Eternal returns in springtime Paris

Natives will tell you that Paris has everything necessary for the pursuit of happiness, including songbirds. The intensity and frequency of birdsong signals the end of winter, if not the arrival of spring. Spring comes and goes, hesitating on the threshold. That’s why accordions are Paris’ reliable bellweather. Their wheezing is a sure sign people are back outdoors filling cafés, or draping themselves over the double-backed park benches, staring at buds.

The other day the usual spring suspects began squeezing their red-and-white accordions in the square under our bedroom windows. Listening to them, I just happened to open an email and click a link to the biggest panoramic photo ever taken, “Paris 26 Giga Pixels“, composed of 2,346 individual shots stitched together.

Up came Paris, from the belltower of Saint Sulpice. And up came the accordion waltz from the cult movie “Amélie Poulain.” I closed my eyes. The soundtrack is a masterpiece of nostalgia. Baguettes and berets, Edith Piaf’s raucous croonings, and Robert Doisneau’s black-and-white photos floated above Montmartre painted by Utrillo and Modigliani, the merry-go-round spinning below Sacré Coeur.

The music distills the bittersweet essence of a certain Paris. It’s a Paris much of the world — and many Parisians — desire, a magical city of dreams and memories and merry-go-rounds, abstracted from the globalized, recessionary nitty-gritty of today.I opened my eyes. On screen were the domes and Gothic towers, the neoclassical palaces, the gardens and 19th-Century merry-go-rounds of my home of the last quarter-century. The digital technology is state-of-the-art, the definition astonishingly high. But the high tech didn’t diminish the nostalgic punch.

Carouseling on Amélie’s waltz, clicking, dragging or scrolling, the merry-go-round of images sped up, zooming in and out, unapologetically plucking at heart-strings. The effect was instantaneous and systemic. I reconsidered Paris from a rooftop perspective, eager to see what had changed. I flew to the places I’ve lived and worked in. So much seemed the same, at least outwardly. Better, the panoramic view pushed me out to climb a real tower, revisit Paris, and be an aimless wanderer in spring all over again.

Because the belltower of Saint-Sulpice isn’t accessible, I headed to the Panthéon. En route at arcaded Place des Vosges, the Internauts used free WiFi, blissfully oblivious to the 17th-century bricks and stones. Across the Seine, a carousel spun near giant sycamores in the Jardin des Plantes, Louis XIII’s lush botanical garden. To synthesized calliope music, shrieking todlers rode back in time to the days of their grandparents.

The Panthéon rises atop Montagne Sainte-Geneviève, an awkward imitation of the real Pantheon in Rome . A toothy guard from a former French colony informed me gleefully that the panoramic terrace wouldn’t reopen for another week. In the meantime, there was Foucault’s famous pendulum, and the tombs of France ‘s great and good.

Directly beneath the dome, the pendulum dangled from a wire over 200 feet long. Back and forth it swung in the damp gloom, demonstrating the rotation of the Earth, marking the seconds, minutes, hours and days. It was not the pendulum moving forward, but we the public, the church, the city, the Earth, moving around it.

Mesmerized, it seemed to me that the pendulum’s bob was Paris, marking timelessness, while the rest of the universe spun around. Paris was as eternal as Rome, the Eternal City. The real Paris, of the mind, did not exist and could never age.

By comparison, the vaulted tombs of the country’s great men — and one woman, Marie Curie — left me chilled, an exercise in mildewy propaganda. Rome’s Pantheon, dedicated to the pagan gods, was saved by being consecrated as a church. In Paris, a church was saved from Revolutionary vandalism by becoming a temple to the Republic.

The cult of the Republic may once have been a fine thing. It seems less so now, when France’s anti-immigrant policies and reactionary reinterpretations of liberty, equality and fraternity clash with a spinning Earth of many hues and infinite diversity. In the gift shop a visitor wondered why French patriot Léon Gambetta’s heart was in an urn. The attendant replied that a body part was needed. Clearly the cult of relics had not ended with the Revolution, the visitor remarked, buying a mug emblazoned with “Vive la République.”

