26 July, 2011

Breakfast in Paris: In my Element!

Breakfast in Paris: In my Element!: "Recently my wonderful Aunt suggested I not make any big decisions while I am out of my element. I could not agree with her more. However I..."

In my Element!

Recently my wonderful Aunt suggested I not make any big decisions while I am out of my element.  I could not agree with her more.  However I have the feeling that we have different ideas about where my element is.  
Right now, this very minute, I am sitting on my terrace – the sound of local kids running on the streets, a dog barking in the distance just past the overwhelming sound of urgent cars.  An emergency vehicle goes by as usual and it sounds like maybe the dog barks at its bumper.  I hear the air being let out of the tires of a bus stopping to pick up commuters.  The sky is overcast, as it has been the last 3 weeks and the air a perfect combination of warm and cold as if there may not be any air at all.  Only a hint of a breeze comes my way. 
I am in my element, right here, right now. 

I have just returned from St. Germain en Laye, a suburban town about 45 minutes outside of the city.  My best friend here in Paris, Alison, has the pleasure of being employed here in France which means that she and every other employed Parisian will be taking the month of August off.  No, you did not read wrong - this is the absolute, beautiful, truth.  The end of the French year is July.  Most folks don’t even make it through July to be honest.  But by late July every family has found their au pair for the following year (of course that means Septembre through Mai), their children have finished up their brief summer activities, bags have been packed, white window shutters securely latched up tight or (more than likely) flats rented out.  

The abundance of available apartments in Paris during July and August is immense.  While the intelligent Parisians leave the city behind they rent out their flats to the unassuming tourists who will come to the city and find that is has closed down for the month.  No matter to the landlord, they have their overpriced rent in pocket and have taken it with them, along with their family, to a beach in the south of France or to Spain or Greece.  Anywhere that is not here. 
So here I am in my Paris element, honestly, so at peace with this life I have built for myself that I can neither laugh nor cry.  Just sit back, smile and soak in how very much at home I am here. 
Another friend recently said something to me that I will now set straight.  She said, “ah, but you are on vacation.”  I was completely taken aback without letting on.  I don’t feel as if I am on vacation.  I live here.  Going to the country for the weekend, that is my vacation.  Heading off to Spain for a couple of weeks, that is my vacation.  Here I have a home, rent, bills, friends, eek- even responsibilities.  Of course if the definition of vacation is living somewhere you love with all of you heart, searching endlessly for jobs, tutoring when I get lucky to find the jobs, doing computer work for a translation company and of course writing a novel…then yes, I am certainly on vacation.  But I instead find that is not the case, as I have mentioned.  I live here in Paris.  This is my home right now.  I commiserate with my other ex-pat friends on finding work and learning how to live off of very little (did you know that a baguette can last you nearly 4 days before going off?)  I involuntarily learned how to shrug and wave my arms annoyed like any good Parisian when a lackadaisical tourist stops in my way. 
I am at home.
The beauty of the lifestyle in Paris is that there is never a shortage of things to do.  The French know how to live life and not let life live them.  Work is something to be done in order to pay for life. 
Workweeks are 35 hours long and holidays seems to come about quicker than you can say “merde”.  The children may be the luckiest of us all as they only attend school Lundi, Mardi, Juedi, Vendredi (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday).  Wednesdays are a day off which is a delight to the nannies for it helps the salary out a bit with the extra hours.  Then every 8 weeks there is a 2 week holiday scheduled that the parents also seem to get the time off for.  
I wonder what we are doing wrong in America?  We may be a “free” country but the grand majority of American’s are under a dictatorship – forced under a regime that dictates mealtimes, bathroom breaks, telephone calls, even doctors appointments – the workplace.  I can’t help but think we have it all wrong in the US.  Where is the “life” in our lives?
Upon my return to the states, assuming I remain there for an extended period of time, I am beginning a group that will bring a little bit of Paris to whatever town I live in.  It won’t change the social agenda or the desperation of the workweek but perhaps, just perhaps, it will help others learn to enjoy the little, magnificent, nuances in life that make it worth living.  Not every day has to be the same as the last.
Until that inevitable day when I move from my ex-pat life to a life back in the states I will keep living here in my element every minute of every day.  I will soak it all up for those that aren’t able to run, bike, fly, or even crawl towards their dream.
Still, no matter circumstances or experience I will say what my Dad always told me, “Plan it and the money will follow,” and the ever appreciated “where there is a will there is a way”.

