Our last day in Paris was one of those glorious late October days when the sky is blue, the air is crisp, the smell of woodsmoke is in the air and golden leaves form a carpet on which to crunch your feet. We had no set plans for our final hours in this beautiful city; we wanted to pick up some souvenirs, but we’d visited everywhere we had wanted to get to, and weren’t in any rush to go anywhere in particular. We were content to just be flaneurs and wander at will for the morning. After a quick breakfast at a boulangerie, we meandered down to the Seine and walked through the Tuilieries gardens towards the Champs Elysees, where we spotted the President’s calvacade go screaming past as we crossed La Concorde. This is a rather strange junction that has been deemed the most fitting spot to display Paris’ Egyptian Obelisk (not sure whether it’s called Cleopatra’s Needle like London and New York’s? Any Parisians care to enlighten me?) – goodness knows why – and there is some lovely copper and gilt work on display in the streetlamps – but other than that, it’s very much a spot where you do less sight seeing and more attempting to stay alive as you dodge the hundreds of cars going in a million different directions at high speed on both sides of you. Especially stressful if, like me, you always look the wrong way when abroad (I only survived unscathed in New York because most streets are one way!).
As we walked along, we passed the Grand Palais and saw the sign for the Edward Hopper exhibition that is currently showing. We both love Edward Hopper, so we decided why not? and went on in to see the exhibition. It was marvellous. I haven’t seen many Hoppers in the flesh, and seeing those quintessentially American scenes, many of which took me back to the stifling, sticky streets of Manhattan in the summer, really took my breath away. Hopper was incredible at managing to recreate that sense of loneliness at the heart of life, and while his paintings often leave me feeling sad, they also leave me marvelling at how acute his understanding of humanity was. Even his paintings that don’t feature any human figures are positively vibrating with emotion. The exhibition juxtaposed his paintings with those of his French contemporaries, building an argument for how closely Hopper was influenced by his time in Paris and his French trained mentor. Thankfully the exhibition was fully translated, so we were able to read all of the art history analysis, and we left feeling educated and more appreciative of Hopper’s oeuvre. A trip to the gift shop added a few more postcards to my collection, and an exhibition poster; that’s gone into my ‘when I am a grown up and have my own house’ drawer, ready to come out when I eventually have walls to hang things on that don’t belong to someone else!
After viewing the exhibition, we continued on to the Champs Elysees, which isn’t hugely exciting these days, especially as the hell hole that is Abercrombie and Fitch has now opened practically next to Laduree and was genuinely pumping out aftershave to entice in adolescent teenage girls, who had created a queue nearly as long as the one to get into the Louvre outside the shop, the entrance to which was guarded by two pre-pubescent boys in boxer shorts. Lovely. We walked on by and into the more palatable surroundings of Laduree, where we spent a small fortune on macarons to take home (they’re cheaper in London, but it feels more special buying them from the Paris store!!).
We then decided to head back to our neighbourhood, as we had been recommended to go to a local shopping street by our lovely host. We meandered our way down the back streets behind her apartment, past La Bourse (the old stock exchange) and onto Rue Montorgueil, famous for its range of food shops and for being painted by Monet. We were absolutely charmed by it; it reminded me of Upper Street in Islington, and feels like a slice of ‘real’ Paris rather than the more touristy and generic shopping streets in the main thoroughfares of the city. If you’re looking for the Paris you see in films, where you can buy cheese and fish and bread and wine from individual specialist shops and watch people chatting over coffee and cigarettes outside quintessential cane chaired and yellow awninged cafes, then this is the place to come.
We just had time for a stroll up and down the street before the time came for us to head over to Gare du Nord for our train home. We took our last look at the elegant buildings with their tall French windows and elaborate wrought iron balconies that line the street of ‘our’ neighbourhood and the view of the Sacre Coeur from the end of ‘our’ street, before heading down into the Metro to go to the station. We came out at the always bustling Gare du Nord at rush hour, and as I always do at any station, I looked longingly at the departures board, wishing I had the freedom to hop on a train to one of the many fascinating looking destinations. Brussels? Amsterdam? Lille? Amiens? Instead, I had to board the escalator up to the Eurostar lounge, watching the people below boarding the trains to these places I have never seen underneath the colossal glass and wrought iron ceiling of this once beautiful station. At the sight of the train to Amiens, I wondered whether Stephen and Isabelle in Birdsong would have ever come to Gare du Nord on their travels through France…perhaps. And in a reverie along these lines, I stepped onto the Eurostar, ready to be whisked back to normality once again.