A month into my residency in Paris, and already it’s begun to feel familiar, a home away from home. We know where the good markets are now, the cheap butcher, the best baker in our neighbourhood, the guy who sells the best mussels and fish—and we cook up our little feasts on our humble two hotplates with, I like to think, a suitably Parisian elan and imagination and attention to detail!
The colour and beauty and grace of the city continue to fill our senses, and now that an impressionistic smudge of spring is starting timidly to color the edge of the winter sky, and the three signs of the warmer season approaching are beginning to show themselves—musicians busking in the street rather than just in the Metro tunnels, people clustering around the outdoor tables of cafes, and demonstrators starting to wave placards (a time-honored French sport!)–we are even more excited at being in this wonderful and inexhaustibly interesting place.
Yes, Paris is a feast for the senses—but it isn’t just the five senses that are richly rewarded. For a writer, one of the beauties of being here is that French love of words, particularly of witty—or poetic—words. It’s not only that this is a city of innumerable bookshops, a city where writers both living and dead are celebrated and feted—you can hear this love of words even in very ordinary conversations in little shops and at the checkouts of supermarkets, where people will very often make little remarks of both a very personal (much more personal than most English-language people are used to!) and witty kind.
French people generally have always admired a command of words and wit, an elegance of expression and a sharpness of mind expressing itself in repartee, and even in France Paris is particularly famous for it. Sometimes the sharpness can turn to a vinegary sourness and the command of wit to cutting cruelty and the elegance of expression to a stony-hearted conventionality and wish to destroy eccentricity(one of the things most dreaded by Parisians is to be made to look ridiculous, for in so doing one loses one’s social status—when you might as well be dead, as far as Parisians are concerned!) But most often it’s not like that at all but a traditional way to engage with people, and a way of expressing ordinary life in a very individual way, so that even ordinary things are lit by that attention to detail that characterizes so much of the charm of Parisian life. And when wit and poetry come together in an ordinary setting—then it can be a rather lovely thing, touching the day with a kind of grace.
I found a rather lovely example of this in the (very ordinary) Parisian daily newspaper, Le Parisien, this week, in the unpromising surroundings of the weather report. I’d noticed for some time that in true French style the weather report didn’t limit itself to bald statements but expressed a kind of wry delight in the weather itself, turning the ordinary facts into a kind of nicely-observed mini-essay on the vagaries of climate and the fortitude humans required to deal with it.
This particular day’s though, the anonymous reporter had excelled him or herself, and managed to combine wit, poetic imagery, and an allusion to food (always a winner in France!) to produce something so good I just had to cut it out and put it in my journal. Basically, the report was telling of how things were topsy-turvy this day because there was sunshine and mild weather in the North (including Paris) while the South had to make do with snow and wind and rain. (Southerners love to make much of the supposed fact it is always bad weather in the North and always good in the South) ‘Le ciel francais en tatin’ was how the report was tartly (forgive the pun!) headed-an allusion to a famous French dessert, the Tarte Tatin, which is an upside-down apple tart (and utterly delicious, I might add!). It went on to speak in poetic terms about the sky and the wind and the sun, always staying nicely within the whole flavorsome image, managing also to have a few little digs at the Southerners shivering down there, and ended up by saying how one must still be cautious and not expect too much—for the weather ‘ n’est pas aussi doux qu’un dessert’–(is not as sweet and pleasurable as a dessert!) Thus crisply rounding off the whole prose poem, and making one new resident’s day!