Sunday, December 30, 2007


Ice skating is all the rage in Paris this year. When a number of years ago the city of Paris and many of its suburbs started putting up temporary ice rinks for the holidays, Parisians seemed skeptical. A sport for which you had to rent funny shoes and risk looking ridiculous isn't a sure win in Paris, as the few bowling alleys can attest. Perhaps it started catching on when a splendidly festive ice rink was built a few years back on the square in front of the Hôtel de Ville, a short walk away from the heart of the hip Marais neighborhood. However it happened, skating is now almost as much a part of the Parisian holiday experience as a stroll down the Champs-Elysées.

Our city hall, which spares no expense to avoid being upstaged by other municipalities and especially the Socialist mayor of Paris, put up the most elaborate ice rink I've seen yet. With a giant snow globe in the middle, it was the centerpiece of a holiday fair that included train rides and bungee jumping for the kids, cabins with spiced wine and sweets, and all manner of kitsch surrounded by swathes of cottony artificial snow, groves of Christmas trees and wooden cutout reindeer. A bleak, 1960s concrete square, abandoned most of the year by all but surly, loitering teenagers, was transformed into a sort of life-sized gingerbread house of holiday activity.

Oh, if only they'd spent this money on the municipal daycare centers, I thought to myself. Nothing to do but enjoy it anyway.

My mother-in-law, who is always game for this sort of thing, agreed to go skating with me. It's actually somewhat of a tradition. Save last year, when I was three months pregnant and terrified of falling, we've gone almost every year since the rink has been open.

As we stumbled toward the rink entrance in our rented skates, I started to wonder if this had been such a good idea after all. The distance across the rink to where my husband, le Petit, and my father-in-law were waiting and watching us seemed rather far, and I wasn't sure that after a two-year hiatus my feet still knew what to do. But we'd already paid our three euros so there was no way out but forward.

I hesitatingly launched myself on the bumpy ice and tried keep my balance. I advanced slowly as swarms of kids darted around me. I looked back to where my mother-in-law was holding onto the rink wall for dear life.

When we finally reached the other side, my father-in-law declared us both ridiculous. "You should stop now, you're embarrassing us!" I suddenly understood the difference between thirteen, when I'd learned to skate, and thirty-one: back then, I was afraid of making a fool of myself, now I was just afraid of breaking my neck.

Looking around, I also realized that we were the only two people over twenty who weren't accompanied by small children, and my mother-in-law was easily the oldest skater by twenty years. As we continued to stumble around the rink, gradually graduating to gliding without picking up much speed, I started noticing, too, that Paris ice rink etiquette has improved over the years. The first year they built the rink, it was anarchy. As many people skated clockwise as counterclockwise, there was much giggling, but also more than a few pile-up collisions. This year the majority of skaters were headed in more or less the same direction, and there were even uniformed personnel to maintain order. Yet it still looked a bit like Place de l'Etoile at rush hour.

After forty-five minutes of having some fun despite the constant butterflies in my stomach (perhaps a sign I'm getting Too Old For This After All) we decided to throw in the towel before either of us fractured something.

At the skate rental desk, the woman looked disappointed to have lost her most respectable customers, including the only one with grandmotherly silver hair, so soon. "But you only just got here!" she protested.

Yeah. No, that was definitely enough for this year. But I made a mental note to take myself to the rink more often next year, just to warm myself up for the year when I have to teach le Petit to skate. He's yet to figure out crawling, so thank goodness, I have some time.

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