Letter From Lilliputia: Small Is Beautiful In Paris

It started on our flight back to Paris from New York: our seats had been put through the drier. They were too small to hold our newly fleshly forms. After a month in Chicago, San Francisco and New York City we had expanded our views – and backsides. Well, I had. My wife doesn’t thicken. Her DNA descends from termites.

The Paris taxi seemed luxurious after the battered Yellow Cabs of Manhattan. But it was shoebox-sized: half our luggage rode on our laps. We nudged bumper-to-baby-bumper down uncannily smooth surfaces into the groomed, green perfection of central Paris.

How quaint and prosperous and picturesque the tidy spider’s web of tree-lined streets with toy houses along them! The Eiffel Tower was slim and naked: it wore no cladding. Back home it might be demolished as pornographic. The Seine seemed a trout stream compared to the Hudson or Sacramento. And what were all those arched bridges built of stone? Surely steel and cement were superior?

In our absence friends who’d stayed at our apartment had exchanged our wormy furniture for dollhouse accessories. The ceilings and windows had downsized too. Our concierge, apparently by nibbling the wrong side of a mushroom, seemed the height of a child.

Forget inches: at 176 centimeters I towered over people and places! It felt wonderful. Petit was beau. How could I have forgotten why I moved here a quarter century ago?

Not only was small beautiful in Paris: old was pretty nifty too.Even the symmetrical broad boulevards driven through Paris in the 1850s-’60s by tyrannical Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann seemed mere country roads compared to the thundering avenues of our great American cities. I felt a new love for them well up in my caffeine-starved brain.

Strange: in centuries past Americans in Paris were bowled over by the newness and bigness. Nothing could be clearer from reading David McCullough’s new mega-bestselling book “The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris.”

In the 1800s to early 1900s Paris was cutting edge and huge, the biggest, brightest City of Light in the world. It had boulevards, triumphal arches, medical schools, hospitals and, after 1889, Eiffel’s amazing nude skyscraper. Paris during the infancy and adolescence of the United States was infinitely grander, more modern and more imposing than slaughterhouse Chicago, rustic San Francisco or ramshackle New York. How had the equation been flipped?

Jet-lagged we headed for a favorite local bistro in the fashionably ancient Marais neighborhood where we live. On Rue du Prévot, an alley between slump-back buildings 500 years old, we entered the heartland of Parisian Lilliputian Bobo-land. With arms outstretched I could almost touch the leprous plaster on each side. Never has shabby chic cost so much per square foot – or centimeter.

Happily ensconced at a microscopic wooden bistro table on diminutive 19th-century wooden bistro chairs at Les Compères, we studied the daily menu. It had been handwritten in chalk by the lively, pretty waitress-proprietor’s tiny little hand. The wine glasses were petit. There was relatively little in them – but it tasted good, like real French wine. Though loud of voice the handsome young barman behind his tiny blonde-wood bar was even smaller than I. The kitchen looked like a walk-in closet in Chicago.

Out of that busy little kitchen came more of those silly dollhouse accessories: saucers pretending to be plates, each topped with kindergarten servings of crisp mixed salad with sun-dried tomatoes and artichoke hearts, dressed with refreshing simplicity. The portions of the equally simple main course-pan-fried codfish reminded me of the single-bite tapas at sprawling Café Ba-Ba-Reeba in the Windy City. Even the duck confit and steak being wolfed by others looked minuscule.

Was all this tininess what was meant by “made to the measure of man?” I could feel myself retracting to European size as I savored the weightless spoon-sweet dessert: a simple swirl of unsweetened mascarpone and fruit compote. I resisted the house-made profiteroles. Afterwards there was no need to beg for “a small, single espresso.” The coffee was as thick as tar. The total content of the thimble containing it could not have exceeded 2 tablespoons.

Pleasantly buzzed, as I walked home to our 400-year-old apartment, past a city wall built in 1190 then through a handsome little square finished in 1612 I had one of those micro-epiphanies travelers are sometimes treated to.

Add together the simplicity, the lack of cloying sweetness, the powerful yet handsome smallness of things and people, and the miraculously preserved antiquity of it all and, bingo! No wonder nervy, hormonal New York twisted the torch from Paris’ child-sized hands a century ago and went rushing unchallenged into the gigantism of American greatness. Paris was too perfect and too hobbled by agelessness to run the race or contemplate change. Perhaps Paris was too wise to want to run the race at all.

As I spiraled up our staircase – no elevator in 1640 – to an apartment with no air conditioning, no microwave and no espresso-entertainment equipment in the kitchen I sighed with satisfaction. No wonder quaint little old made-to-the-measure-of-humanity Paris was still the favorite city of millions, including large Americans, and oddball little old me.

Author and guide David Downie’s latest book is the critically acclaimed “Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light,” which will soon be out as an audio book. His next travel memoir, to be published in April 2013, is “Paris to the Pyrenees: A Skeptic Pilgrim Walks the Way of Saint James.” His websites are www.davidddownie.com, www.parisparistours.com, http://wanderingfrance.com/blog/parisand http://wanderingliguria.com, dedicated to the Italian Riviera.