Now that I’ve been here just over a month I’m noticing some differences between my two Springs in Paris.
Weather. The weather has been simply glorious this year, while last year was mostly cold and wet. This is purely luck of the draw — last spring was unusually cold while this spring has been the warmest on record since 1900. In addition to sun every day it has been delightfully cool at night – perfect for sleeping. The pattern does seem to have changed in the past week: it’s been cooler, with more clouds, and the forecast now shows a likelihood of showers most days, even though there’s been little rain so far. The persistent good weather has had a peculiar effect on my stay; my normal policy is to do outdoor activities when the weather is nice on the theory that I can enjoy indoor activities when the weather is bad. Since there has been no bad weather I visited 0nly a couple of museums in May! I saw a lot last year, but I still have a list of museums I haven’t yet seen, and I also wouldn’t mind going back to some favorites, such as the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre. Update on June 8: The weather pattern changed in the last few days of May and since then it has been mostly cloudy, with occasional thunderstorms. We have had some warm days but only in the low 80s, and we have also had some quite cool days.
Etage. My apartment this year is on the 3eme étage — three flights up, on the U.S. fourth floor. Last year both apartments were on the 5eme étage, two flights more. Though the actual difference in height isn’t much the psychology is completely different. On the 5eme it was a project to travel to and from the street, while on the 3eme it’s not an issue at all. I think nothing of going down to buy a fresh baguette for breakfast — which I have done almost every morning this year — while last year the baguette left over from dinner was good enough. The result is a much more fluid relationship with the neighborhood, which I really like. The only explanation I have come up with for the difference is the possibility that you can scamper up three flights on anerobic reserves, while by the end of five flights you’re getting into aerobic exercise. This isn’t just me — my cousin Lisa says she would never want to live above the 3eme, and a couple of her friends who live on the 7eme said that they more or less plan their day around avoiding excess trips!
Neighborhoods. I continue to love the Montorgueil neighborhood where I am this spring and where I stayed last April. I can’t get enough of the happy energy of the street life, even when it’s on the noisy side. I could do without quite so many visits by the street cleaners and trash collectors from a noise perspective, but I really appreciate the clean sidewalks and streets that result. The only real negatives I see to this area are (1) it’s an extra 15 minutes walk from the Marais, and I find myself going back and forth several times a day, and (2) it’s only a couple of blocks from rue Saint Denis and Les Halles, both of which are a bit shady, and as a result even my own neighborhood can become unsafe very late at night, especially (Jacques tells me) on Sunday, when unemployed toughs from the banlieues are at large. Another time I might consider renting in the Marais instead, although I think safety very late at night might still be an issue there.
Sociability. Last year it took a couple of weeks for me to meet people and start having a social life here. That period was a bit lonely, but it also had the vividness of an individual encounter with the life of the city. This year started with a very busy week, as I caught up with old friends. Ryan and Alan arrived soon after, and for the most part I have been socializing quite actively ever since. This has been lots of fun, but this year’s balance has tilted towards sociability and away from the solitary strolling of the flâneur.
An Hour from Paris. I had been concerned about the fact that I had at least seen the most interesting places in Paris proper, so I brought a book listing a couple dozen day trips outside the city, An Hour from Paris. I’ve taken two that I really enjoyed, and I expect to do a couple more before the end of my stay. Day trips add a welcome element of variety, but Paris proper offers so much that I’m nowhere near running out of interesting places to go and things to see.
Night and Day. Last year I got to bed at a fairly reasonable hour almost every night, and got up close to my normal time — maybe 7 am or 8 am vs. 6 am, but still in time to have a nutritious breakfast. This year I planned to shift my schedule a few hours later so I could explore more of the Parisian night life. For the most part, however, I’ve stayed on exactly the same schedule. While frustrating in the abstract, each evening going to bed has seemed like the right decision, and I do like the idea of living in a healthy and sustainable manner. Could it possibly be that I’m — gasp! — getting a tiny bit old? To that I say, “Whatever!” One consequence of my schedule has been my being consistently about five hours out of synch with my younger house guests. It hasn’t been a big problem keeping myself amused — quietly — while my guests catch up on missed sleep. But I do wonder from time to time what I’m missing!
Photography. One big change this year is that I bought a new pocket-size camera, a Canon S95. It offers a series of advances on my older pocket camera — higher definition, image stabilization, better low-light capability, RAW format, etc. I expected to like it, but in fact I like it so much that I am not using my SLR at all. The photos this camera takes have consistently exceeded my requirements. And of course the ability to carry it everywhere, always, without being obtrusive or awkward, is a huge benefit. The one downside to this camera is that there is a relatively slow cycle time after you take a photo – you have to wait about a second before taking another shot unless you have it on multiple-shot mode.
Here is an example of a shot of the angel atop the monument in the center of the Place de la Bastille. The first image is hand-held at maximum optical zoom, and the second is cropped from the RAW image data of the first image. Amazing!
Communication Technology. I have a surplus of communication technology this year, but I can’t decide what I would do without. Last year I brought my PC, my U.S. Blackberry, and my previous Blackberry. Both Blackberry’s are GSM, so will function with the French telephone system. Like last year, I bought a French SIM card, which gave me a Paris phone number for my old Blackberry, which I carry with me and use mostly for texting with Parisian friends. Data plans are available here but quite expensive, so I don’t have data on the old phone. I set up overseas access for my U.S. Blackberry as well, so it can be used in a pinch, but roaming charges for both voice and data are very expensive so I normally use it only in wifi mode, which is free. This year, instead of bringing books I just brought my new Kindle 3. This has worked great, and actually affords yet another communication option since it includes free worldwide wireless service. The Kindle’s browser is painfully clunky, however, so I haven’t had occasion to use this capability. Finally, to further gild the lily, I bought an iPad at the last moment before leaving for Paris. This lets me read the Economist (included with my subscription), the New York Times (paid now unless you defeat it), and tons of other news sources, including my favorite local rag, the low-brow 20minutes.fr. I use everything for one purpose or another but I certainly could get by with two or three fewer toys!
Exercise. Last year I swam several times but this year I’ve done nothing systematic, except stairs and lots of walking. I don’t think I’m getting too out of shape but I would like to add some aerobic exercise to the mix. Perhaps I’ll overcome my reticence this month and try out one of the two convenient gay gyms. Strictly for health reasons, you understand…
Vélib’. I only cracked the vélib’ system a few days back and I’m still in the first flush of enthusiasm. It will be more relevant I think when I’m here by myself, since it would be impolite to jump on a bike and ride off when I’m strolling with a visitor. But I can see it as adding a dimension of convenient transport and fun activity that may really enhance my experience. The big flaw is that helmets aren’t required, and I don’t have one. I am trying to be careful, but there is always a risk when you mix bikes and traffic, and the risk is multiplied when your skull is unprotected.
The Habitual Journey. While I still find a lot of new things to see and do in Paris I’m also beginning to detect the first signs of over-familiarity. Places and experiences that were fresh and exciting last year have become more routine, although frequently still quite pleasant. My visitors have helped this, since they will sometimes point something out that I have overlooked, and in general seeing the city through their eyes is refreshing. But it’s clear that returning regularly to Paris could become routine, just as my life in Cambridge has become. A pleasant routine isn’t a bad thing, but it doesn’t offer the freshening of awareness that you get from being open to new perceptions. To continue getting that I may have to travel elsewhere, or learn how to pay closer attention wherever I am.