As is our habit every first morning in Paris, my husband and I awoke bursting with big plans for the day. This year we decided that topping our agenda in the City of Lights was a revisit to the beloved Impressionist paintings at our favorite French museum, the Musée D’Orsay.
After a petit déjeuner of baguettes slathered with butter and jam, crispy croissants, freshly pressed orange juice and strong coffee we descended to the Metro at Grands Boulevards. The Paris Metro app on my iPhone directed, “Ligne 8, direction Balard, transfer at Concorde to Ligne 1.” Alighting at Tuileries station we walked through the gates of the Jardins des Tuileries. We knew a stroll through the gardens on our way to the pedestrian bridge over the River Seine would ease our transition into la vie parisienne.
Spring was mature when we left our home in northern California on March 30th. Many trees bloomed early this year; in our neighborhood the plums were in full flower in late January. In Paris, spring was newborn. Rows of trees in the Jardin des Tuilleries were just budding out, creating a pale green haze above our heads. Lipstick red tulips nodded at their reflections in the limpid ponds. Winter-weary citizens lounged in slant-backed chairs lining the paths, their faces turned towards the yet pale rays of sun.
We wandered the groomed avenues of the garden, reveling in the light breeze and fair sky. Soon, we were feeling peckish. It was early for a full lunch, so we stopped at one of the open-air cafes in the park for take-away food. A perfect late morning snack…baguettes with jambon and beurre. That salty-fatty combination of country ham and butter layered in a crusty baguette called for ice-cold cokes. Luckily for us icy drinks are readily available in Paris these days.
Within a few yards was an unoccupied bench where we spread out our picnic lunch. Midway through my sandwich, I asked Bill, “Do you really want to spend the day inside?” He swallowed and considered the question. “Let’s go over to the museum and see how long the line is.”
While he finished his sandwich and mine, I sketched a gentleman sitting near us. Like many older men in this city he was dressed nattily, in a sport coat and slacks. Engrossed in his book, he was oblivious to my observation.
We gathered our things and strolled away. As always, when we came near the steps to the bridge, our question was “Over or under?” The pedestrian bridge from Jardin des Tuileries to the left bank is relatively new and features two approaches. One involves walking down a shallow flight of steps in a tunnel under the peripheral road, the other up a steep flight of steps from within the park. We opted for the shallow steps and were joined by a dog-walker with a pair of boisterous pups.
Emerging in the sunlight we were swept into a small group of people hurrying across the river to the museum. We slowed and stopped to savor the view from the bridge. The foamy wakes of tour boats traced long arcs on the gray-green water of the Seine. The Louvre stretched for blocks on the right bank, while on the left the mansard roofs of the Musée D’Orsay gleamed.
A dark-haired woman approached Bill and held out a gold ring. We laughed and shook our heads. She looked crestfallen, but even addled by a long flight and jet lag we were on to the gold ring scam. Plus she hadn’t performed it well. To pull it off, she needed to pretend to pick it up from the pavement at his feet before handing it to him. We were not off the bridge where another woman thrust a ring at Bill. This time, I scanned my husband’s attire. “Something about you is screaming tourist!”
At the Musée D’Orsay, the line of art lovers queuing for tickets filled the plaza. We looked at each other and shook our heads. “Today is for walking!” I suggested. Bill grabbed my hand and we turned our back on the Impressionists.
We walked down the narrow street behind the museum and then turned left on a side street towards the Seine. Crossing the boulevard we found ourselves at the line of stalls where for years, booksellers have offered used and new volumes in French and other languages. We ambled along, stopping when a bright cover or words in English caught our eyes.
“Shakespeare and Company!” I remembered that on the list of things we really wanted to do in Paris this visit was a stop at the iconic bookstore. It was somewhere on the left bank, in the direction we were headed. We walked on, crossing the street again to try to find some shade.
At Place Saint-Michel, I shivered a little despite the bright sun. Nearby walls bear plaques with the names of resistance fighters who died on that spot in August 1944. I could feel the bloodied courage of these men and women as if their shades lingered even now.
Traffic in the area was a bit daunting. When a glimpse of bright color caught Bill’s eye, we sidled down a side street to find one of those vest-pocket parks that dot Paris. Cherry trees crowned with blossoms shaded the grass. Four young women giggled as they postured for photos in front of masses of pink blooms. The sounds and smells of the cars on the boulevard seemed far away. We were delighted to relax in this green haven in a bustling neighborhood.
And then we walked on…arriving at Shakespeare and Company where we edged our way through the warren of narrow shelves, jostling other readers to find the poetry section. Bill chose e.e.cummings while I picked a slim book by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet and owner of City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Somehow that felt just right.