Everyday Paris

View of bright buildings against dark sky

The view from our apartment in the 5th arrondissement

It’s hard to believe that in one week we’ll be on our way home, after six months here in Paris. I thought I’d share now some observations on the more subtle aspects of life in the city. There is, of course, the miraculous Paris of cliché–baguettes, cafés, the Eiffel Tower, and so forth–but there is also a quotidian Paris that reveals itself only over time, through an accumulation of small moments. Some things I’ve noticed:

–Parisians love to stop in front of store windows and examine the contents of the displays beyond. The store doesn’t have to be anything special. Parisians will stop in front of the windows of any kind of shop. They will stare at hand soap in a pharmacy window. It is really very charming, and is probably a product of a city culture that depends on foot travel.

Ugly scary dog in a shop window

This charming pooch stands in the display window of an antique doll shop.

–Perhaps as a consequence, Parisian shopkeepers take great pains with details. They keep their windows spotless, and frequently rearrange their window displays. They insure that the sidewalks in front of their shops are clean and free of cigarette butts and dog residue. On a frozen morning in March, after a night of snow, the proprietor of the corner pharmacy chipped away the ice on the sidewalk outside with a putty knife. Wine stores wrap your bottles in tissue paper; patisseries carefully tent your eclairs, so that the chocolate frosting doesn’t peel off on the paper; butchers pack the head of the rabbit carefully in with the carcass. Okay, maybe we could do without that last, but it’s a compelling detail all the same. I have learned, by the way, that my wife makes a mean rabbit stew.

Image of a rich, brown stew, made with rabbit.

My wife’s rabbit stew.

–Tennis players in the Jardin du Luxembourg play all winter long, even when the temperature dips into the low thirties. And they play with élan, like fencers. They add flourishes to their strokes, and keep up a running commentary on their own play and that of their opponents. They seem especially to enjoy playing when there’s a little rain, because the surface then becomes slippery and after hitting a ball they can slide a few feet just for the show of it. Benches surround the courts, and when the weather is nice people of all ages sit and watch the games, no matter how amateurish the level of play. One spectator complimented my wife on her forehand, and her derrière. The presence of spectators may account for the élan and the flourishes and the sliding.

–If I’m walking around Seattle, I never pop the collar of my jacket or coat. Here in Paris, I do it all the time. You have to pop your collar. I think it’s required by municipal ordinance. If you don’t, you look strange. And here no one wears fleece. Correction, the only people who wear fleece are Americans.

Gorgeous white clouds over Paris and Seine

Paris, on a sunny day in winter

–Paris remains a city of smoke. From the windows of our apartment, on what in America would be the fourth floor, we look out on apartments across the way and on a streetscape of small shops. Early in the morning I always open a window and stick my head out to gauge the weather, and often I see the concierge of the building across the way leaning out his ground-floor window and smoking, his face a pale moon in the light from the streetlamp. The young man in the apartment directly opposite ours often sits in a small folding chair on his balcony and smokes, gloomily, as if musing upon some recent tragedy. Several floors above him, in an adjacent building to the right, I’ll often catch a glimpse of a woman’s hand and wrist, dangling from a casement window, cigarette between her fingers, as though all that resides in that apartment are a hand and wrist.

–There is a level of ambient courtesy in Paris that is really very appealing. Shopkeepers always greet you with a cheery “bonjour.” Upon exiting a store, you must always say, “au revoir.” And restaurants will never, or almost never, bring you a bill before you ask for it, unless you do something boorish or unkind.

–Paris is a city of murmurs. In restaurants, the French speak very quietly. Unruly children are rare, and when you encounter them, you will almost always find that their parents are American or German or Russian. My wife and I periodically have to remind ourselves to use our restaurant voices.

The lovely formal trees in the Jardin du Luxembourg

Fall, in the Jardin du Luxembourg

–French men seem to have a thing for red pants, in the way that certain prep-school types in America go for pink pants and cloth belts with ducks on them.

–When walking on the sidewalk, the French do not give way. Collisions are commonplace, and yet they do not lead to altercations. Bruises, yes. Fights, no.

–Panhandlers like to position themselves outside patisseries and boulangeries, apparently in the belief that the juxtaposition of their hardship against the pure joy of croissants, pain-au-chocolat, Paris-Brest cakes, and chocolate escargot is more likely to make people cough up their loose change. It was very effective with my wife, who recently came back to our apartment to drop off a new supply of baguettes and treats, then reached into our loose-change bowl and left again bearing a fistful of coins for the guy who was sitting against a lamppost outside the bakery. It was snowing at the time.

–Parisians seem to delight in the use of small overhead halogen spotlights, in bathrooms, bedrooms, wherever they can put them. Such lighting is fine if you are 20 years old and perfect; add a few years, however, and these overhead spots reveal their true power to highlight every single wrinkle, flaw, blemish, and patch of balding scalp. Restaurateurs have a particular passion for such lighting, perhaps to highlight the food, perhaps to insure that customers do not linger too long over coffee and creme brulée. Our apartment has 21 such overhead fixtures. We could do simultaneous police interrogations in almost every room. Finding replacement bulbs can be an adventure. The best place to look is the basement hardware depot in the BHV department store on the rue de Rivoli, but even there you’re on your own. You can ask a clerk, but all you’ll get are some Gallic gestures in the general direction of a vast array of shelves which display bulbs the way the Catacombs display bones.

The miracle of Parisian parking: Scene I, van, parked across the street from our apartment

–French parents dress their children with great panache, which probably explains why French adults, especially women, dress with such a casual sense of style. Children’s clothing stores are everywhere, with outfits that cost hundreds of euros and that the recipients will outgrow in a heartbeat.

The miracle of Parisian parking: Scene II, van maneuvering to get out of tight space

–Parisians have never heard of the concept of water conservation. They use water to clean their streets. The wife of the concierge in the building across the way scrubs the sidewalk out front with soap, water and a mop, and then rinses the walk free of all suds. Every now and then a small green vehicle with a large water tank goes past on the street below our apartment, and a man with a high-pressure hose sprays all the sidewalks clear of debris.

The miracle of Parisian parking: Scene III, success!

–Parisians like to be warm. In winter, stores are invariably overheated and women dress in so many layers of quilted down that I am reminded of the little boy in the film A Christmas Story who is forced to wear a giant snowsuit.

–Parisian bus drivers will kill you if you give them a chance.

Au revoir, Paris.


wide-angle shot of the jar din du luxembourg, under brilliant blue sky

The Jardin du Luxembourg, our favorite place in Paris.



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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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