‘if you don’t mind my asking, why are you staked out on funeral street?’ we were asked as we sat outside a cafe near Père Lachaise Cemetery. The speaker, an Englishman in his early 70s, was on his way to visit his father’s grave. His attire, like his opening gambit – was very cool. In Paris, it’s possible to be old and cool!
We were resting our weary bones after getting lost looking for Molière. We found Jim Morrison though, and Oscar Wilde, and Héloïse and Abelard, the nun and monk who famously fell in love. Platonic love, allegedly (according to my guide) – or it certainly was after her infuriated family had him castrated! Reminds me of a nun who taught me at convent primary school. We used to tease her about fancying Father X the young visiting priest. Later I heard they’d left their vocations, ditched their vow of chastity and run off together. I was delighted to hear it, I like tales of forbidden love finding a way to thrive. But that’s an aside. We couldn’t find Molière, or Edith Piaf, or Balzac, or the guy who’s built his grave although he’s not dead yet. Nor could we find Victor Noir the cemetery sex symbol – nephew of Napoleon III, shot dead by Prince Pierre Bonaparte. A life-size bronze sculpture of him lies above the tomb with a notable bulge at the crotch. Women reputedly rub his genitalia to improve their sex lives.
Taking a stroll around Père Lachaise on a Sunday is evidently a common Parisian pastime and it’s easy to get lost here – there are streets upon streets of tombstones in this necropolis – and as Paris was heating up to near 30 degrees, we called it a day and sought refreshment at the delightful nearby Bear Cafe.
I half-intended to make this mini-break a literary excursion, and thought about doing the Left Bank Literary Loop, a 6 km walk which takes in George Orwell’s boarding house and places where other literary greats hung out. In the event, the heat beat us and we spent a lot of time in shady cafés. We did however do a boat trip on the Seine which was blissfully breezy and gave us a river view of most of the sights.
We stayed in Belleville, which – despite being only a 40-minute walk from Gare Du Nord – is off the tourist map. Here you get a sense of the old Paris, with some of the streets unchanged since the 1930s. Tourists are a rarity, uncommon enough that people stopped to ask us where we were from and how we came to be staying there. We adopted nearby Le Café Zéphyr as our local – an understated eatery where the waiter is a fast draw with a water pistol (for shooting the pigeons). Here, over breakfast, we met Anna, a Parisian TV producer. She comes most mornings in between dropping her daughter off at nursery and starting work. She told us how in France, people still make time to sit down for a coffee before starting work. There’s none of this ghastly coffee-to-go culture. Long may it last. Coffee tastes infinitely better out of a proper cup while observing Parisian street life than gulped on the hoof out of a plastic beaker. Plus there’s nothing like the litter you get in the UK. People buy their baguettes freshly made wrapped in paper, not pre-packaged in single-use plastic.
What struck me, having not been to France for many years, is the little differences. It’s only two and a bit hours away by Eurostar but you get a real sense of otherness. The things I noticed were:
- The rich variety of two-wheeled modes of transport, ranging from segway to unicycle to electric scooter – some of which light up at night. We even saw a penny farthing. (Wonder what you call that in French?)
- Cyclists, most helmet less and none of them wearing lycra, manage to merge seamlessly with rush hour traffic, and – like in Amsterdam – seem to be able to do lots of other things while cycling, like talking on the phone, carrying a baby, a dog or a baguette, or all three.
- People eat out en famille – the streets on a Saturday night are not the province of pissed 20-somethings. You get all ages and it’s more civilised.
- Dogs are off-lead, but very obedient, they trot along beside their owners. I never saw anyone pick up poo, but I never saw any poo on the streets either.
- The English trend of covering every inch of flesh with tattoos doesn’t seem to have caught on in Paris.
- More people smoke, fewer people vape.
- You can take dogs on the metro.
- People still do their shopping at the little shops – the fruit & veg shops, boulangeries, boucheries and florists are thriving.
- Everyone, of any age or demographic, is effortlessly cool.
Two days wasn’t enough though, I need longer to absorb the atmosphere, shake off my English angst and get into the Parisian vibe. A week at the very least, a month would be better. Sitting in cafes watching the world inspired me to start writing my new novel. Who knows, if I had a whole month there, I might even finish the thing. I’m told November is a good time to go. #NaNoWriMo in Paris – now I like the sound of that.