Sunday, August 24, 2008

PARIS IN THE SPRINGTIME


I love Paris in the springtime.
I loved Paris earlier this year when we went there for a holiday and found out, much to our surprise that voila! the French now spoke English and even some Spanish; Quite a change from the twenty nine odd year ago experience when we were stranded in the city with two bawling babies in tow, thanks to a cancelled flight en route to Venezuela. When the only language we heard then was harsh and unfriendly and decidedly un romantic. I remember mumbling Bogart style to my husband, sotto voice “We’ll always have Paris” to remind us of that horrendous voyage across the world from home.


So that , in 1979 , was my first glimpse of Paris, well longer than just a glimpse; in fact a good look that lasted as long as it took us to get to Orly from De Gaulle. Sitting inside an almost glass bubble like bus we were whizzed across the city and I remember telling myself this is where Bogart romanced Ingrid Bergman in ’48 and “Sabrina” Audrey Hepburn in ’54 and where a little earlier Leslie Caron’s heart wrenchingly adorable Gigi loved and almost lost her gorgeous Louis Jordan. Closer to home this was where La Tagore did her swimsuit number cooing ‘Ja Ja” to Shammi Kapoor’s “Kaho Pyaar Hai Tumse” one gorgeous Evening in Paris. And oh how can I forget the hand bag in the window of the store in Champ Elysees that Vyjayanthimala would have died for? That beautiful and elegant Radha of Sangam who wowed the Parisians walking down the streets of their city draped in her graceful white and green silk saree and who amused those matrons on the Eiffel Tower as she adroitly avoided the kisses of Raj Kapoor. Or how, dressed in the lampshade and drapes of her honeymoon suite in Paris she eventually managed to saucily seduce him and keep him away from the cabaret down the road in the Lido. Oh yes Paris to me then was most definitely the city these two made their own in that mother of all love stories, Sangam.

Sitting in the bus that day with one son asleep in my arms and the other gazing in jet lagged stupor from my equally jet lagged husband’s lap, I made myself a promise. Some day I would come back here to this city and walk down those elegant avenues and lounge on those lustrous lawns of its gardens. Maybe even get my husband to romance me up the Eiffel Tower? And I would wear my saree with as much grace and elegance as Vyjayanthimala.

Thirty years is a long time to wait but was it worth the wait Mon Dieu! It was!



The Eiffel Tower or the Arc de Triumph ; the river Seine flowing through the heart of the city or the awe-inspiring Louvre by its side ; the Notre Dame or the imposing Pantheon ; the Luxemburg Gardens or the Sorbonne ;the Bastille memorial or the Grand Palais , Montemarte or the Latin Quarter - every thing was breathtakingly beautiful. A city with atmosphere that seeped into your consciousness; a city steeped in history with an architectural beauty that left us breathless with wonder.

We would get up every day and after a leisurely and delicious breakfast served with charm and care by the lovely lady in charge at our tiny little hotel (my husband had to tuck in his head into his 6ft 1 frame to enter into the café and it was a wonder we did not break any elbows and knees navigating our way from bed to bathroom in our handkerchief sized room ) we would step out into the crisp, cold air of a late spring morning. No map, no tour guide, no agenda.


We just followed the river which we found to our delight was just a few hundred yards ahead of the hotel and let its undulating course lead us . Day after day that was what we did; held hands and walked.

Crossed the quaint and beautiful bridges at our will but always coming back to the Left Bank to savour the odds and ends and hundreds of old books and posters and paintings on display in the row upon row of roadside stalls.. These old pavement book stores can give our Churchgate wallahs a good run for their money.

If we saw a museum on the way, we wandered in ; only to be mildly surprised that the imposing structure had been a railway station a hundred years ago! If we were enticed by the narrow alleyways and streets of the working class neighborhood, then we strolled in them; if the aroma of coffee from one of the street side cafes was too irresistible, then we simply succumbed. If one lady who waited tables at one of those cafes was rude (it happened only, only, yes, only once so we forgave the city it’s that one single trespass) we smiled, turned the other cheek and walked on.

