mercredi, octobre 12, 2011

Paris Je T'aime


Like many students in the Commonwealth, I dreamt of studying in the UK and sometimes still wonder how things would have turned out if I had done so.

This is France. Whether they actually live it or not, most believe in it.

As life would have it, turning down an undergraduate scholarship to study in the UK (and opting to do my first degree in Singapore) actually brought me a few years later to Paris on another scholarship (this time Post-Graduate) and down the path of the Overseas Singaporean who would end up calling a few cities in the USA, Spain, Germany, Italy and now China home.

Police interrogating a few Roms/Gipsies - they have been infesting the city stealing/pickpocketing/begging in gangs

But none of the other cities has ever captured my heart or imagination like Paris had. Paris is grand, old, beautiful, mysterious, chic, romantic, rich, snobbish, bourgeois, cultured, timeless, stubborn, cosmopolitan, Black/Arab, French...and I just love it so very much.

A typical French restaurant along the River Seine

The French just love sitting outside cafés to watch the world go by (and be seen)

My 3 children were all born in the city. Baby Girl almost became Spanish, but she held out till we could move back to Paris (by overnight train) and get us a bed in one of its famous public maternities. When Baby Boy was born, we bought a Haussmannien flat near the Arc de Triomphe and proudly called ourselves Parisians - until the nomadic call came and moved us to other pastures.

A building opposite the Notre Dame de Paris on the left bank

The Babies therefore have few memories of their lives in Paris. They couldn't remember that they first saw the light of day in the city, took their first steps in its cobbled streets, ate beef really rare before they could even talk and tasted wine even as they were nourished on their mother's milk.

The Seine in Paris

When Baby Boy let it go that he thought he was German (one of his first words had been "Nein!"), I told Hub that we had to bring the kids to Paris, introduce them to their roots. So before the Chinese Golden Week started, we (as in the kids and I) escaped flew back to France with MIL and when Hub joined us after his business trip to Italy and Germany, we rented a car and drove the family to Paris.

The bouquinistes along the River Seine near the Latin Quarter

Shakespeare & Co. - one of the oldest English bookshops in Paris

We started at the Latin Quarter. Used to live there when I was a student. Walked to Sciences Po every day from Maubert-Mutualité. Paris at 6 one morning in the autumn of 1995 when the streets were just awakening (market stalls being set up, cafés opening for business, peace at the Seine...) marked the very moment when I fell in love with the city. After all these years and now 6 years living away from Paris my fascination for the capital has not dimmed. Paris je t'aime.

The facade

Seen from further away (see the bateau mouche?)

Visited Notre Dame de Paris during Sunday Mass. I love the stained glass windows in the cathedral and realised when I saw the facade that the restoration has finally been completed! The kids all wanted to light candles - and inflation has reached the church too since each small one now costs 2 euros instead of 50 cents a few years ago.

door of the Notre Dame de Paris

Sunday Mass

Love the stained glass windows

We walked through Place St Michel and had a sandwich grec for lunch. I sometimes crave for the kebabs in the area, they reminded me so much of my student days so long ago.

Eiffel Tower contre jour

Then off we went to the Tour Eiffel. I had the smart idea to reserve our visit (not easy to find slots though) online which saved us quite a lot of queuing up. For 13,5 euros each you get to go all the way up to the summit. Something one should do only once (especially for the price) for the view would be just as good on the 2nd floor. The kids were really excited though and we enjoyed the view of Paris on a beautiful sunny day. Competed with each other to spot the monuments and then we admired the metal work as we walked down the tower taking the stairs.

Viewed from below

View of Paris (can you see the Arc de Triomphe?) from the Tour Eiffel

I've been a number of times to the tower, of course. Have even watched the fireworks from the Champ de Mars a few times during 14 Juillet when the Teenager was a baby. Hub brought me once to the Jules Verne up there for lunch which only made this last visit all the more lovely for the memories. We were disappointed though that we couldn't find an ancestor's name engraved on the Tower as the family myth goes. He supposedly worked on the tower with Eiffel.

The Green Wall of the museum

We then walked through the gardens of the Musée du Quai Branly (designed by Jean Nouvel) which housed indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas (we've seen a good part of the exhibits in the past when they were in the other now-closed museum). There was a photo exhibition (including works by a few Singaporean, Malaysian and Indonesian photographers) in the open that continued all the way to the banks of the River Seine opposite and I certainly miss living in Paris for this constant exposure to culture and events.

