July 22, 2017

Paris once again!

I just got back from Paris - a city I love. I was there 29 years back, in 1988. I was just married, and I fell in love with this artistic city. I stayed there for just three months, but it was enough time to leisurely explore a layer beneath the touristy one. Being interested in art, I was overwhelmed by the aesthetics of the place. Much as I always wanted to live in India, I was reluctant to come back. There was so much more to discover! We told ourselves we would go back...but then, life happened, and Paris remained shut in the six albums that we had painstakingly and lovingly filled with photos we had taken and postcards we bought.

Re-visiting Paris with my children filled me with great happiness. They had grown up listening to references to Paris and I introduced them to the city like I would an old friend, and this time it was their turn to fall in love with Paris.

If a foreigner visited Hyderabad 29 years back, and came back now, she would find a huge difference. She may be amazed at how much this city has developed; at the lights and the malls; she may not be able to recognise many of the new areas; she may be shocked at the traffic and the number of people; and she would of course miss the slow pace of life of the eighties.

I was somewhat apprehensive about my bubble bursting; at coming back disappointed by what I saw, especially because of recent terror-related events. So how did Paris change?

For one, like in Hyderabad, the population has swelled immensely. In addition to the metro and the buses, they have now introduced trams in some places.The number of people in The Louvre the day we went was unbelievable, as also the crazy rush to see Mona Darling!

People in public places are a lot more cosmopolitan, and I found that unlike earlier, local people were more willing to communicate in English. One huge difference of course, is the presence of security checks everywhere, even though it was to be expected. And then, it gave me a shock when I saw, at the first tourist place we visited, hefty, well built policemen - about six of them - walking around carrying some serious weapons. It was scary because I didn't immediately think they were security. We subsequently saw them everywhere. As with the rest of the world, Paris too had lost a certain innocence.

Seen from Sacr Coeur (Sacred Heart Church), Montmartre, the city seemed to have become extremely dense, as was to be expected. I later read about how a beautiful old book shop was replaced with a five star hotel, about how charming old houses had given way high-rises.

View from Sacr Coeur...a lot of building up has happened.
There is a staircase to one side of the hill to Sacr Coeur, a black and white photo-poster of which Vijay and I had bought back in 1988. We had chosen this photo taken by Rene Jacques simply because we liked it, and because we knew this place. It stays framed in my home, and we look at every day. We went searching for this place and found it, exactly as it looked in 1988, and in this photo of 1950! Somewhere, some faith was restored.

This photo was taken in 1950.
It looked the same in 1989, except that to one side, there was a funiculaire to take people up.
This is the 2017 view...it was the same, except that perhaps Rene Jacques' photo was flipped?

The heart of Paris, that is the classic Paris on the banks of River Seine, remains the same. Nothing has changed. The Louvre, Musee d'Orsay, Assembl√© Nationale (Palais Bourbon), Notre Dame, The Conciergerie and several others have been preserved beautifully. Place St Michel and Latin Quarter also have the same buzz, charm and energy - more perhaps - because there are so many more people now. The variety of food places seemed more, and included an Indian restaurant and a Tunisian sweet shop selling large jilebis!

The Bouquinistes of Paris - green boxes on either side of The Seine, which sell used and antiquarian books, a tradition since the 16th century - were still there, just as we had seen them (see first photo in this post). They are on both banks of the river, and The Seine is described as the only river in the world that runs between two book shelves!

The metro remains as amazing as ever, and we enjoyed taking it to get to various places. There is now apparently one route (Line 14), which is automated and has no driver! Can't wait for Hyderabad metro to become reality! 

There are many green spaces in Paris, and two things made me very happy - one, that there is now a conscious effort to re-introduce species of plants and trees that were there in the past but which were not seen any more, and the other, that wild plants and flowers were allowed to grow freely even on main avenues where earlier they were removed for neatness. This, about a city, is the ultimate in development, I feel. Having said that, mine might still be a superficial assessment, and Parisians might have their own complaints about a changing city.

Shakespeare and Company, a classic English bookstore at Kilometre zero, was a joy to go to. It was the same as earlier except that there is an awning now, and they run a cafe next to the bookshop. Every bit of this store is quaint and interesting - the cat that shouldn't be disturbed, the typewriter that was actually being used, the wooden staircase, the writings on the walls, the beds tucked among the towering bookshelves on which people can actually sleep when they stay overnight!

“I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations.” 
— George Whitman, founder 

Who says crazy new traditions happen only in places like India? The institution of  'love locks' did not exist in 1988. It started in the 2000s apparently, on one of the bridges on River Seine. Lovers put these locks and throw away the key, to signify that their love lasts forever. The practice caught on, and spread to the other bridges. They soon began to add to the weight of the bridges, and the parapet of Pont Des Arts bridge collapsed. In 2014 there was a movement 'No Love Locks', and some panels were replaced with glass to prevent being 'littered' by locks! More details here.

Can you believe this?!

Surely this is unsustainable?

Nostalgia took us to Rue d' Patay, the road we had a little flat on, and also to Cite Universitaire, where Vijay studied. It was hard to believe that so many years had gone by. 

Paris has many layers, literally and figuratively, and is a very inspiring place to explore, especially if you are interested in the arts. Charminar-loving Hyderabadis would love it :) 

This trip was indeed a rediscovery of Paris, a rediscovery of my love for this city, and a rekindling of the desire to go back yet again.  

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