The first fat flakes clustered along my sleeve as I stood facing the Luxembourg Garden on the icy Left Bank. A grumpy street sweeper from the south side of the Sahara scattered salt and scowled. Then he looked up and batted his clotted eyelashes. Snow! In Paris? What a forgotten thrill!I hadn’t seen the white stuff since a brief dusting last year. Winters aren’t very wintry these days in the City of Climatically Changed Light.
When I first moved here in the 1980s it snowed like frigid clockwork. And that seemed absolutely normal and desirable. Way back in the 1800s when Henri Murger wrote what was to become Puccini’s famous La Bohème, snow fell constantly. Ice formed stalagmites and poets shivered burning their manuscripts to stay warm. That was the Paris of romantic memory, the Paris of dreams, the Paris I loved before knowing Paris.
Yet it was real, too. A bust of Murger lurked across the street in the Luxembourg. As I’d hoped, its bronze beard and many-buttoned coat were dusted purest white. Che gelida la manina, the famous aria from La Bohème, played in my mind’s ear, an earworm of the most resistant kind.
Tunefully accompanying it, something besides the snow began to fall on the city: a mantle of enchanted silence. Then suddenly the strange and unexpected sprouted on the faces of Parisian passersby: smiles!
The subtle transformation of Paris from gritty, grimacing sun-less sump into winter wonderland was complete by the time I’d walked around the park a couple of times. The short-lived silence was split by yelps and laughter. Grownups frolicked.
Kids threw off their heavy school satchels and built snowmen.
A girl broke away from her boyfriend and cartwheeled.
“Do you ever throw pepper?” I asked the street sweeper with his coarse salt as I exited the park. He stared, uncomprehending. Then the euro-penny dropped.
“Pepper! Oui, and we could toss in some mustard too,” he laughed, now scattering his salt with gusto, chuckling and nodding.
It was downright disconcerting. Parisians seemed drunk with joy. Instead of heading home I spent the rest of the day wandering the streets, parks and riverbanks with my wife, Alison, the photographer. My first years in the city came back to me with a pleasant frisson, mixed into remembrances of things past, things read, music heard, and movies seen.
It dawned on me that while everyone sings paeans to spring, and many even praise summer and fall in Paris, no one loves winter. Are winter and Paris not a match?
How wrong: Paris, it was clear, is a winter wonderland. How could I have forgotten? When else can you ice skate in front of City Hall, counting the spires and sculptures, glancing across to the snowy spine of Notre Dame Cathedral?
When else can you watch the cars slow then disappear under piles of snow? Gone are the maddening motorcycles, buried the mountains of lethal dog dirt. This old whore of a city, usually best seen by lamplight, looks powdered and fresh, smells clean, feels authentic and real.
As happens at night with spot-lighting, the snow highlights, underscores, picks out the details. A carved face appears on a dirty plaster façade. Gargoyles wear ermine cloaks. Turrets look like confectionary and the bulbous Pantheon’s dome looms like a ghostly balloon.
Most magical of all, the color goes out of the cityscape: it reverts to the Paris of black-and-white photos and vintage films, engravings from centuries past. The pure, color-free essence returns.
Here was another revelation, an epiphany: winter was a magical night. It removed the superfluous. Flying buttresses reared up in all their naked stone beauty, their snowy manes framed by leafless, contorted black branches.
But the delights of winter went far beyond the visual, the aesthetic, the artistic or historic. Quite suddenly, with ice and snow on the ground as they rightly should be, my favorite cafés seemed even more inviting than usual. The terraces were miraculously empty and smoke-free. Bundled up and seated under an umbrella-shaped heater I had the sidewalk and oxygen to myself. A piping hot plat du jour of roast pork with sautéed potatoes tasted of strong mustard – the kind the street sweeper liked – and of yesteryear, my hunger seasoned by the season.
As the temperature fell farther, chilled inhabitants headed home, freeing up the sightlines. Even the last intrepid ultra-economy tourists from frozen Eastern Europe, Russia, Korea or China disappeared into the murky white dusk. Blissfully empty were the Jardin des Plantes, the Tuileries and, miracle of miracles, the loved-to-death Place des Vosges in the Marais. No lines at the Louvre. The Sainte-Chapelle glowed and echoed, free of its steamy human cargo. By trotting across town at breakneck speed I even managed to sneak unmolested into the Edward Hopper and Van Gogh exhibitions, which until then had been the incarnation of mobbed.
All good things come to an end – or do they? When the snow and ice eventually melted and turned Paris back into a slippery gray sea, the sense of wonderment lingered. For one thing, my eyes had been reopened to the forgotten advantages of serious weather. For another, the forecasters were already announcing a series of new winter storms. Joy! Wrapping up and sauntering back onto the mushy sidewalks, I felt paradoxically warm and cozy inside. Paris was mine and mine alone – with Alison – for another few months!
Author and private walking-tour guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” soon to be an audiobook. His next adventure-memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His Paris Time Line app will be published in February. His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/paris and http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.
[Photos courtesy Alison Harris © 2012 Alison Harris or © David Downie]