Paris, interrupted

The pause button has been hit. More than the usual winter slowdown, the city seems to be in slow motion. But it is not still. Or rather it is still – still moving, still celebrating, still defying, lining up shoes in Place de la République in lieu of climate-change protest marches. Christmas is still coming. Work is still piling up. COP21 is still in progress. Candidates are still campaigning ahead of the first round of regional elections. The Métro is still packed for the daily commute. The flowers are still piled in the mourning streets of the 11th.

But, still, it feels as if the brakes are on.

On the fancy side of town, the Champs-Elysées is lit up with sparkles, chill evenings ring with carols, the spicy fragrance of vin chaud and roasting chestnuts lure the snack-susceptible to hand over their euros at the Christmas village that stretches from the Grand Palais to Place de la Concorde. Down rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, oversized angels’ trumpets and chandeliers hang over the street, glittering above thinned-out crowds toting carrier bags from Chanel, Louboutin and Bluemarine. I can never help but linger outside Hermès and Prada, the windows are so beautiful, even if their contents are beyond me. I treat the displays like museum exhibits – ever-changing treasures of a very particular moment in time. Next season, the colours, cuts and textures will be totally different, and I’ll sigh anew.

The New York Times reported last week that tourism is more resilient to terrorism than it is to natural disasters, bouncing back to previous levels after thirteen months as opposed to twenty-four in the wake of an environmental catastrophe. That’s good news for a fragile France. No one doubts that Paris and its tourist industry will weather last month’s horror, but right now both are bruised and battered. A scowl plays about the beautiful lady’s lips even as she puts on her party finery.

In the meantime, the city offers her multitude of reasons to be grateful, reasons to still residual worry and press on. This morning, taking advantage of an early cancelled class in St-Germain-des-Près to promenade in sleepy Paris, I took myself over the Île de la Cité and past Nôtre Dame. The breeze was soft, carrying the mineral scent of traffic forging towards rush hour.

Just after eight, the light was glorious, turning the taupe river burnished pale and brushing the undersides of the clouds with fuchsia and orange. In the almost-empty square in front of the cathedral, Japanese tourists were taking photos with their phones, while a couple meticulously set up a large-format camera on a tall tripod. They smiled at me as I perched, notebook and pen in hand, to scribble down the loveliness. The topiary is immaculate in its wooden boxes, and the solders with automatic rifles have become a constant feature.

Back in less ritzy climes, it remains more or less business as usual, today as always, with the added presence of regular army patrols. Life goes on in the cafés and supermarkets, squares and markets. At Liberté, in the heights of Ménilmontant, all was quiet and delicious. The barista asked how much milk I wanted in my noisette and free Wi-Fi reconnected me to the wider world. (After more than a week, I still have no internet at home. The problem is with the external connection, according to the nice blokes from SFR.)

Thus far, no Christmas decorations have gone up in my local streets. The town hall overlooking the glass shards of the fountain at the centre of Gambetta has a couple of garlanded trees out front, and I’m beginning to suspect that might be it this year. Budget cuts or eco-awareness? Does it matter? Perhaps the wreaths and lights on the shops are exuberance enough for now. Perhaps new paste-ups from Fred Le Chevalier are enough. They’re certainly lovely. I’m not holding my breath for anything more. There’s no need. Why wait for something that may never come when all around are reasons to be thankful?

 

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