Alison Garwood Jones


August 9, 2011

As markets tumble and future nest eggs go “splat!” many of you are probably turning to your favourite crutches. For some, it’s beer and the boys. For others, it’s the sound of a golf ball bouncing at the bottom of the cup. For me, it’s good writing about places I love.

I lived in Paris back in the early-nineties.

©AGJ (using a Pilot Fineliner)

I was a grad student, at the time, and had a fellowship to do research on Paul Cézanne at the Musée d’Orsay. While I plugged away on my own stuff, I also worked on a Cézanne exhibition that would have a splashy opening in Paris before travelling to London’s Tate Gallery, then over to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Every day the curators would send me off to various libraries and archives with a shopping list of facts they needed confirmed about Cézanne’s life: his apartment numbers across the city, who he lived with and where he bought his painting supplies — that sort of thing. I dealt with a lot of bird-like women working behind library counters and became friendly with the French-speaking Italian vendor who sold me a ham sandwich and fluffed coffee every day in the café around the corner from the Biblioteque Nationale. Like the gang at Cheers calling out “Norm!” he would shout out “Alta!” (Italian for “tall”) every time I came into his store.

Sometimes I still can’t believe I lived in Paris. I had no permanent home back then and threw myself at opportunities without ever making pros and cons lists. My instincts about my interests were that certain.

So as markets roil and my stomach drops, I wanted to share some current observations about Paris collected by my friends, Stephen Strauss, a fellow journalist, and his wife Betty White, a painter. They are spending the summer in Paris and sending back detailed missives about their adventures.

Here’s a letter Stephen sent last week. I love it.

What don’t you expect to see in Paris

American Plains Indians in tribal gear dancing their tribal dances along the newly white sanded banks of the Seine while tourists in tour boats wave to them.

Graffiti on a Paris wall saying: “Sorry to write on your wall.”

The absolute favourite drink of cool Parisians being a diet coke called Coke Zero – the favourite no matter what vintage.

Scads of young, beautiful, wealthy Parisians taking out packs of Camels, Marlboroughs, Lucky Strike and other American cigarettes with Fumer Tue/Smoking Kills written in large letters on their backs and still smoking because it is cooler to be cool than to avoid cancer.

Anything, except for French wine, sold as cheaply as it is in Canada.

A young French couple asking an old Canadian couple for advice on what makes a marriage last after having known one another other for 10 minutes and being told that a similar sense of humour is more important than sex in the long run. And watching the French couple listening extremely, extremely intently to that bit of unromantic advice.

Cars and buses and trucks streaming clouds of this season’s latest pollution.

A photo gallery sign saying it doesn’t sell reprints.

The best Iraqi food in the world.

Hyper aggressive deaf/mute beggars.

A fully furnished apartment which somehow still lacks a can opener.

Being much more afraid of bicycle riders than car drivers when it comes to pedestrian safety.

The fate of a French woman who wrote a treatise during the French Revolution arguing that men and women should have equal rights. She was guillotined.

A favourite thing to throw into fountains now that the euro has become such an expensive coin. Individual playing cards.

A six-pack of Snickers.

Someone taking foie gras home in a doggy bag.

Three Turkish television stations.



One response to “Frenchiness”

  1. stephen strauss says:

    Chere Alta/Grande/gross:
    Merci infiniment for the citation.and In return let me suggest a future topic for your reflections. We met a friend in Paris who is slim and pretty who told us an interesting thing. She feels much more body-type at home in Paris than Toronto because there are so many more people who look like her in The City of Lights. "I always feel people in Toronto think there is something wrong with me," she told us. I wonder. Did this match your experience in Paris? Did your body type speak Parisian-French as it were?

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