In his book, A Writer’s Paris, author Eric Maisel writes about the practise of flanerie, the French invention of strolling as an art form. The flaneur, according to Eric, is an observer who wanders the streets of a great city on a mission to notice with childlike enjoyment the smallest events and the obscurest sights he encounters. It is in Paris, says Eric, that the delicious, dreamy strolling of the flaneur can be perfected. So what can a first-time visitor to Paris observe as a flaneur? Here is my list which you can compare with yours:
1. Carousel – it might surprise you but Paris is also a city for children. There are a number of Carousels throughout the city, in almost every park and public square as well as in tourist places like the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Montmarte, Trocadero, Tuilleries, Luxembourg garden, Champ de Mars, or Jardin des Plantes. It is said that the Carousel is a French invention which started from Louis XIV as an entertainment for his nobles during an equestrian festival. The French Revolution made the carousel accessible to the masses at the end of the 18th century.
2. W. C. which stands for water closet or toilet in England. For some reason, the French have adopted the English initials for water closet and not toilette in public signs. My guess is that the W.C. is a more discreet way of announcing public toilet. Then there is the matter of flushing. If you can’t find the string that needs to be pulled up (and not pushed down) to flush, the flush could be on the floor which means you need to step on it. If it’s a lever type of flush, it works opposite the American way. You need to lift the lever up and not down.
3. Sounds of Paris – if you would like to hear some classic accordion music, head for the Notre Dame across the Seine River. At the bridge, you might chance upon an accordion artist playing classical French songs. Another good place is at the Metro (where you can hear various artists) or at the steps around Sacre Coeur in Montmarte. It is also interesting to note that announcements at the train stations (Gare) are preceded by a short musical sound, before the “Madame et Monsieur,” spiel. Finally, I like the “musical” sound of the police siren or ambulance that you’ll often hear in the city.
4. Street food, fast food – the crepe with Nutella is the popular street food in Paris. It is made from wheat flour (farine de ble) which is grown in many parts of the country. The French baguette is best eaten fresh, when it is crispy and flaky on the outside, and soft, slightly moist on the inside. Better yet, try the baguette with a pate. Other breads or pastries to try are the croissants which are buttery delicious, brioche, beignet, galettes (which are made from buckwheat flour), macaron (meringue soft cookies in different flavors), Madelaine and Galette cookies from Monoprix, a local chain of supermarket. For fast food look for the local chain named Quick, which serves delicious burgers made from top-quality wheat bread, French cheese and beef.
5. Monochromatic Paris – at the time I visited Paris in spring 2007, black was the color of the season. At boutiques, mannequins were dressed in classic black dresses, and for those legs, the mannequins sported designer fishnet black stockings. For a spring-inspired look, though, there were navy blue striped shirts. At the Solaris store at Champs-Elysees, the retro look among black sunglasses was in vogue – big, chunky, with designer labels at the side. Parisians and chic tourists wore their skirts with black boots that reached their knees while a favourite among locals was the ballet-style black-colored dallas cowboys polo shirt . When it comes to day dressing, Parisians prefer plain, neutral colors like black, brown or white as opposed to printed designs. A beret is not a common sight but the scarf, pashmina or trench or leather coat is.
6. street cafes and cafe – with the exception of Asian or ethnic restaurants, most restaurants in Paris look like a café, although there is a difference among bistros, brasseries, creperies, salons, and restaurants in Paris. Sitting on the outside of a café means people-watching and costs more. It is interesting to note, especially near a popular tourist spot, that the French actually turn their seat facing the street, and sit side by side rather than across each other. The French, unlike Americans, mix their coffee with warm milk while a hot chocolate comes with a small piece of dark chocolate on the side. At Maison Eymard where we stayed, almost everyone drank their coffee in a bowl that is equivalent to two cups with sugar cubes. I didn’t see any Starbucks in Paris though; perhaps it simply cannot compete with the many cafes that serve gourmet hot meals in their menu, aside from coffee.
7. Le Metro – if you are staying in Paris for a week, it is best to buy the carte d’orange which starts from Monday and ends on Sunday of the same week. Going in and out of the metro will be a breeze, as opposed to carrying a bunch (called a carnet) of the metro ticket which can be confusing once validated. A word of advise: do not throw your ticket until you exit on to the street or you will be fined at least 25 euros. The Metro station is like a maze of tunnel, where one can transfer from one subway line to another (called correspondence) with only one ticket that needs to be validated when you enter, and one exits via a side door without need for ticket validation. But beware, ticket inspectors could lurk along the maze of corridors just before you exit to the street. It’s not a case of checking the tickets during the actual journey but after the subway journey.
8. Pour homme, pour femme – which means for men and for women. It should come as no surprise to find a whole building dedicated “Pour homme” as well as “Pour femme” in Paris. Frenchmen are equally well-dressed, well-poised and vain about their looks. They only expect the best in their stores, from perfumes, clothes, accessories, etc. You won’t find the French walking in shorts and rubber dallas cowboys polo shirt in the city unless they are on the beach or exercising. They are rather conservative but stylish when it comes to clothes. And you won’t hear loud, boisterous chatter in cafes either. It’s a case of being seen but not heard from a distance. Etiquette and politeness are traditions that are still alive in France, thank goodness.
9. Lights of Paris – for me, the lights of the Eiffel Tower at night are breathtaking. Seen very near and afar (from the Trocadero) it is an awesome, spectacular sight that warms the heart. Wait until the lights start to blink and twinkle, and it’s even more beautiful. No wonder there are many souvenir shirts that have the Eiffel Tower as designs, key chains, souvenir spoons, scarves, etc. It is only when you have seen the lights that you will understand this fascination for the Eiffel. There’s nothing like the real thing, in the City of Lights.
10. Original and reproductions – One of the best things about visiting a museum in Paris is seeing an original painting, and buying a reproduction of it at the souvenir shop. For instance, at the Marmottan Museum, I finally saw the original painting of Claude Monet’s Impression Sunrise. I first saw a reproduction of this painting in the Getty’s Museum in LA, USA but it didn’t make any impression on me then. Later on, having purchased an art book of Monet, I discovered that it is best to catch the light reflected on the painting. From a distance, the silvery waters of the painting glowed and gave the impression of moving. What brilliance! You can imagine my happiness at seeing the original painting and finally purchasing a reproduction for 4 euros. Nothing online can compare with seeing the original painting.
write by Radley