Paris is one big, beautiful, gritty, historic monster of a village. Iconic neighborhoods, global ethnicities, and diverse languages swirl among the commotion of street markets, car horns, speeding motorcycles, whizzing bicycles, and dogs. French men in suave suits, French women in sleek, tight skirts, Germans in jeans, Americans in Nike’s, Swiss in hiking boots, and Senegalese men in white dress shirts mix and bump on narrow sidewalks. Paris has it all – plus the element of surprise. That must be why I keep coming back to Paris—with or without travel partners. It gives me a needed boost of adrenalin and confidence and prompts lazy synapses into precise firing. Summer or dead of winter, raining or snowing, bone-chillingly brisk wind or soft springtime sun, every visit is unpredictable. At least once in your life take the chance.
One thing for certain, you need to be a chameleon when in Paris. You can make a plan, research the route, make a timetable and it all changes—the bus doesn’t come, you read the map upside down or your destination is closed Tuesday’s (you forgot to check that detail) or suddenly en greve (on strike). It all happens. Get over it. Consider a glass of wine or a café with outside seating.
I find the best way to survive is to bend with the obstacles, not against them. So you get on the wrong bus…you see a new neighborhood. Believe me, I have seen some magnificent church spires, a jewel-encrusted 8ft high Buddha (I still lust for), boutique chocolate made by monks, leather custom hand-crafted handbags for 800 Euros (not in my budget), and the exterior of the Winter Circus— while absolutely, delightfully lost.
Last fall I found my way back to the accidental sighting of the circus, properly named le Cirque d’Hiver Bouglione, (the winter circus). It is an old institution, housed in a permanent building dating back to Napoleon the 3rd, circa 1852, in a location I think it’s fair to call an old, posh part of town. It’s on the right bank, in the 11eme, near the Filles du Calvaire metro. The structure is impressive, an oval polygon of 20 sides, with Corinthian columns at the angles. It seems like a miniature indoor coliseum, with steeply banked seating for spectators. Translation: not too much leg or knee room. You were warned. Be brave and enter anyway.
In October it runs daily– two shows per day– with the first show at 2 pm, perfect for a lonely Sunday in Paris. I bought a cheap seat, in the second balcony, but my view was grand as I hung over the railing on my elbows. I had not been to a circus for decades.
On Sunday afternoons the show is full of families with kids. A woman alone can feel connected in this mélange of parents, grandparents and kids with neon wands. I was caught-up with anticipation as much as the ten year-old, two seats down the row, even if I didn’t keep twisting and turning around in my seat. Let’s get this started, I wanted to shout too!
When the house lights dimmed to darkness and the ten-piece orchestra started with a rousing waltz, and hundreds of kids, holding multi-colored glow-in-the-dark wands, waved them like lighters at a rock concert in the 60s, I teared up. Palpable sparks flew from stage to seats and back forming a closed circuit. From that moment on I held my breath unless I absolutely needed to breathe.
First up were the dancing girls, in their skimpy sequined gowns doing a sort of Rockets-style number, more like Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders dancing routines. Flashy, beautiful, leggy women. A riveting vision, befitting Parisian mystique.
The lady cat-tamer appeared next, with her five Siberian Tigers in a ring surrounded by portable high, wire, wall panels. They ran around the ring, leapt from platform to platform, walked a narrow plank– you know, the usual. They didn’t roar or seem too aggressive— they seemed docile. Illusion most likely, or as my skeptical friend Anne believes, drugged. I choose to hope otherwise.
Over the next two hours we witnessed rapid-fire acts—kicked off by clowns, and followed by a magician, more dancing girls, horse-back-riding dare devil girls, a trick BMX-style bicycle rider, multiple daring acrobats, high-wire trapeze acts, a juggler with seven pins, a juggler of giant yoyo’s, a domestic cat routine, goats and pigs with pink sequined collars sliding down a slide, more dancing girls, a mock boxing match between two clowns and the announcer, a spinning and draped high-wire duo, and a Mr. Atlas-with-two-women act. There was an intermission. There was more. I was beyond dazzled.
The fully costumed live orchestra was fabulously bold throughout, with a mix of a little Abba, a little John Phillip Souza, a little of everything including the Marseillaise. Of course, this is France! Yet the music acknowledged that we were a multi-national audience.
Afterwards a friend asked me which act I would perform if in the circus. After much agonizing thought I proposed I might train to be the master of those goats and pigs with pink collars. Their handlers were children in top hats and tails with cane rods. The goats ran across an upraised plank to the top of the slide and ran down, agility their game. Little, stout pigs trotted in a straight line up the plank and slid down on their bellies, like they enjoyed the ride. I think I could corral those darling animals and feed them treats, unlike the tigers for example. For any other act I am hopelessly unqualified.
Following the circus extravaganza, excitement still reverberating in my heart, I met a friend and we wandered near the Palais Royal metro stop looking for a bit of Dubonnet, that old-fashioned classic, proper ladies drink. The stuff that is terribly out of vogue, reserved for “older women who remember when they were young in Paris,” said a handsome, young waiter searching for a polite explanation. I deny I resemble that remark! We searched cafe after cafe until we were in front of Le Grand Colbert, the brasserie used in that Jack Nicholson film, As Good as it Gets, a few years back. Dubonnet, yes. Style, yes. Expensive, yes.
As we sipped at the high counter, I noticed an interesting, older, gentlemanly, smartly-suited man near my right elbow, a man later identified as “Mr. Gadget.” Drink consumed, we watched the well-heeled clientele move in for dinner. As my friend and I quietly exited, we caught a glimpse of our former bar mate performing magic tricks at people’s tables. Mr. Gadget at work.
He never breathed a sigh about what he was doing in the restaurant— besides eating his evening meal— before he left my side. We had discussed the circus acts I had witnessed earlier in the day at great length, and he revealed he had devoted much of his youth to observations there. He seemed an extension of the historic circus, full of mystery and elegance. Days that start in a confusing fashion in Paris don’t all end with the magic of the circus following you into the streets or fashionable cafes, but they can. It’s that kind of place.
I rode the metro back to St Michel in the 5eme that evening, my familiar neighborhood, stopping long enough to eat a Lebanese hot sandwich at a welcoming little walk-up stand along the route to my hotel. I had trod that street many times and never noticed that eatery, which reinforced my belief in the element of chance and good fortune in Paris.
One is not a stranger in Paris long. With a few Euros in your pocket you can eat like Napoleon after the circus. And you will carry the magic in your heart for years, even when the beat fades to a whisper.
And then there are those thousands of locks, clamped to the wire walls of the foot bridge near Notre Dame. Messages cryptic and poignant, symbols of love lost, found and wished for. What are they doing there? Love-locks on the Pont de l’Archevêché. Unless the authorities have removed them.
Category: Indie It Travel