13 July, 2011

All in a days Walk

Summer weather in Paris is finicky.  The day may start out with sunshine, turn to gray, rain, and then shine again.  It can be hot and humid and then chilly and windy.  She changes her mind and I am alright with that.
Regardless of what Mother Nature had in store for us Parisians today I set out to enjoy my city. 
Je marche…
Sundays are a public holiday here in Paris.  To celebrate nearly everything is closed, even certain roads under “Paris Respire”.  There is a road along the Seine, usually bustling with frenzied Parisian drivers, that I have always wanted to walk on.  Today I do.  In the absence of cars the black tar substitutes as an adult playground.  Right along the waters edge and under the many ponts there are runners, rollerbladers, skateboarders, bikers, and the occasional meanderer – like me today.  Those exercising around me speed by as I walk without purpose looking down into the muddied waters and up at the underbelly of the bridge, a site that usually only cars are privy to.  I feel a sense of camaraderie with everyone around me; we are all taking in the Sunday free of concern from what the rest of the week may throw at us. 
Je marche…
I walk up the ramp to reach the next Pont to cross over to Ile St. Louis.  It is cloudy out at this point: grey yet humid.  I circle around the narrow streets of the island listening to the voices of the tourists, mostly Anglophones but some Chinese too.  Ile St. Louis is the location of the famous Berthillon Sorbet et Glace.  On this small island there are at least 5 different stands where you can get a cone or cup of this Paris delight.  Rain or shine there is always a line at every one.  Along the rue I watch a row of tourists on vilib’s (the rental bicycles that you can pick up/drop off all over the city).  They are on their bikes each with one leg on the curb to hold themselves up.  They are eating Berthillon. 
Je marche…
I cross Pont St. Louis, the only bridge that connects the two islands, and stop to enjoy.  Today the Pont is busier than usual.  On one end a young violinist plays Mozart.  The clown is here too.  He is a bald man who always has a tiny red hat taped atop his shiny head while doing silly tricks with his bicycle and a roll of masking tape.  He is missing his usual audience today with so much competition.    
A bit further down the bridge is the man who makes bubbles using two sticks and a piece of string which he dips into his little red bucket then pulls out to form huge colorful bubbles that look like oil on water.  That one is usually my favorite; I could watch him for ages. 
But today there is a new act.  He is a hat-wearing pianist, his shaggy white hair shoots out from under his cap and to me he looks like a sea faring captain who has lost his boat.  His tunes are quick and jovial as he pounds away on the wooden box on wheels that make up his piano.  His admirers grow quickly as do the silver and gold coins in the bag on the back of his instrument.
Behind me a new performer begins to compete.  His skinny, almost frightening wooden puppets dance around on the end of his strings to the sound of the harmonica he plays. 
A bird swoops down and flutters his wings in my hair.  I scream a little flailing my arms like a crazy person.  These French birds are fearless (this is not the first time this has happened to me).
Je marche…
I walk past the back of Notre Dame to the left bank.  Walking with no destination is the only way to truly let Paris show herself to you.  It is following my own advice that I ended up at the bottom of Rue Valette, one of the streets that heads to the top of the hill where le Pantheon resides. I looked up and saw the majestic, domed building looking down at me.  I had never seen le Pantheon except from afar; it can be seen from most places in Paris from where it sits atop a large hill.  The structure was built to house the “mortal remains of great men” and today is the final resting place for Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Voltaire…   The grand structure resembles the US Capital Building, I observe from outside its black gates.  The view from the top of the dome must be extravagant.
Je marche…
I descend the hill on the opposite one that I had hiked up and I see a familiar wrought iron gate with golden spires:  the Jardin des Tuileries.  But I am not on the right bank, it can’t be.  Naturally I investigate.