Down the street in the Luxembourg Gardens, the merry-go-round turned dreamily. Nearby, children rode ponies. Gaggles of pimply teens fiddled with hand-held devices as others devoured obsolete printed matter. Everyone smoked, even the tennis players.

The pendulum swings, the Earth and the merry-go-rounds spin. Paris stays the same.

Skipping Montparnasse, I aimed for the Eiffel Tower, last experienced by me in 1976. Bookstores in the notoriously literate 6th and 7th arrondissements displayed the sensation of late-winter, La Paresse et l’oubli, a novel by 29-year-old David Rochefort. The title means “sloth and oblivion” or perhaps “laziness and forgetfulness.” The cover is wrapped by a banner promising “Les battailes perdues de la vie” — life’s lost battles.

How someone not yet 30 could know such things, be compared to Flaubert and Balzac, dead for 150 years, and how such a clear-eyed and pessimistic oeuvre could be published and embraced by all in a world of corporate sameness, seem unanswerable questions to non-Parisians. The other big literary noise, this one written with tongue firmly in cheek: Mai 1958: Le Retour du Général de Gaulle. Did he ever go away?

At the Eiffel Tower’s base the requisite merry-go-round wheezed. Accordionists serenaded the waiting lines. Why not hang Foucault’s Pendulum here, I wondered?

Riding up, I calculated the number of merry-go-rounds in Paris. There are dozens. Dozens. But there are many more bookstores selling difficult novels. Both are subsidized, like public transit, health care, and much else. Culture is propped up at both ends of the spectrum. French movies are too. And the Eiffel Tower.

Might that help explain Paris’ abiding popularity even among lovers of free enterprise?

Amélie’s waltz replayed in my mind’s ear as I gazed down at 17 centuries’ worth of cityscape, from the Roman baths at Cluny, to the National Library and other remarkable monstrosities of the 1980s and ’90s. The messy reality of Paris glimpsed from above seemed immeasurably more satisfying than Paris 26 Giga Pixels.

Amid the jumble below I spied two more merry-go-rounds, one in the Tuileries and one in front of City Hall, my next destinations. As I walked through the Tuileries, the same children rode the same ponies. Had they trotted over from the Luxembourg or was I hallucinating?

Beyond the merry-go-round fronting City Hall’s neo-Renaissance façade, the line to enter “Izis: Paris des Rêves,” a photo exhibition, was as long as the lines at the Eiffel Tower. ” Paris through a Dreamer’s Lens” is the French Dream, the European Paradise as dreamed by Izraël Biderman, better known as Izis. A Lithuanian Jew determined to escape persecution, Izis wound up in the City of Light, soon dimmed and Occupied. Like other Jews and undesirables, Izis was hunted by Nazis aided by zealous Frenchmen. But he kept loving Paris. It belonged to him and the world, not his persecutors.

Like those of Doisneau or Brassai or Cartier-Bresson, Izis’s black-and-white photos capture the allure, the sleaze, the enchantingly bleak Paris of the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s. Everyone smokes, especially the Résistance fighters. Everyone dresses in the shades of gray that are fashionable again today. One haunting, wall-sized image shows a merry-go-round in the Tuileries, its battered horses standing out against the snow.

On the sidewalk outside City Hall an outdoor exhibition currently hails 150 years of immigration to Paris. As I walked home past it I thought of Izis, Brassai, Chagall, Picasso, Piaf, Yves Montand and others. Many others. I thought of Chopin, a Pole, and how Paris is celebrating his 200th birthday, as if he were a native son. The cafés I looked into were staffed by immigrants. The restaurants, museums, monuments and City Hall were too. Even the accordionists in the square beneath our windows are immigrants. And so am I.

The pendulum swings, the accordions play, people, politicians and recessions come and go on an ever-spinning merry-go-round. Paris remains.

