Friday, July 17, 2009

August in Paris

So finally I found a poem about Paris--"August in Paris" by Billy Collins--as an opening to tell you a little about our recent trip to France. We went in June, because everything I'd read said that Paris starts to close down in July and August. Even then some places were closed on weekends, and it was difficult to find a restaurant on a Monday.

Everywhere we walked, there were people sketching and painting, and sidewalk sellers offering watercolors of famous Parisian scenes, plus small metal models of the Eiffel Tower, old newspapers and magazines featuring events from Paris, and picture postcards. The postcards, of course, are mostly why I was perusing the wares. As I've said here before, I love postcards, and I collected a stack almost 2 inches high by the end of the trip. I mailed them from the U.S. because I didn't want to take the time to buy stamps (despite the fact that a few of the cards I bought in Monaco came pre-stamped, for use in the fifteen minutes it takes to drive through that country).

When our feet got tired from walking through the cobblestone streets of Paris (and my bionic knee is now doing so well that I can walk far enough to make my feet tired!), we would sit on a bench for a while and watch the people walk by. One bench just outside of Notre Dame, on a bridge across the Seine leading to the Latin Quarter, was a particularly good people-watching spot. After reading a "Get Fuzzy" cartoon about European men wearing capri pants just before we left, we counted the number of men we saw wearing capris (by the end of our 12-day stay in Paris and Nice the count was 42). Everyone in Paris, men and women, wears pretty shoes. We saw very few people wearing athletic shoes, and those few were almost certainly American tourists. French men tend to wear very pointy-toed dress shoes, even for bicycling, and French women wear delicate sandals in June, often flats, but sometimes with 2-3 inch heels. We'd guess about the nationality of the people coming towards us based on their shoes and clothing, and then when they passed us and we could hear what language they were speaking, we'd get a pretty good idea about the accuracy of our guesses.

I'd never before been in a country where I didn't speak the language well, so reading and trying to communicate required a depth of concentration I'm not used to. I would savor the words I knew ("Ecoles" means schools) and repeat to myself the words I'd just heard pronounced ("St-Germain" doesn't sound like it does when I read it).

August in Paris

I have stopped here on the rue des Ecoles
just off the boulevard St-Germain
to look over the shoulder of a man
in a flannel shirt and a straw hat
who has set up an easel and a canvas chair
on the sidewalk in order to paint from a droll angle
a side-view of the Church of Saint Thomas Aquinas.

But where are you, reader,
who have not paused in your walk
to look over my shoulder
to see what I am jotting in this notebook?

Alone in this city,
I sometimes wonder what you look like,
if you are wearing a flannel shirt
or a wraparound blue skirt held together by a pin.

But every time I turn around
you have fled through a crease in the air
to a quiet room where the shutters are closed
against the heat of the afternoon,
where there is only the sound of your breathing
and every so often, the turning of a page.

Art is a public activity in Paris, as is drinking coffee. When we saw people retreating into their walled gardens and behind their shutters, we imagined them heading for private pleasures, opening the box from the patisserie, letting the first pretty shoe drop to the floor, taking off those capri pants one leg at a time.

Reading is so often an introvert's pleasure, and I imagine Parisians take the time to revel in the privacy--the quiet, the immersion, occasionally the catch of the breath. Do you?


FreshHell said...

Every chance I get.

M Denise C said...

Love hearing about Paris . . . I fell asleep one time reading in front of the Tuileries fountain. It was so pleasant!