Letter From Paris

My husband Larry and I are here in Paris, a place we deeply love. The purpose of our trips is not to sightsee. In fact, the goal is not to accomplish anything at all. We have few plans and no expectations. There are exhibits we may check out and close friends to see, but we have a routine that is centered on simply being here. Larry, an ardent chess player, goes to the Luxembourg Gardens, a public park, where he meets up with a group of regulars and plays round-robin blitz or slow chess every day, regardless of weather. I’ve photographed him bundled in a hooded parka, a cotton short-sleeve shirt, and everything in between. Chess players are impervious to distractions for the most part, though occasionally some of the older players get grumpy if onlookers point out a mistake or suggest an alternative move. 

Larry at the chess tables snow, rain or shine.

While Larry plays chess, I am a flâneuse. The French term “flâneur” in the masculine or “flâneuse” in the feminine, refers to those who stroll or saunter to observe human behavior, or whatever else they feel like observing.  Flânerie is a thing: Books have been written about it. One, “Flâneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris” by Edmund White describes “…that entirely Parisian compromise between laziness and activity known as flânerie.” I have used this to justify my walking and looking around as a respectable pursuit. 

“What? All you did today was walk? You didn’t go to a museum or a concert or a play?”

 “Oui. All I did was wander.

My impulse to snap a photo without asking first was met with displeasure.

My wanderings include strolls through the marchés, or open-air markets which are open year-round and have diverse offerings of fruits, vegetables, cheeses, wine, meats, fish, chicken, dairy, as well as crafts, scarves, leather goods, children’s and women’s clothes, sweaters, and occasionally furniture. Despite the bustling supermarkets and profusion of small groceries and specialty shops, the marchés are teeming with regular customers and eager tourists looking for authenticity. The marché experience offers up some insights into the national character as well.

The French have rules for everything, including how to behave correctly at the market and they do not countenance any attempts to defy them. Trying to cut into a line—even inadvertently, asking a question out of turn, not remembering to say hello at the beginning of each encounter will result in “un regard froid”—a cold stare. And that cold stare stings. I have been on the end of it for taking pictures without asking first and other assorted missteps. However once foreigners master the rules of comportment, the French become friendly and hospitable.

The French have charm to spare most of the time.
Walking with no destination in mind brings surprises and unexpected discoveries.

Paris boasts beautiful wide boulevards leading to narrow and sometimes mysterious alleys that bring a range of architectural wonders and interesting light play into view. One can savor these things if there’s no preoccupation with destinations or time frames. Without such constraints, walkers will discover things and be able to stop and really examine them. The odd ornamental gate or handmade oak front door. Pediments and columns, grillwork, elaborate plantings on terraces and in window boxes. So many beautiful old things, some in rough shape, others preserved to perfection. 

Cafe sitting is one of many Parisian pleasures. Eavesdropping is optional.

Passing the rows of cafes, flâneurs have time to overhear tidbits of conversation that reveal lots of possible outcomes. Write your own soap opera or tragic love story.

These proper French ladies arranged themselves for several minutes before I got the okay to photograph them.

Take in the variety of fashion statements, many a result of American designers, other quintessentially French or European. Admire the diversity of faces and languages and the scents of the Parisian women who would never venture out without meticulous preparation, the scarf just so. And French dogs are welcomed in the finest restaurants. On a whim, we had lunch at the Louvre Museum restaurant the other day. I ordered my favorite Easton summer salad, heirloom tomatoes, basil and burrata. In came a Pomeranian festooned in a designer sweater. She was far better dressed than we were.

Normally, after Larry’s chess and my strolls, we meet up for dinner and decide on the spot to pick up some cheese, fruit, bread and wine and have a pique-nique or head to a favorite haunt or try someplace new. Without a fixed plan, many adventures await.

Photos–Jane Paley

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