Sunday, September 9, 2012

Rive Gauche

So I was in Paris last month.

August is a sun-hot stillness in Paris. It felt like three quarters of the city had decamped to the seaside, leaving a perspiring swarm of tourists in their place. I made the error of booking a Right Bank hotel, a skinny spinsterish building tucked somewhere between the Louvre and a kebab joint that played Egyptian soap operas on a flat-screen TV all night long. (In the afternoon I queued to stare at the grave-goods of aristocratic mummies, and in the evening their descendants brought me cups of hot mint tea and "couscous royale".)

In about three days, I think I did almost everything the average tourist in Paris does - morning croissants and cafe au lait followed by foie gras and steak frites at dinner, Versailles and its gardens in the white burning heat of noon, strolling across Pont Neuf on a clear night, climbing warm airless stairs in quest of Vermeer at the Louvre. I gawked dutifully at the pink feather-boa helicopter installation in Marie Antoinette's old bedroom and at the Mona Lisa's enigmatic smirk (from a much greater distance, over the heads and outstretched camera-wielding arms of taller visitors).

My great regret is not having been able to stay long enough to explore the other Paris. In fact, I didn't even get around the city much. Only one afternoon on the Left Bank, which is the Right Bank's cool, practical cousin - the one often depicted in an army surplus jacket and Isabel Marant heels (of course the Right Bank is in head-to-toe Chanel and pearls). I should have spent more time wandering around the Left Bank's streets after emerging into sunlight from Les Catacombes. But I was on a quest to find a particular jewellery shop - Corpus Christi, to be exact - and in a few short hours it led me from the Galeries Lafayette to Le Bon Marche to Le Marais. At the boutique I found what I was looking for - a thumb-length silver Aztec skeleton with a carved golden crown, on a long chain. (I saw it years ago online, when I was working in public relations for a pittance. I wanted it very badly but I couldn't afford it back then.)

Early next morning it was back on the Eurostar and away up to Edinburgh.

I would definitely like to go back. Paris, je t'aime. But not the Paris of movies. Not Woody Allen's self-consciously charming midnight homage, not Sofia Coppola's Converse-clad Marie Antoinette confection. Not even the charming pop-sunshine music of Phoenix or Serge Gainsbourg's smoky louche swagger. Not the city of the French New Wave or teenage yé-yé starlets in pert angora sweaters. Not the Paris of fashion, of culture, of history... and especially not the Paris of Eiffel Tower queues and souvenir tote bags and bottles of water.

The Paris I would like to have seen more of is immigrant Paris, an unfinished tapestry that begins with the perfume salesman who was born in Algeria and quit his job teaching French because of his Gallic love of scents. It runs on through the small shops and cafes in various Left Bank quarters - Latin, Jewish, African, even Indian and Chinese. It ends abruptly in a hole-in-the-wall Egyptian eatery, where day-old baklava sagged against the oil-stained glass of the counter, and the staff gathered to commiserate over the weather forecast on TV ("Tomorrow is too 'ot! Too 'ot!" one of the cooks clutched his head and moaned dramatically to us). I hope to continue it, someday. One day.