Our first trip to Paris together was only about 20 years ago, but already it seems to belong to the distant past.
It all began with a walk in the snow. We are Canadians of a certain age, so the words “a walk in the snow” have a special meaning. When the late Pierre Elliott Trudeau, father of our current Prime Minister, was wrestling with whether or not to run for office again he famously took a walk in the snow on February 28, 1984. During that walk he decided not to run for the prime minister’s office again.
We too had our walk in the snow. During our walk we decided to go to Paris.
It was late March, and it was not snowing when we set out for a stroll in a part of Toronto called Rosedale. We had only recently become a couple and we had a lot to talk about.
Philippa had long been in love with Paris and had studied in France for a year. The only time Norman ever flunked an exam in school was first-term grade-nine French. Nevertheless, Norman was catching the Paris bug. As we walked through the gates of Craigleigh Gardens, snowflakes began to swirl around. Norman turned to Philippa and said, “Why don’t we go to Paris?”
Philippa asked “When?” Norman thought for a moment. “Next week?” Well, that wasn’t possible, but we went in September.
In those pre-web days, finding a hotel was a bit more complicated than it is today. Philippa located a book called Cheap Sleeps in Paris in the Albert Britnell bookshop (which later closed and is now a Starbucks, although the old name is still visible on the facade). She didn’t want to buy the whole book when we needed only one hotel, so she consulted it then and there, memorized the name of a hotel, wrote down a number on her hand (she had a ballpoint pen but no paper), and went home to send a fax.
We travelled on an airline that no longer exists: Canadian Airlines. Those were the days when (a) Norman had lots of air travel points and (b) points actually got you a wonderful deal for next to no money. It was our only trip to Paris in business class. What a way to start a new adventure.
We dressed for the flight with what now seems to be extraordinary formality. Philippa wore a dress with pantyhose and Norman wore a shirt, jacket, and tie.
The Grand Hôtel de Balcons on the rue Casimir Delavigne near the Place de l’Odéon was an excellent choice. It, at least, is still there, with its attractive Art Nouveau woodwork, pretty window boxes, and cosy yellow breakfast room. As soon as we arrived – we took the Metro from the airport – we unpacked and then went for a walk in the neighbourhood. We spotted a restaurant called Le Petit Prince (we think it was on the rue Monsieur le Prince), walked in, and made a reservation for that evening.
There is still a Paris restaurant called “Le Petit Prince de Paris,” which is in the 5th arrondissement, but it is not the same. The one we remember has gone. Unlike its namesake, which is all red velvet and plush, the interior was spare and a soft blue, decorated with illustrations from the St-Exupéry books, along with models and mobiles featuring the Little Prince’s aeroplane. Other than a grapefruit sorbet that finished the meal, neither of us can remember what exactly we ate, only that it seemed to be the most delicious meal either of us could remember and the service made us feel welcome and respected.
The following day, we wandered through the street market on the rue de Buci, buying a baguette, St-Nectaire cheese, and pears. Then we took the Metro to Montmartre and got out at Lamarck-Caulaincourt. Not far away we found a little square with a statue of a man and a woman leaning in towards each other, dedicated to the artist Steinlen.
We stopped and ate our picnic on one of the benches.
The streets of Montmartre seemed almost deserted in the early Sunday afternoon. We made our way towards rue Cavallotti. Norman had read in a (now defunct) design magazine about a group of shop owners on that street who had invited artists to decorate their shutters to prevent graffiti. We wanted to go there on a Sunday when the shops were closed and the shutters were down.
We were not disappointed. The top two images below are photographs we took that day, with Norman’s camera, on film. Alas, the murals are mostly gone now and the graffiti has returned, as Google street view shows in the bottom two images.
But that day we spent a happy time looking at the painted shutters before wandering on to the Cimitière de Montmartre. Again, it seemed as if the rest of the world had taken a nap and the two of us had the place practically to ourselves.
On Monday morning, we headed to the Place d’Opéra and American Express, to cash our travellers’ cheques. As one did in those days. When we walked around the Opéra building, which was undergoing renovations, we saw a sign for visits backstage. This had not been an option when Philippa lived in Paris and she was thrilled to explore les coulisses. There was also a display of costumes in the grand stairway at the front.
We spent most of the week walking. We did not ascend the Eiffel Tower or take a boat on the river or enter the Louvre. In fact, we did not go to a single museum all week. The weather was cool and there were sprinklings of rain, but we did not want to go indoors except for meals and sleeping. There was too much to see on the endlessly fascinating streets and in the peaceful parks. Perhaps this is why the city didn’t seem as crowded as we had expected. We weren’t hitting the big tourist draws.
Looking in our photograph album, we are surprised at the small number of images from that trip. Perhaps three dozen. We were too busy looking at and experiencing the city firsthand. And of course, with film, each time one pressed the shutter button one could hear the faint ring of a cash register, and we were being economical. We did buy postcards. We even went to the post office for stamps so we could send some to family and friends. (Actually, we still do and always have.)
After our first-night extravaganza, we ate in places recommended by Cheap Eats in Paris. Some were tiny little holes in the wall that we might not otherwise have noticed. All were good.
Norman kept marvelling at how clean things were. One of the photos he took from our balcony was of a city employee sweeping the street with the green plastic replacement for what were originally twig brooms. (Does anyone know where we can buy one? We seriously covet them.) Norman, who is a historian of technology and once edited a book on public works, kept stopping to examine street cleaning equipment and the water system for cleaning the gutters. He eventually wrote about that system in a blog that has become our most popular post ever.
Because of his interests, Philippa started to notice things she had never noticed before. She had long been familiar with the “Défense d’afficher – Loi du 29 juillet 1881” signs, but she had never noticed the “Gaz à tous les étages” that Norman now pointed out.
Norman also has a strong interest in design and it seemed the shop windows were filled with things he had seen in design magazines or read about in a history of design or technology. We spent an afternoon going in and out of the boutiques in the Palais Royal, which included some up-to-the-minute decor, and some elegant but timeless spaces that seemed to have been unchanged since the 18th century.
But even everyday shops were a revelation. Everywhere we looked, the attention to detail and presentation were astounding. We lingered over corner store outdoor displays where fruit and vegetables were beautifully stacked, where colours seemed to be carefully chosen.
And it wouldn’t be a visit to Paris without Norman being distracted by the great variety of cars and motorcycles. He remembers walking on the Champs Elysées, hearing a wondrous mechanical roar, looking for the source of the sound and proclaiming, “I love it, but I don’t know what it is.” Hope springs eternal and he thinks it will come back so he can get another look. So we just have to keep going to Paris.
Philippa was more familiar with the city, and wanted to show Norman some of the things she remembered, such as the Faculté de Medicine near the hotel, where she once sat on a hard bench for two back-to-back two-hour university lectures. The city held many memories.
But that visit was the start of new memories and new experiences. This month marks the seventh anniversary of “Parisian Fields,” and we still enjoy the way the blog allows us to re-experience favourite moments and follow up on questions that arise as we walk along Paris streets.
We have even walked in the snow in Paris, on a night when the buses had gone home to the garage to escape the un-Parisian conditions. We walked along the boulevard in the snowy night without complaining. That was on a December trip many years later. But we were still as excited as on our first trip to Paris together.
Text and photographs by Norman Ball and Philippa Campsie; 2017 street images from Google Street View.
We would be delighted to hear from readers about their own experiences of visits to Paris in the days before the Internet, selfies, love locks, mobile phones, and Airbnb.