Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Midwinter migration

Christmas is over, and I had a much happier one than I evidently deserved. Now Paris has entered that strange period between Christmas and New Years, where the mood is somewhere between giddy and hungover. No one is in the Métro at rush hour, but the subway entrances on the Champs-Elysées are backed up onto the pavement from noon until midnight. Christmas lights are still dripping from the boughs of bare winter branches along the avenues, or gathered in constellations around the glass entrances of pastry shops. Those who bother to go to work show up at ten and leave at half-past five.

True Parisians are gone, apartment buildings are empty, and parking spots are to be had even in the densest arrondissements. I've lived here for six years and I must I admit I still don't know where everyone goes. The suburbs? The islands? Old family houses lost in the French countryside? Chic vacation homes in Normandy? It is too early for the ski holidays, too late for the Côte d'Azur. I wonder how many Parisian children are staring morosely out the window at grand-mère's house, watching the sun set at four-thirty and wishing they'd remembered to pack their game consoles.

Meanwhile, unlike in the dead of August, Paris is far from empty. On the Champs-Elysées, you can hear more Italian and Russian spoken than French. Tourists are everywhere, unfolding their maps on street corners, puzzling out addresses in guidebooks, hesitantly counting out Métro stops. A midwinter migratory flock of non-Parisian French has landed, making their yearly visit to urban relatives.

"Maman!" an embarrassed urbanite daughter exclaims in the train, "You know you have to keep your ticket until we get out!"

"Ah bon? I have it here somewhere," answers the flustered mother, searching vainly in her coat pockets.

"We get off here, don't we?" asks the father, pointing at the lighted display above their heads. The daughter sighs and gently herds them out the sliding doors in front of her.

There are more tourists in the hallway, walking four abreast down the corridor, standing to the right and to the left of the escalator at random. I force myself to slow down, to avoid swinging my backpack, to make myself small, to stop rushing. I hurry out of habit, and putting my autopilot on tourist speed takes some effort, but I don't want to be rude. Our reputation as Parisians is bad enough already. I expect the same consideration this summer, when our car with its Parisian license plates inevitably gets lost in the sinuous streets of a village somewhere.


caramama said...

Substitute the place, nationalities and languages, and take the accent off of Métro... you have just described DC this time of year. Isn't it amazing how similar things can be across the world?

I hope you and your family had a very merry Christmas!

Sylvie said...

Paris is so strange now, with so few Parisians. I haven't heard this much American-accented English in the streets since I left the USA! And the crowds! A friend went to the Louvre last week, mid-week and waited five minutes to get in. Today, at 6 p.m., there was a 45-minute wait in pouring rain -- so of course, we turned around and will go back later, when the tourists are gone.