Some Random Thoughts on Parisian Life

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A few more thoughts on life in France that occurred to me during the second stay of my first year here:

The French fear drafts. As soon as the temperature dips and the wind rises, out come the wraps and scarves. The French believe that “courants d’air” cause colds, sore throats and who knows what other upper-respiratory maladies. It was cool, even unusually cold, the autumn of my first long residence in France, and I often saw hurrying about me on crowded sidewalks shivering Parisians, their fragile throats hidden by elaborate knots of scarves. I don’t know if that stopped any of them from catching cold, but at least they knew that they had taken some fashionable preventive measure against those infectious “courants d’air.”

Apartments are generally overheated. See: fear of drafts, above. I’ve explained to many Parisians of my acquaintance that colds and such are caused by a virus – generally not airborne ones – and not by random gusts in subway tunnels. But no one believes me. If I’ve ever had suffered from a cold here, people blame my not wearing a scarf every time I leave my apartment. Apparently the lack of appropriate neckwear weakens the constitution. And stuffy apartments strengthen it.

Parisians dislike the cold but will sit outside at cafés under heat lamps to avoid staying at home. Apartments might be too warm for some, but they’re also often too small for many. If you sit under a heat lamp at an outdoor café, you can appreciate the open air (as long as it’s not too breezy) in the relative comfort of positional infrared. And, of course, you’re free to smoke.

Paris, and France, still have a lot of smokers. I was, and remain, astonished by how many people continue to smoke here, especially the young. But young people are generally stupid about such things – when I was young I rarely considered the consequences of such actions. Though I never smoked, I was equally dismissive of a distant future where I night have to consider that what I did when I was young had an impact on my health at an older age. And yes, I’m aware that it’s a hard habit to break. Still, it’s amusing to see groups of people in apartments facing my building standing at open windows smoking. Five minutes of puffing, then the window shuts and the evening resumes. Fifteen minutes later, repeat. I was once at the home of friends who were giving a dinner to celebrate the birth of their second child, and after dinner, every one there (except me), and even including the new mother, opened the window, crowded onto the little balcony in a tight semicircle under a cloud of fumes as if they were reenacting an ancient solstitial rite.

Even the trainers at my gym are big smokers. I see them puffing away weekday mornings in front of the little café across the street from my gym just before it opens, often with their muscular clients, all of them smoking away with as much fervor as if they were doing dozens of bicep curls and pull-ups. It seems somehow out of time, but there it is.

Homey dinners with friends “chez eux” are common. Even people living in small apartments manage to find the space and the time to enjoy a meal with their pals. No matter how modest the apartment, what counts is the company. The food is usually simple, but the point is spending time with each other and, of course, conversing. (This is part of how I managed to forge friendships in Paris, by inviting people over to dine; such invitations are almost always reciprocated, and not at all grudgingly.) In New York, dining at a friend’s house is a rare thing, since for some reason New Yorkers think their apartments aren’t up to snuff, whatever that means, or that they don’t cook well enough to entertain. So you meet up at restaurants. This is more costly, less warm and not as satisfying. A New Yorker might tell you what he really believes but it’s rare that he’ll let you see how he really lives. A Frenchman might maintain a polite distance in conversational form, yet invite you to dine at his home. You’ll get a sense of how he runs his private life, even if you’re kept at first from knowing the workings of his heart.

Most French home cooks who bake keep it simple. I’ve had a fantastic, professionally made tarte tatin at a friend’s home, but this and similarly somewhat humble desserts are generally homemade. The elaborate stuff is left to the patissiers. The French love to make crumbles (or they fall back on them, since they’re simple to prepare). They keep the English word, though it’s pronounced à la française, more like cruem-behl – generally of plums or berries. The boulangerie down the block from me on the Rue Saint-Martin made delicious little individual cruem-behls. Since neither the sink nor the stovetop of the kitchen in the pied-à-terre where I was staying worked, I frequented that particular boulangerie, which also made good sandwiches.

Someone else’s junk often finds a home. The brocantes of Paris or in the countryside where many people have family residences are the source of a lot of fixtures and furniture at apartments. A brocante is something like a flea market, often with a mix of amateurs and professionals. This is a country with a long history, and a lot of people over the years have inherited a lot of furniture, vases, cutlery and artwork of varying quality, and seem to spend a lot of time passing it around or offering it for pittance to others who want to keep it and then pass it along. Every country, of course, has its own hand-me-down furniture and furnishings, but France has a tradition, it seems to me, of holding onto sometimes-questionable heirlooms. Such a practice makes for engaging interiors, with family possessions that hold greater interest for the value of their narrative than for their inherent quality.

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Many buildings are signed. That is, the architect has engraved his name, and the date of the design or construction of the building, near the front door. This is a welcome difference from the anonymity of even the grandest apartment buildings in Manhattan, whose architects are generally unknown to passersby. It’s true that the architectural style of Paris is of a piece, one known as Haussmannian – after Barron Haussmann, who remade Paris in the mid-19th century – but the architects of the era who worked variations on that style wanted to let people know that these buildings were not simply cookie-cutter constructions, but that they bore the imprint of an architectural individuality, unlike so many apartment dwellings on the other side of the Atlantic, which guard their creation like a shameful secret.

The bread really is better in France. You’ve got to eat. You can find pretty good baguettes here and there in Manhattan, and perhaps in other areas of the United States, but the bread in France is far superior to what you can get almost anywhere in America. I don’t know if it’s the ingredients or the craft, but the quality is noticeable from the first bite. The bread in Paris might not be a cure for the common cold, or even prevent a shudder at the prospect of a stray breeze, but it actually is something to write home about.

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