I usually dash about in Paris. The Louvre, the Grand Palais, rue Cambon, Colette, Drouot, Gallignani, rue de Seine, La Hune, rue Jacob, rue de Verneuil, Clignancourt, rue des Martyrs. I want to see everything, catch up, spend time with my friends, and make every moment rich in discovery and detail.
I’m also happy occasionally on weekends to slow down my frenetic pace and wander around, stop, and as my friend Gwen suggested, meander and linger.
On a recent Sunday, I’d swept through the Paul Bert and Serpette markets at St-Ouen in the morning (missed my friends Andrew and Erick by minutes), chatted to my dear friend, the antiques dealer Laurence Lenglade (very Mme Recamier), then headed back to the city. I had a few unexpected hours to spare before a special dinner.
I decided to go and read the International Herald Tribune in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
It’s late summer: a few clouds scudding overhead. Everything is still, 73 deg F.
I started from rue de Tournon, walking toward the neo-classical façade of Le Senat, and then turned left at rue de Vaugirard. It’s quiet, just a few young couples arm in arm.
I traversed the leafy entrance to the gardens, and in the flickering light, it was suddenly like a Seurat painting, Sunday in the park with Georges.
Dot sings: “George, Why is it you always get to sit in the shade While I have to stand in the sun Hello, George There is someone in this dress”
I walk along the sunny allee toward the Medicis fountain, all the while surrounded by a blur of quiet movement. Boys on scooters, girls on tricycles, beaming grandparents, beautifully groomed parents, promenading Italians, jeans-clad teenager girls giggling, a few joggers, the Senat security officers in neat uniforms quietly chatting, and a white-haired granny or two, all somehow manage a calm choreography. It’s a kinetic crowd, but tranquil, easy breezy. A gavotte, a minuet.
I head up the stone stairs to find a little hidden kiosk beneath the trees that sells exquisite artisan ice creams, and select cassis (deeply fruity, slightly tart, perfect) and an unctuous caramel with fleur de sel. I drift beneath the shade to a century-old band rotunda where a motley and jolly brass band is just starting its oompah sound check (evidently a butchers’ union from Normandy).
As the trombones blare, I wander off in the direction of the grand central pond. It’s the perfect day for toy yachts, with a slight breeze.
Just as they did in 1908 in my postcard, children are crowding around the perimeter of the pond, waving bamboo poles, and watching their noble wooden craft traverse the water. It’s slow progress, but when the yachts reach the edge, the skilled boys push the boats back in the direction of the Pantheon and race after them. Parents seated nearby glance up from their books, contented.
“This is the most pleasant pastime for parents, sitting watching their children playing with their yachts,” remarked a handsome young French father, very Anglophile in his linen shirt and with a cable sweater around his shoulders. “I used to do it as a boy, and so did my father when he was young.”
Postcards, stamped 1908, are from my personal collection and were found over decades of hunting through flea markets, galleries, book shops, antiquaires and fairs. As you see, a century later, timeless Parisian life in the park goes on.
I’m looking for a chair in the shade where I can read my paper, but then I remembered a Longue Paume tournament somewhere up among the trees. I pass children on ponies, boys careening on Big Wheels, a tennis court, chess players over to the left, and I hear the rather loud announcements of the game. Longue Paume is the earliest form of tennis, played rather sedately with racquets but with a more complex court and rules. Serious men in suits watched as the champions battled it out.
But beyond is perhaps my subliminal destination: the petanque players on their dusty terrain. Here I would truly linger, and do nothing but watch the most repetitious mesmerizing, easy, and pleasant ball game, originally from the south of France.
Imagine, a group of old friends, nothing fancy, gather every Sunday, and throw heavy metal balls at a little plastic ball, the piglet. Teammates sitting chatting around the perimeter call out encouragement or voice dismay, there are good throws and disasters, and the game wends back and forth. It’s easy to understand and score. I take out my paper, read Suzy Menkes fashion reports, an art review, all the while watching the petanque, occasionally looking up as a shout rings out, someone swears (Merde, alors), and a few hearty souls clap or cheer or boo.
Time passes and shadows slide across the gardens. A book review. An antique show. My attention wanders.
All this petanque watching has made me a little peckish. I think about the delicious Bread and Roses café on nearby rue de Fleurus, with their fresh tomato tarts and salads, but they’re closed on Sundays.
I find a kiosk in the park with a cheerful blonde woman making crepes. I go for the simplest, just a sprinkle of sugar, and a squeeze of lemon.
I head back to the petanque. The game continues, and looks like it will be there until dark.
I walk away, past the playground, around the compulsive chess players, toward the pond, and the glorious flowers gardens. I’m in a happy daze, no idea what time it is, the sun still bright.
I find a chair near one of the luscious flower beds, fragrant with nicotiana. I open the paper, the sun hovers, I watch the white flowers flickering in the wind, a jogger makes another round. The sun is warm on my neck.
I think I’ll just stay here forever, a perfect place, Sunday in the park, the loveliness of Paris.
And I’ll be back soon, when autumn leaves turn the park golden. Beneath the trees, the petanque games will continue.
Next week on THE STYLE SALONISTE: I’ll take you on a favorite walk through the Left Bank. And give you some of my favorite addresses. See you on the corner of rue Jacob and rue Bonaparte.