It’s the booksellers along the river. It’s the young women dressing themselves in vitality, the most authentic make up. It’s the dogs sitting next to their masters in the cafés. It’s the two-year-old children with their mothers gently shaking hands upon meeting in the park, saying “Bonjour.”
It’s the open air dinner parties along the banks of the Seine on summer evenings, wine bottles open, glasses filled, and candles blown by gentle breezes. It’s the accordion player on the little bridge that connects the two islands of Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-Louis, providing a sound track for your imagination. It’s the incredible disinterest shown to you by clerks in post offices, occasionally interrupted by a real look of recognition and helpfulness.
It’s turning the corner and seeing someone you had dinner with the night before in a neighborhood across town. It’s buying vegetables every few days from the grocer on the sloping Rue Mouffetard, who suddenly smiles and gives you a “cadeau” of extra parsley or strawberries.
It’s the moment that a French acquaintance becomes a friend by inviting you home to meet the family, or better yet to join them at their country cottage just a short train ride out of town.
It’s being stopped by an African in full dress who speaks better French than you do, and needs directions. It’s having your French corrected gently and respectfully by a five year-old who comes over to talk with you in the park and the happy smile his au pair tosses at you across the sun-drenched sandbox between the fountains at the Place des Vosges.
It’s the Thursday evening parties on the Pont des Arts, where young and old gather in different spots to celebrate the springtime moon or just to show off a little. “Who brought that great pâté?” It’s the ivy on our courtyard walls blowing in the breeze, forming a vast, vertical wave like a green ocean.
It’s the street names, all dedications to great poets, artists, inventors (Rue Daguerre), saints, fallen heroes, historic places – never “125th street.” They range from the Rue des Artistes to Avenue des Entrepreneurs.
It’s visiting the squats of young artists in abandoned buildings where they live and work rent-free, and then, a few hours later, finding yourself at a banquet at Versailles, dining in l’Orangerie, the hall where King Louis XIV reveled.
It’s the poetry readings on the sidewalk in front of Shakespeare and Company where only the most avid ear can make out the words being read from James Joyce’s Ulysses — passionate sex passages from the novel first published here and long banned in America— because of the ironic voices of the bells of Notre Dame just across the river, as if God were trying to drown out the words of an Irish blasphemer. The young girls love it, as do the older ones enjoying the celebration of the body – yes yes yes! It’s also knowing that this is one city where no one will come pounding on your door if the sex you are having gets a little loud!
It’s the fun of going up to the top of the Eiffel Tower after avoiding it for years since the first time, because “That’s for tourists,” and rediscovering the joy of sweeping your gaze over a 360o panorama of this ancient and recent city.
It’s waiting in line at the Post Office and as the people around you are beginning to roll their eyes and grumble impatiently, saying cheerfully to one and all, “C’est comme la Poste!” breaking the tension, because sure enough, it’s just like the Post Office!
It’s the young women and girls who walk by my atelier on Rue Lepic up in Montmartre, who look admiringly in the window. My heart leaps up, thinking they are smiling at me and at my photography on display—until I notice that they are often using the window as a mirror to check their hair, and possibly to practice an expression they just might need for an anticipated encounter a few minutes down the street!
It’s seeing a youngster, at a book fair in Place Maubert petting a bushel full of leather-bound books as though caressing puppies. Her face shining with, “I want to read! I want to read! ”
It’s life a decade after the January 1st, 2006 nationwide law forbidding smoking indoors at restaurants, cafés, bars, department stores and all other public places. The sidewalks in front of these establishments are lined with smokers taking legal breaks, morning, noon and night. So now, all over France, if you want fresh air, you must go indoors!