Self portraits by the photographer

Albino kids in Black Africa

North African female motorists

Finished the day at the Champs Elysées as the kids wanted to visit our flat near the Arc de Triomphe. Though reasonably big for Paris, it is now too small for us after a few years of living in big houses elsewhere. I've missed it though as it was really conveniently situated, but I guess we'll be happy to come back to it the day we retire.

Arc de Triomphe and the Champs Elysées

The next day was devoted to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica and its surrounding Pigalle (think sex shops and Moulin Rouge) and Montmartre (cafés and artists) neighbourhoods. When I was living at Porte de Clignancourt (next to the Marché aux Puces) I used to walk there because I just love the Hell and Heaven contrast. ND de Paris is more than 800 years old while the S-C is only about 100, if I'm not wrong and they were built in really very different styles. The S-C also had very political origins reflecting the bloody divisions in French society (e.g. Catholics and Royalists vs Socialists, Democrats and Secularists) after the French Revolution and is a symbol of reconciliation in its aftermath. It also provides a very nice view of Paris since it has been built on its highest point.

Sacred Heart Basilica

Lunch was at Bouillon Chartier near the Grands Magasins - a historical institution in Paris. It used to serve cheap workers stews and soups, specialising today in (not-so-cheap) classic French fare. I've heard rumours that some of its waiters bought their places and would never leave till they retire. In any case they are definitely good in mental Maths because the bill is always tallied on the paper table cloth and I've never seen them go wrong. Food was so-so, I usually go there for its ambiance, not its cuisine.

Main dining hall in Bouillon Chartier

The afternoon was spent walking through the Marais, Place des Vosges, Palais Royal-Musée du Louvre and the Tuileries Gardens. In my earlier years in Paris I have walked through many neighbourhoods in the city for there is no better way to discover Paris than on foot. Pining for a honied doughnut in one of the Jewish bakeries at Couronnes/Belleville, slurping down a bowl of thick rice noodles with pig's intestines at a Wenzhou eatery in rue au Maire, grocery shopping Chez Frères Tang in avenue de Choisy, choosing fish at rue Daguerre/rue Poncelet, digging through boxes of discounted designer wear in Vincennes or rue du Bac near the Bon Marché...

Musée du Louvre

Jardin des Tuileries

We are fond of the Marais and love its cobbled streets, beautiful grand Hôtel particuliers, cafés, museums (e.g. Picasso, Beaubourg, Carnavalet), the fact that Jews, Chinese (some of the earliest migrants), gays, aristocrats, DSK (our notorious Champagne Socialist) all live there...

Place des Vosges - DSK & Anne Sinclair live in one of the buildings

The Swedish Institute in the Marais - we had tea there once a few years ago

Our last day in Paris was spent at the Parc de la Villette where the Cité des Sciences (one of the largest science museums in Europe) and La Géode were situated. I've reserved a 3D movie at the Omnimax theatre and a hands-on Science session at the Cité des Enfants for the kids.

Cité des Sciences and La Géode

We walked through the park to the Cité de la Musique (we've spent a few summer nights there watching open-air movies in the past) and the Grande Halle which used to house the Parisian abattoirs and national wholesale meat market. There was a children's playground where we used to bring the Teenager (when he was little, of course) to play in but unfortunately it was closed for maintenance when we were there.

Lunch was at this really good Au Boeuf Couronné (same group as Bouillon Chartier) that served a good-value lunch menu (33 euros) featuring foie gras, good quality beef, cheese and crème brulée among other dishes. Said to be the "last trace of the Villette’s formerly booming meat industry. And while you won’t find any more butchers in full length aprons, quality cuts of good meat are still king here..." We totally recommend!

I left the family that afternoon and made my way to London alone on the Eurostar. Felt the need to be on my own for a few days much as I love my kids and love looking after them myself. And any excuse to shop in London is always a good one, of course.

The Teenager in the Paris metro - probably not used to it any more after so many years being chauffeured around in a car

Our stay in Paris was short but sweet and hopefully helped the kids to reconnect in a small way with the city of their birth. We do not know if they would choose one day to live in France again, but they know that they can always go back to Paris whenever they feel like it.

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