A walk in the snow led us to Paris

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.

We have since revisited the site several times, once in the snow.

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.

About Parisian Fields

Parisian Fields is the blog of two Toronto writers who love Paris. When we can't be there, we can write about it. We're interested in everything from its history and architecture to its graffiti and street furniture. We welcome comments, suggestions, corrections, and musings from all readers.
This entry was posted in Paris automotive, Paris civic functions, Paris hotels, Paris nostalgia and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to A walk in the snow led us to Paris

  1. Delightful memories! I think I have an inspiration for an °anniversary blog° next year on our 6th!

  2. Berenice McDayter says:

    The Grand Hotel des Balcons was one of our favourites back in the 80’s–still is, though I think the management may have changed. The desk staff were endlessly charming and obliging and we loved our breakfasts surrounded by Mucha stained-glass designs.

  3. Charlotte GRANDJEAN says:

    The green brooms are often seen abandoned outside bars in Marseille so come to see me, and we’ll go find a broom for Norman.

  4. Heide says:

    What a lovely stroll down memory lane — and how kind of you to take us along! No matter how many times you return to Paris, may it always feel as magical to you as it did when you first visited together 20 years ago.

  5. hodgie2014 says:

    Lovely pix, lovely memories. Your blog always entertains and educates, never disappoints.

  6. What a beautiful post. I only traveled to Paris last year but she has won my heart. Before internet I did travel to the USA 🇺🇸 Thailand 🇹🇭 and Great Britain 🇬🇧 oh and Malaysia 🇲🇾. That’s when travel agents did all the work.

    • Ah yes, travel agents! We still use them to book airline tickets, to avoid total meltdown while trying to do it online! The Air France site never seems to work for us.

  7. Anne Mullins says:

    Yet another post that makes me yearn to return to Paris.

  8. Susan Walter says:

    A lovely post. I first visited Paris for my 40th birthday, 17 years ago. My husband developed pneumonia and I thought I was going to have to hospitalise him. Thanks to the kindness of Eurostar staff and others I managed to get him home (which was London at the time) though.
    Sadly, Norman is going to miss out on the wonderous mechanical roars now. Anne Hidalgo was deaf to the entreaties of the FFVE (Fédération Française des Véhicules d’Epoque) for an exemption.

  9. Ellen A. says:

    My first visit to Paris was in 1976, when you really needed to speak some French! Local calls were made in phone booths with “jetons” you had to buy and insert to cover the cost of the calls, and long distance calls required a request at the post office and a wait until you were directed to a booth where your connection was made to the foreign number. I stayed at the Hotel Quai Voltaire (a literary “cheap sleep”), and was mesmerized by the nighttime view of the Louvre across the Seine. My husband and I were married in 1979, and I think our first visit to Paris together was in 1984, as was yours. I had a very similar haircut to Philippa’s at the time. This post has lovely photos and remembrances of Paris in that era, and the two of you look so vibrant and happy together! I’m sure your followers would enjoy more of your vintage travel photos from France as much as we enjoy the old postcards of forgotten Paris that you investigate so well.

    • Jetons! Marked “PTT.” That’s right! Actually, my haircut is pretty much the same these days, after a not-too-successful attempt to grow it out a bit. I had it cut back to that shape in a little place in the Marais a couple of years ago. Thank you so much for your comments.

  10. Rob Hall says:

    What a treat to read of your first visit to Paris. We, too ate a wonderful meal in Le Petit Prince when we took our daughters for their first taste of Paris in 1999 and have the menu from that day. We revisited a few times until the restaurant closed @ 2004 but it sparked our continued fascination with Paris where we eventually bought an apartment as a second home. So interesting to reminisce on how we travelled than to now (American Express now a Nespresso..travesty). Keep up the flaneuring and the blog (BTW. We live near Craigleith Gardens and that and Milk Man’s Lane is a favourite entry for ravine walks). Santé

    • Wasn’t Le Petit Prince a wonderful place? It was so good that the fact it no longer exists makes it magical. How lovely to have a flat there. We rent from various friends and acquaintances — our favourite place is in the 14th.

  11. victualling says:

    What a charming story! Loved it.

