the lazy shade of Jean-XXIII’s square offers rest and fine view.
On Rue Saint-Louis en l’île, the throng of tourists clutching their paper maps and guide books fills the restaurants spilling onto the street.
Saint-Paul Saint-Louis, on Rue de Rivoli, has tall red doors. Inside beneath its silent vaulted roof with LHS and MA carved in stone motifs on the ceiling, it is cool. Suddenly the organ bursts into life. Crashing harmonic chords shatter the silence. The force of music hits every eardrum. Yet unperturbed a woman in turquoise lights a penitent candle. She adds it to the ten already burning. Hands crossed before her she stares into the flames. Elsewhere people sit in quiet contemplation and prayer.
The city is full of contradictions.