I enter into the massive park and immediately know I have finally found Jardin de Luxembourg.  My first few steps into the garden I am overwhelmed with the countless shades of green on the trees lining the walk.  Before I even make it to the reds, yellows, magentas, and oranges of the rest of the park I am intrigued by hundreds of people surrounding the gardens gazebo.  The people keep coming carrying chairs from other parts of the park to rest for what I assume would be a concert.  I was right.
I stumbled upon a piano concert.  Not wanting to be in the center of the crowd I have chosen to sit, white pants and all, in the dirt up against a tree underneath the canopy of leaves.  The pianist begins - le jardin becomes his concert hall.  The sounds of Chopin seemingly dance in the air around the fortunate audience, I among them. 
Regardless of the concert le jardin remains lively.  To my left the outdoor restaurant continues to serve cold salads and hot coffee, children run through the dirt leaving clouds of dust in their wake.  Further into the garden teams play tennis and families relax in the grass.  I zig-zag through the old men who play chess on the “chess board” tables that always make me think of Harvard Square in Boston.   Runners zoom past me and I slow my pace to take in a pond with a statue of an angel overlooking it.  I am breath taken.
Je marche…
Exiting the garden there is a calm about me that I didn’t possess when I entered.  I don’t know exactly where in the city I am but I can always find my way.  I know which way leads towards home which is the direction I have decided to head.
I turn another corner to see a large courtyard with a massive, ornate water fountain in front of what appears to be a cathedral.  I am at Saint Suplice I discover.  The yard is peaceful, only the sounds of the falling water break the silence.
Je marche…
I head towards St. Germain des Pres and pass by Cathedral St. Paul.  I stop every few minutes to look in the windows of the closed shops and imagine what I could buy for my loved ones if I had the money.  Now would be the time to do it, after all it is SOLDES!  Soldes is the magical bi-annual event in Paris where everything in the city is on sale.  It lasts for about a month with discounts getting deeper and deeper the longer you wait to buy.  Of course by then you are taking the chance that what you want to purchase will be out of stock.  So I window shop and pretend that when it isn’t a Sunday (so the stores will be open) I will come back and buy what I like.  Of course I know I won’t but it is fun nonetheless.
While drooling over a crystal globe a crazy bum approaches me calling me lovely in French.  I know how to handle this: don’t look him in the eye and just walk away, even if he follows you just keep on walking until he tires of the chase.  This one was persistent but I shook him eventually. 
Je marche…(faster now thanks to the bum and my desire to escape the temptations of the soldes)
I cross Pont des Arts running my fingers along the “Locks of Love” that adorn the bridge.  There are varying locks from simple to intricate, a number dial or key.  But each one of them means something to someone – or two someone’s rather.  I have a look at a few of them “Emile aime Cleo”  “Je t’adore toujours K&M”.  I think of the two people standing here on this bridge signing the back of their lock with a sharpie.  I can picture “Cleo” wrapping that little red bow around their lock so that it would stand out.  I am sure they kissed then as a tourist filled boat passed below their feet. 
Eventually the locks will be cut off, as they always are in order to make room for more “love”.  If the owners are lucky though whatever made them clasp that lock will remain.  It moves me.  So I touch a few more locks and pray for the happiness of those who took the time to make such a gesture.
Je marche…
Back on the right bank I look down onto the quai to see a photo shoot going on.  A very “French” looking woman wears a light pink feathered jacket that blows in the breeze while a man kneels below her holding it together.  The photographer snaps away while she makes subtle adjustments to her face.  I watch, once again entertained. 
Je marche…
Three and a half hours later I make it back to my inviting home, climb the stairs then plop myself onto the sofa. 
I think about my day and my Paris.  
Life happens to you here.  No matter where you go or what you do, if you let it in, the gems of the city will entertain you and you may even be lucky enough to feel her heartbeat.
Yes, Paris is the city of love.  But more, Paris is the city of lights, the city of music, the city of life.  Now more than ever I feel the “joie de vivre” that is Paris!