As much as we love Paris, we always try to take a little out-of-town trip so that Tom can get a train ride. This year it was Amiens, just over an hour away.
Box 5 was always reserved for the Opera Ghost. If management dared to sell it to the public, dire consequences ensued. A stagehand murdered in a deep basement. An 8-ton chandelier falling on an innocent patron. A great soprano who suddenly can only croak. The Ghost had the Paris Opera in its clutches, a possible curse always at the ready.
So goes the 1901 novel The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux, which has become a couple of films and a blockbuster musical. The setting is Palais Garnier, as the Paris opera building is called, after its architect Charles Garnier, a stripling of 36 when he won the contest to design the building.
Is it Rococo, Palladio, and Renaissance? Let’s just say it’s wicked busy. No stone is uncarved or wall unpainted, no window undraped, no pillars without busts. All possible in-between places are emblazoned with lyres.
(Click images to enlarge)
When the Palais Garnier was finished in 1879, the building hosted both ballet and opera, but the real stars were the parading wealthy nobles and socialites of the Belle Epoque. Women dressed in voluminous skirts, wide decolletage, layers of petticoats and acres of ruffles, all topped off by enormous hooded cloaks. So much to see!
Gentlemen of wealth proudly walked the hallways arm and arm with their courtesans, who, if pricey enough, shed extra status upon them.
The entrance foyer has its own balconies with viewing niches, the better to see who’s with whom and wearing what. Missing a husband? Well, maybe he’s slipped backstage to visit a favorite soprano. All the subscribers were allowed.
What with all this busy swooping around, much more real estate is devoted to lobbies and stairs than to the 1979-seat auditorium. We were barred from the orchestra the by a rehearsal, but we did get to see a practice pas de deux on a monitor in the lobby.
A small museum houses fifteen thousand leather-bound scores and librettos, all safely behind grills. We also got a close look at some of the Opera’s collection of 3000 pieces of costume jewelry. (These are garish, very fake but very large for easy viewing.)
And what of Box 5? It is there, now with a brass plaque claiming it for the phantom. What is never made clear is whether or not there ever was a ghost, or a clever trickster living in the deep recesses of the building. Author Leroux was a journalist, and he is known to have fictionalized a lot of non-fiction for dramatic effect. What was real? One can Google it forever. But we are in Paris. And we’re off to grab an aperitif.
In a ritual he treasures, Tom goes off every morning to fetch our breakfast baguette. By the time Tom and the baguette get home, one end has inevitably been bitten off. Every single day. He claims he doesn’t know how it happens.
I love a good castle, especially with furniture inside. (That is the very definition of a good castle. Bad castle= missing one wall, cold, damp, moss and frogs within.) In my lifelong mission to visit every good castle in Europe, we got ourselves on a train to visit Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, 55 miles southeast of Paris. It has a compelling story.
One of my very favorite….
ometimes in Paris I…. A favorite sport in Paris is….
Okay. I admit it. My very very favorite thing to do in Paris is shop. I shop every single day, though I rarely buy anything. The joy of shopping, especially here in Paris, is enjoying the magnificent products of France and the incredibly luscious way they are displayed. In other words, shopping is like going to a museum.
One reason I love the Musée des Arts décoratifs is that I get to walk by the crowds forming a queue outside the Louvre’s famous pyramid entryway, and walk right into the equally impressive building next door. Yes, it can get crowded, and yes, some people know about it, but somehow it’s off the tourist track.
I asked Tom―an Oregon native, monolingual, more techie than arty, and not a foodie―what made him fall in love with Paris three years ago. He said “hanging at the cafés.” Of course! In Paris, hanging at the cafés is not just about eating and drinking outside; in Paris it is a ritual.
(You can eat and drink outside in Portland, usually at splintery picnic tables, in some places, when it’s not raining. Which is sometimes.)
The French have made this an art. Sidewalk cafés have awnings against the sun and rain. They have glowing heaters overhead. They have tiny glossy round tables lined up with OCD precision, as are the comfy woven wicker chairs.
But café life isn’t really about simple consumption. You can do that at a McDonald’s (which, in France, serve wine and beer). It’s a social contract. Things are happening.
There is always an intense couple leaning together over their tented hands, talking earnestly with extreme eye contact. Co-workers? Ex -spouses? Political conspirators?
There is always a pair of well-dressed women of a certain age, drinking wine and spilling secrets about their lovers and their grandchildren.
There will always be a woman alone, with her nose in a book (or a phone) and a tiny cup of coffee by her side. There will always be a man who’s just there for the drug: downing his espresso or his beer in a single slug before moving on.
There will always be a group of jeunes―twenty-somethings―usually more girls than boys. The boys monologue about philosophy or rap music. The kids come and go, shaking hands or exchanging kisses at both arrival and departure.
There is always a dog, sitting on somebody’s lap, impatiently eying your lunch. (See above.)
And there will always be a retired tourist couple, too tired to talk, just watching the motorcycles and spectacular outfits go by. This is usually us.
If there’s any extra-table conversation, it will usually be about shifting chairs―the attempt to get eight jeunes around two tables for two. It might be asking for a light, for though the French often have cigarettes, they rarely have lighters.
Now, what about food? Most people outside are just drinking and nibbling the complimentary olives, and if you’re really lucky, complimentary potato chips. If you eat out on the sidewalk instead of the dining room inside, your plate will be scrutinized by innumerable passers-by who will actually slow down to do it. It’s France, and everybody is totally absorbed in food and its presentation. Even a clochard who pestered us for coins yesterday was happy to actually grab a few of our olives instead.
I think what Tom loves about café life is how it represents the total French attitude about living well and without judgment. Too cold to drink outside? Turn on a heater. You want a beer for breakfast? Why not? Can a plate of fries be lunch for a grownup? Of course! Are you lunching in public with a woman not your wife? Normal! Are you a young man who wants to kiss another young man on both cheeks? Go ahead. And what are you doing lazing at a café in the middle of the day? S’il vous plait! This is the land of the five-week vacation.
Sometimes it is hard to be grateful for the Puritans who founded our country and instilled our sense of hard work and clean living. In France, people stay healthier and live longer than Americans do. Americans struggle to justify red wine and good chocolate. The French simply embrace them. Most often at a sidewalk café.
This is our last Sunday in Paris, and it is magnificent. It happens to be May 1st, when people are buying and exchanging little bouquets of muguets des bois (Lilies of the Valley, pictured above), a lovely old tradition. It is also Labor Day here, a celebration of workers with a bit of a socialist tinge, so more people than usual have the day off. On top of all that, it has been sunny all day and the temperature is well into the 60s.
The River Seine is loaded, these days, with floating restaurants and other giant touring crafts. I asked my Paris friend Cathy Nolan which of the boat tours would be best, and she steered us to the original Bateaux Mouches, ginormous barges with hundreds of seats that cruise the river all day, and into the night.
The last time I saw the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (maybe 30 years ago), it was lined with stores that were terrifying to the average tourist. Designer boutiques, purveyors of Rolexes, Tiffany, and Cartier, all in little polished box stores with no excess of stock visible, attended by lean chic Parisiennes wearing dark suits, dark hose, and needle heels, plus that particular Parisian frown that signals that you’re in the wrong rodeo, cowboy.