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ParisPostcard from Paris 2

By Richard Wallace

April may well be the cruelest month, but in Paris it can also be the grumpiest month and if the sun doesn't shine so is May. People generally feel if they can get through January and February then for sure things will start to get better by mid-March or thereabouts. When it doesn’t, and when a sudden cold snap arrives from nowhere, people lose hope. They feel short-changed. Tempers fray. Women cry. Unflappable bureaucrats throw up their arms. Everyone seems deflated and morose. My neighbour shrugs in a way that only the French can: with pouting lips, bunched shoulders and a Gallic thrust of open palms. It’s the national response to disappointment and it says what you feel without the tedium of putting the nuances into words.

Every where you look the effects of a delayed spring are there. Trees aren’t sleeping, they’re dead. The Seine isn’t flowing, it’s creeping. Cars aren’t moving, they’re stuck. And the sky above mirrors the bluesy hues of the long faces below and the bodies quietly hunched over a beer at a favourite café or sheltering under a dripping canopy sucking a cigarette. Even the rain, once an infrequent hazard, now trickles maliciously between the upturned collar of your raincoat and the raw slope of your neck. What was once moody and atmospheric now just simply sucks. In fact everything sucks: the weather; Carla Bruni posing as Jackie Kennedy at Windsor Castle; the road works on Quai Mitterrand; the riots in Tibet; even the absence of Americans lounging across the best covered seats along the rue de Rivoli. Oh boy: when you start complaining about the absence of Americans in Paris you know you’re in need of a pick-me-up.

My advice? If it’s Monday and you’re at a loose end, haul yourself on the Metro and head towards the Porte de Clignancourt on the northern outskirts of the city. There, under the pheriphque at Saint-Ouen, you’ll find the Marche aux Puces where the entire history of France is meticulously displayed and labeled. The trick is finding it. It’s easy to feel disorientated and bewildered when you first exit the Metro (Clignancourt is the end of the line) as you try to make sense of the commotion around you. Of course you’re looking for a sign to point you in the right direction. The trouble is there aren’t any. My advice is look for the pheriphque in the distance (it’s a flyover or overpass, depending on your country of origin) and go for it. You’ll know you’re heading in the right direction if the giant KIA motors sign and the cheap leather and clothes stalls are on your left, and the red TOTAL petrol station is on your right. Once under the overpass you’ll see a giant blue SIEMENS sign way up in front of you. Then all you need do is turn left down rue des Rossiers and you’re there.

I guess when I call the Marche aux Puces a pick-me-up I’m really talking about two specific things: lunch at Café le Paul Bert and the Marche Paul Bert round the corner. The Café is something else. It’s great. It’s so great you must get there before 12.30 because the place fills up faster than a taxi at CDG. The café’s cheap prices and genial service produces an eclectic clientele: from snooty Parisian interior designers dressed head to toe in black jeans, furs and skin-tight leather; to beery faced local traders holding court over tiny tables and monstrous plates. The café mainly caters for the local trade and there is a terrific take-out service. As you wait to be served you see an army of waiters ferrying out large trays crammed with hunks of bread, cutlery and steaming sun-burnt red cocottes to traders entertaining small parties of friends and customers at their stalls.

And here’s another tip: the portions are generous and hearty so make sure you’re starving when you get there (even the salads are enormous). I ordered cream of lentil soup followed by beouf bourguignon. Normally I go for the poule pot (chicken in a pot) but it wasn’t on, so I opted for one of the specials scribbled on the blackboard. Well this big black Staub cauldron arrived and by the time I’d finished my fourth bowl of soup I still hadn’t seen the bottom of it. I prayed my bourguignon was at least ten minutes away. I sipped my excellent St Nicholas de Bourgueil and took in the crowd as the owners little white pug nosed its way through the forest of people’s feet.

I think after a while if you live in a city you love you soon begin to despair of the professional tourist, whatever their nationality. I know it’s unfair and chauvinistic but they dress so absurdly, like they’re hiking across a frozen expanse of tundra rather than taking in the sights of one of the most beautiful and elegant cities in the world. They’re so obvious they hurt your eyes. Anyway, the bourguignon arrives in another black vat and I’m too busy trying to finish it to notice anything else. Afterwards, minus a little under twenty euros, I puff a cigar and wander like a heavily laden tanker through the Marche.

The amount of stuff on view is staggering and it’s wonderful to wade through it on a full stomach with nothing else to do for the rest of the day but drink in the gilt and the mahogany and everything else that swims before your eyes: there’s Directoire era chaise lounges and love seats; arc lights salvaged from a merchant ship that once plied the South China seas; steamer chests and Louis Vuitton luggage bearing hotel labels from the 20’s and 30’s; Chanel couture from the fifties; Second Empire flat ware and silver; 16th century chimneys and Juliette balconies; a stuffed zebra from the Serengeti; glossy family portraits from the school of David; garden architecture from Normandy; antique Cartier and Jaeger le Coutre; God, I could go on and on. And I still have the vast hall to see yet! Maybe I should head back to the café for an aperitif to ponder the imminent arrival of spring? What a good idea.

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