Paris opens its doors

For only two days a year, the French government opens its buildings to the common folk.

“Journées de la Patrimoine” translates roughly as “heritage days.” But I think of it more as “anti-revolution insurance.” What better way to keep the rabble content than to show them the riches they own? Regardless of your take on French politics, it’s an excellent opportunity to get a peek behind the scenes.

I started my day with a visit to several churches in the Marais district. Then, I let myself into a run-down apartment building for a look at the stairs.

After that, I grabbed some sushi for lunch. The owner of the restaurant spoke French with a Japanese accent, and the guy who waited on me was from Brazil. And we were all in Paris together. Amazing.

After lunch, I walked to the Hôtel de Ville, which is the seat of Paris’ government. With 11+ million residents, Paris is bigger than many countries. So I guess it’s fitting that its city hall should also be of palatial proportions.

Of course, it’s exquisitely decorated with priceless period furniture. It’s hard to imagine that these opulent surroundings are in fact the city administrators’ offices.

The library was similarly awe-inspiring. It reminded me of something out of a Harry Potter movie. Can you say “picturesque old-world charm”? I knew you could.

Call me quirky, but my favorite moment from the entire two-hour visit actually had little to do with the building. I had to stifle the giggles when a diminutive woman in front of me reached across the “do not touch” barrier to inspect the draperies. I suppose that—as a taxpayer—she just wants to make sure they’re keeping the place up.

After I’d been sufficiently awed, I walked about a half mile to the Hôtel de Sens. Alas … today it was open only to library patrons. I briefly thought about masquerading as a library patron but decided that my two cameras—and my total ineptitude at speaking French—would probably give me away. I’d have to come back tomorrow. Bummer.

My photographer friend Shachar and I had agreed to meet at the Tour Montparnasse at 7. (Or, in Shachar parlance, at 19:00.) It’s a good thing I hopped on the Métro with plenty of time. Oh, the humanity!

At one point, I was crammed up against a French man of about my size. We tried very hard not to make eye contact as we stood nose-to-nose, our bodies pressed together. But as the train lurched to a halt, we were thrown into each other’s arms—literally. “Pardon, madame,” he whispered into my ear. “Pas de soucis” (“No worries”), I mumbled into his cheek. I got off the train smelling of his aftershave. Oh, la la …

In spite of the crowds on the train, I made it to the Tour Montparnasse with an hour to kill. So I bought a ticket to the top.

Parisians have a love-hate relationship with the Tour Montparnasse. Some see it as a welcome sign of modernity; others decry it as a defacement of the city’s classical architecture. Either way, it’s there to stay.

At 59 stories, it’s shrimpy by American standards—but it really stands out in Paris’ skyline. The view from the top would be quite spectacular, if not for the smog. I took a few obligatory tourist shots.

Soon, it was time to go back down.

I thought Shachar would want to take photos from the top of the tower after dark, but he was too tired. Like me, he’d spent the day walking all over Paris, and he just wanted to sit down. So we set off in search of dinner.

He had a list of recommended restaurants; one was allegedly close by. But because Paris’ streets are anything but straight, it took us a couple of attempts to find it.

Along the way we encountered a man in heavy makeup, wearing a wig, and sporting a blue-and-white striped manicure. “Do you speak English?” he asked us. “Yeah,” I answered, “How can I help?” He needed directions to the Luxembourg gardens. I showed him the map.

“Is he one of yours?” Shachar asked as we resumed our walk. I was ashamed to admit that the weird man in the fright wig with the Johnny-Depp-as-Captain-Sparrow eyeliner and the white-and-blue manicure was probably an American. Désolée.

Shachar and I finally found the restaurant. It was lovely, elegant, very French. The specials tonight were baked pork nose and shellfish terrine. I looked at Shachar with concern, wondering whether he keeps kosher. But he shrugged and laughed. He was right: Eating any kind of a nose didn’t really appeal.

He dined on six asparagus spears while I enjoyed a half ounce of marinated salmon. The food was delicious, but the portions were comically tiny. No wonder the French are so skinny.

After “dinner,” Shachar and I said goodbye. He flies back to Israel tomorrow, and it’s unlikely our paths will ever cross again. But it was wonderful meeting someone who finds beauty in the same things, and who takes the same quiet approach to the world. Safe travels, mon ami.

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