On one such foray we crossed the river from the Left bank on an ancient but sturdy wooden bridge (upon which slept the most handsome man I have ever seen) and walked into this magnificent courtyard which was simply the most beautiful place I have ever seen – a large fountain surrounded by magnificent apartments of what surely was a palace.

We just followed our feet that seemed to be drawn of their own will and crossed an imposing arch that looked out on yet another , if possible, even more grand courtyard and foaming fountain and then it struck us ,when our eyes got accustomed to the glare from the glittering crystal pyramid that we were actually at the Louvre !!

That was it: all one had to do was cross a river and walk across the road and just find yourself at what was first a fortress built some 900 years ago,

then converted into a palace and then a museum like no other

…so of course we simply had to go and pay homage to that simple lady with the enigmatic smile, wife of a wealthy merchant from Florence, whom da Vinci made immortal.

But what really took my breath away was Venus de Milo whose simple beauty is so enthralling you can feel her armless embrace captivate you and hold you spell bound. And to think she lay submerged in the wet embrace of the sea for so long!!

We were mildly amused to see that there was no getting away from the da Vinci Code influence I am afraid and a special guided tour awaited those who were Dan Brown fans: the da Vinci Code trail or some such sensational, best selling deal. Well , if a tacky Abhishek Bacchan and Lara Dutta can sell their “ticket to Hollywood” and do that inane dance on those classic streets of Paris then let us not grudge Dan Brown his moment of fame there.

We knelt and prayed our grateful hearts out at the Notre Dame and remembered Esmeralda and her hunchbacked Quasimodo. We did not go up the Eiffel Tower but my husband took me out for ice cream every night on the street just outside the massive gates of the Sorbonne. That was romance enough for me.


We drank beer on Champ Elysees and waved out to the friendly man in the HSBC office. We wandered in the beautiful Luxemburg and Tuileries gardens and enjoyed the bounty of the city that has exhibitions under the open skies for all to enjoy.

At the Place Dauphines we stilled our hearts when we thought of the unfortunate ones whose heads had fallen under the guillotine.

I must confess we did not look too hard for the tavern owned by Madame Defarge, nor Café Flore of existentialism fame but took the metro and slaked our thirst at the Hard Rock Café.

Was it Oscar Wilde who said that when good Americans die they go to Paris? We managed to be neither but still got to go. Oh! And I found and bought my Parisian hand bag too, a roomy, brown concoction in the softest of all leathers that hangs on my shoulder holding wonderful memories of a beautiful, charming city.

6 comments:

RAJI MUTHUKRISHNAN said...

A most beautiful piece, embellished with great pictures. The enjoyment you felt, touched with memories of movies and crying babies, is palpable

Kamini said...

You are as timelessly beautiful as Paris, Viji.
What a lovely writeup, and the photographs are gorgeous. I really enjoyed reading this.
Kamini.

Ravi said...

"I loved Paris earlier this year when we went there for a holiday and found out, much to our surprise that voila! the French now spoke English and even some Spanish"

No surprise at all. France is a founder member of European Union and it is no surprise that Parisians speak English/Spanish/German today when the EU is so tightly integrated and Paris is connected to London through a pair of (undersea) tunnels. I cannot get why Indians keep on bringing Bollywood into the picture, when they visit Hugo's,Dumas's and James Joyce's Paris. No one dare indulge in romance in the cramped quarters of Eiffel Tower, except in the Bollywood movies. It is much too crowded and unromantic for a start.
I would suggest instead, the grand gardens of Versailles Palace for such pursuits! Or the bank of Seine on a quiet evening not far from the Latin Quarter and Notre Dame. One can always find a quiet place here.

The sightseeing of Paris is not complete without a night on a boat on Seine.

There is a substantial American expats crowd in Paris today. Hence no need to quote Oscar Wilde!

Varun said...

Wow!!! This is one the most best pieces of writing that I have ever read..actually it was not reading, it was an experience, which literally transported the reader to the very places that you've so vividly described..not to mention the beautiful pictures...Amazing stuff!

Amitabh said...

Liked this post a lot...Mum,appa love you both

Invincible said...

V_Amma,
Articulate as always and a way of enrapturing your audience in your style of writing that titillates the reader's mind.
I loved this piece and looking forward to more from you.
Love you,
Manoj