  12. Philip Jeune says:

    Just wanted to say how much I enjoy reading your blogs. You asked for old memories of Paris – my first are of arriving there by private motorboat on the Seine when I was 13, some 53 years ago. In between dodging the huge barges taking Renault cars to Le Havre I got my first glimpse of Paris – the top of the Eiffel Tower appearing as a small blip on the horizon. As we approached the city so the blip got bigger and bigger until we docked at the Yacht Club de Paris right underneath the tower. My parents went to the Lido that night with their friends, leaving me under the watchful eye of the yacht club attendant. I spent most of the evening sitting on the boat watching the lights of this incredible city, trying to look several years older and sophisticated by chain smoking Gauloises!

    • What an amazing experience that must have been. Thank you so much for contributing your recollections. We love the image of the 13 year old you on the boat, smoking Gauloises and watching the lights.

  13. Kiki says:

    I was a VERY late Paris visitor; I must have been quite a bit over 40 when I discovered the City of Lights… And had somebody told me that not only would I – later – be married to a French spoken man (Swiss, same as me), but LIVE just outside of Paris, I would have laughed out loud…. And now it’s already more than 9 years we’re here….
    I have 2 distinct memories of this first trip. One is that I fell on metal stairs leading to or from a métro and I still see myself supressing my hot tears with the horrible pain of my bleeding shins and the second was (and still is) the wonderment of visiting Musée d’Orsay. I still want to live in it as I did on that first visit….. And although I have by now taken approx. 50 Seine-boat tours (I recommend it to all our visiting friends and I still love to go along), I still haven’t been on the Eiffel Tower!
    Your travel story was wonderful to read – I have similar (and different) memories of my ( a bit less than) two years’ stay in Toronto – sadly with no pictures to compare as my ex-husband threw everything away when we got divorced…. But the memories are all there, right in my head, so that’s alright. We also have hundreds of ‘mind-picture-books’ of our long stay in South Western England and we are, in fact, just back from our yearly ‘visit and re-visit our friends’ week.

    • Dreams really do come true! Yes, the boats are one of the best ways to experience the city and the Musée d’Orsay is gorgeous. And you’ve lived in Toronto too!

  14. Marsha Huff says:

    Thank you for another wonderful post–beautiful photos, happy memories, and meaty information. It’s also a treat to see pictures of the two of you. Cheap Sleeps and Cheap Eats (with prices shown in francs) served me well for several years. Hotel du Palais Bourbon, with Assemblée Nationale at one end of the street and Musée Rodin at the other, was an early favorite. We also enjoyed our first taste of French cooking at Aux Charpentiers, though we haven’t been back for many years.

  15. Leslie Omstead says:

    Hello Philippa and Norman,
    I am about to take my first trip to Paris for a few days before walking the Camino de Santiago. Clela Errington forwarded your blog and I have enjoyed reading about your experiences over the years. This last post was most interesting because you speak about your first trip. I plan to walk through the days and experience the city street by street, similar to what you did. I appreciated your memories.
    Kind Regards,

    • Hi Leslie,

      How nice to hear from you. Your holiday plans sound delightful. There is a visitor’s guide to Paris on our blog that you might find helpful. https://parisianfields.com/guide-for-visitors-to-paris/

      Most important piece of advice: when approaching anyone at anytime for any purpose in France, start by saying “Bonjour.” Even if you are just asking directions. Two Canadians have actually written an entire book on the subject, called “The Bonjour Effect.” It is crucial in navigating the city.

      Have a wonderful time and I hope you have comfy shoes, both for Paris and the Camino!


  16. Dawn Monroe says:

    Greetings. I do enjoy reading your writings. It is good to keep in touch with you. We have had a pleasant summer although it seemed very short. I seem to have recovered from the heart attacks late last fall but we both have slowed down considerably.
    I look forward to reading more of Parisian Fields
    Dawn Monroe

    • Dear Dawn, Thank you so much for keeping in touch. We are very sorry to hear about your health problems. And we agree that the summer has been all too short, not to mention soggy! Take good care of yourself. Best, Philippa and Norman

  17. Trinity says:

    I discovered your blog today through a Google search for “Paris chimney pots.” I love the romance and historical perspectives of your blog and am a fast fan! My husband and I just returned from our second trip to Paris together (my 8th total) last week. What a magical time we had walking and talking, sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg, attending classical concerts in old churches, and finding little restaurants in which to conspire about the next day. Yesterday I texted my husband that package had arrived for him. He told me to open it and it was a photo book entitled “Our Paris Love Story” filled with photos from our journey. What a treasure! A real book to hold, not jut images to scroll over on a screen. And today I’ve started writing about our trip. Perhaps it will turn into a blog, too, I don’t know yet. Thank you for sharing your love for Paris, and one another.

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