If you asked a Parisian, what love is, he would thwack you with the golden loaf in his hand, and say, ‘Why, it is this, you numskull?!’ Here you would roll your eyes, and say, ‘Oh com’on, the baguette is such an overworked stereotype!’ Yet every time we stepped out on the streets of the city, there it was. A slender baton of crusty goodness staring back at us, tucked within the elbow of the old man in the long overcoat and beret, or sticking out of the tote of the young woman as she walked ahead of us. We even saw an old lady nibbling at the end of hers — probably best to have it fresh even before the day has waned. Lest the Parisian forgot this essential chunk of his daily diet, they have a Bread Observatory in Paris. It trots out the daily reminder, “Cou cou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hello, did you pick up the bread?”). Now if that is not love, my darling, you tell me what love is. If you need further proof, just head to the nearest boulangerie. Finding yourself in a queue is an inevitability.
If we are talking about love, I would have to pipe in about the walrus with his fantastic pair of long, white tusks and grey, fluffy beard. My eyes fell upon this thing of rare, portly beauty in the window of a boutique, whereupon the batting of my eyelids made my husband acquiesce grudgingly. So that now this walrus sits pretty at home with my family of stuffed animals. This love however was eclipsed by far when we came across an elderly woman in the shadows of the Church of Saint-Sulpice. She was old but chic, in just the way an average Parisian is (must be the baguette). Even to walk their dogs, Parisians dress well. This lady was out with her 6-month old Cocker Spaniel pup, Lulu, who was the belle of the ball I thought, till I realised that Lulu was a tiny male with velvet soft curls. The love that shone in the woman’s eyes for her Lulu was palpable and touching enough that it remains in my mind as a radiant moment wrapped up in the soft sunshine of a December noon.
Be as it is may that we were in the 6th arrondissement when we met Lulu, I would actually like to whisk you into the 3rd and 4th arrondissements where lie the Marais quarter of Paris.
Charm and amour co-exist in Le Marais like an old married couple. What were marshes (hence Marais) in the early times, from land left over when a branch of the Seine dried up, is de rigueur today. But let me also describe to you how the day built up to lend itself to the laidback beauty of Le Marais.
We reached Le Marais after time spent dawdling at Shakespeare and Company, rifling through ancient books written by unknown authors, sniffing the scent of those old books (that’s how love smells), buying wedges of cheese from a Christmas market outside the Notre Dame, looking up dusty music covers and magazines that the line-up of Bouquinistes in their big fur hats and heavy coats sell along the Seine.
Twilight was gathering around us. Bang in the middle of a bridge — I believe it was the Pont Saint-Louis — a man sat playing his piano. The cadence of his music conjured up an ethereal quality to the evening when in the half light of it we stood by the bridge, a soft and cold breeze caressing us, lights glimmering across the Seine in the grand old buildings of Paris. It seemed fitting that we should walk into Le Marais right after, the afternotes of the performance playing in our heads as an amuse bouche of sorts.
Le Marais is timeless. Here there was no trace of Haussman’s wide boulevards and neoclassical facades. Here you still found a chunk of the old Paris, the narrow winding streets and medieval house fronts, interspersed by Jewish delis, tea salons, herb shops and hat shops, hole-in-the-wall curiosity shops, art galleries, hip bars and boutiques. There remains the impossible grandness of the city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and the opulence of the private townhouses, or hôtel particulier, which were built for aristocrats during the 17th century. Now, it would be entirely amiss of me not to take you to the oldest planned square of the city, Place des Vosges, that sits within the Marais quarter. Not only do I have memories of buying a beautiful blue cloche from an old man there in the autumn of 2016, but because it is also the location of one of my favourite museums. Maison de Victor Hugo — where I dragged Adi because a) it is free, and, b) it feeds the imagination to see how a writer of means lived in the 19th century.
Before I go, I wanted to draw your attention to that pair of aged nuns. They are hobbling across a cobbled courtyard and will gradually disappear into the shadows of the temple. Faith awaits them. And, did you notice the bride-to-be? She is trying on her wedding dress, looking a bit unsure. Then she catches your eye and casts a brilliant smile. All’s well there. As for the baker behind the till and his goodies displayed in the window, the less said the better. There lies defeat in the faces of endless slices of gateaux. It has been a fair amount of gawking and walking, so if your feet perchance feel worn, dear reader, take a cue from Hugo who had famously observed that to loaf is Parisian — and pause for that carafe of wine in one of those cafés where they serve enough popcorn to make it worth your while.