The “Rentrée” is one of the most important times in the French calendar. It’s when people return to the city, and and normal life, from their August vacations. For me, in contrast, the return to Paris is the start of my vacation. It remains to be seen how this mismatch will affect my experience, but it’s already clear that people will be busier in September than I have generally found them in the spring.
Fortunately, I was able to catch up with my cousin Lisa and her partner Ali before the demands of school (and the family reunion) seriously kick in. We got together last evening for an apéro at my apartment followed by dinner at Le Loup Blanc (which closed in 2014), an old favorite of both Lisa’s and mine.
After sharing our news we proceeded, as usual, to solve the problems of politics, history and human nature. But — hélas — in the morning I found it hard to recall exactly how we did it. I’ll be seeing Lisa again tomorrow evening and perhaps a few more glasses of wine will bring it all back…
The flight over was uneventful, the tedium relieved by a really enjoyable movie, Chimpanzee, by Disney. This year I planned ahead for the weight limit, so when my suitcase came in over 50 pounds I just pulled out a pre-packed duffel and checked it as a second bag. My new chip-and-pin credit card worked in the ticket machine to get me from the airport to the city, although the line for the machines was almost as long as the one for the human teller, so the benefit was marginal. The apartment was in perfect condition, and since I now know the owners and their agent the formalities were streamlined. Buying a SIM card for my backup phone and updating my métro navigo pass were a piece of cake. Is this becoming routine? Alas, yes, but as they say here, c’est normal.
Fortunately, I was still delighted by the diversity and distinctiveness of the residents of my adopted neighborhood, rue Montorgueil. Even though I rarely converse with people on the street, their appearance and evident character is one of the real pleasures of living here. The appeal extends from the very young to the very old — interactions between parents and children seem to have a special charm; teens in many cases carry themselves with an agreeable seriousness; even the elderly have a pleasing quality to me. There are still cultural mysteries as well, like these young men dancing and singing this evening down rue Montorgueil in skimpy maid’s costumes (except for the one in a mask and bathrobe).
A friendly passerby confirmed that this was not normal, and speculated that the young man in white was getting married. It was a bachelor party, celebrated on the high street. (I only realized later that this was a snarky reference to the 2011 incident in which Dominique Strauss-Kahn allegedly raped a maid in a New York hotel.)
Today I visited the Musée Jacquemart–André in the 8eme. Last year the line had extended around the block but today there was no waiting — in part perhaps because September is a less touristy month. It’s an impressive house, reminiscent of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, with a lot of more-or-less good art; in both cases the donor specified that nothing could be changed, but the museums have found graceful ways to work around the prohibition.
On the walk home I ran across the Pinacothèque, a quirky new museum — the branch I visited opened at the start of 2011 — that I had not previously noticed. I went in because the temporary exhibition was of a private collection featuring Utrillo, Modigliani and Soutine, all of whom are particular favorites. There was a lot of other work, of somewhat uneven quality, but those three masters were wonderfully represented. Unfortunately, the exhibit only runs through Sept. 9.
There was a snarky note at the start of the permanent exhibition at the Pinacothèque to the effect that a museum should not be an art cemetery. This nails both the Gardner and the Jacquemart–André, not to mention a few others. Indeed, the monuments of Paris themselves are for the most part not wholly unlike fabulous tombstones. Or, to employ a kinder analogy, one can think of the touristy parts of Paris as a vast museum. While I do enjoy beautiful buildings, the enduring attraction of Paris for me is the life of the contemporary city, and the way it interweaves with the remnants of France’s royal and imperial past.
In just a couple of days I have already received several compliments on my French. Some of you — who know how laughably bad my French actually is — might be furrowing your brows at this, but there is no paradox. Nobody would think of complimenting a true francophone on how well they speak; if someone is fluent one just converses. The compliment is given to someone who is obviously struggling, albeit bravely. There’s more than a slight resemblance to Dr. Johnson’s famous back-handed compliment, “Sir, a woman preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”