David Downie is an American writer and journalist based in Paris. He is the author of nine books, including Paris, Paris: Journey into the City of Light and Paris City of Night. He has written for Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Town & Country Travel, Departures, Travel + Leisure,, and His website is

Cockpit Chronicles: Bombed in Paris

I managed to move my schedule around so I’d have the first 9 days of May off. My wife and kids had already left to visit my mother-in-law in Germany, so once I was finished working in April, I hopped on a Lufthansa flight to join up with them. Most pilots would rather have dental reconstruction than have to get on an airplane for their vacation, but, I really do like my mother-in-law, and we were all due for a visit to see her.

By working my schedule to give me so much time off in the beginning of the month, I knew I’d be working without many days off for the rest of May. Sure enough, I managed to cram in a month’s worth of flying into three weeks.

The day after arriving home from Germany, I went out on an early morning Miami turn with Captain Keith. I like to think I’m caught up on the happenings in the airline world, but that all goes out the window when I fly with Keith. He’s the perfect source for the latest happenings in this business and I always feel up to date after flying with him. Unfortunately, I would only be flying the leg down to Miami and then deadheading home. Keith would continue on to Barbados with a Miami co-pilot. It seems the company is running a bit short of pilots and the only way to cover that first leg was to break up the trip–having a Boston co-pilot fly the first part with the remainder flown by the someone from the Miami base.

The next day I had a weekend Paris trip. Everyone is excited to fly to Paris once again. Years ago we flew this trip year-round, but now it’s seasonal-from May until October-and it’s become a very desirable destination for most of the crews. Occasionally the trip will become available to pick up or trade for, so there’s hope, even for those of us at the bottom of the list. My goal was to trade into as many Paris trips as I could hold for the month of May. For a better idea how the seniority system works see this post.
We have one captain and two co-pilots on the flight to Paris. One of the co-pilots works as a ‘relief pilot’ or “FB,” just like the Aruba turns. It’s this pilot’s job to allow the captain and later the co-pilot to take a 2 hour nap back in the business class cabin during the flight. When I can hold Paris trips, it’s usually as an FB as that tends to be the more junior position.

But this time I lucked into the co-pilot position, which meant I’d at least get a landing in the 767, which we hardly ever see on our Caribbean trips out of Boston. Since I was the non-flying pilot (radio operator) for the flight over, I took the third break, which meant I’d come back to the cockpit about 40 minutes before landing and re-familiarize myself with the approach just before we’d start our descent. The flying pilot will typically take the second break in the middle of the flight so they have more time to set up for the arrival.

The air was rather clear and we enjoyed the view of the bright yellow rapeseed mixed in with the lush green patches of land all around France. It’s not until you’re just a few minutes from landing that you see any evidence of a city in the area. Like much of Europe, France has done a great job of avoiding the urban sprawl. The wind was from the east, so the captain, Al, was looking right into the sun for his landing on runway 08 right.

Al mostly flies Caribbean trips. We have a few pilots who would rather stay away from Europe trips all-together, perhaps because of the time zone changes or the terrible exchange rate between the dollar and the euro. Al had been avoiding the Paris flying, but he decided this time he’d give a full month of it a try to see if it would grow on him.

The relief pilot, Dave, brought his wife and 15 year-old son on the trip. It’s a great opportunity for the family to see the sights, and I’m sure pilots and flight attendants relish the chance to show their family that these trips are actually rather tiring. Since my wife was previously a flight attendant for five years with another airline, she already has a good idea. After just one London trip from Boston, she was so exhausted from the time zone changes that she vowed to never again fly internationally.

After just a few of these trips, you develop a system to mitigate some of the fatigue. It’s important to take a nap after arriving. It can be tempting to hit the streets right after checking into the hotel at 9 a.m.–especially when the weather is nice–but that leads to an early evening bedtime, after which you’ll be awake to stare at the clock at midnight finally getting back to sleep just a few hours before the 11 a.m. pickup.

Because of this, almost everyone sleeps for 4 to 5 hours after getting to the hotel. That was the case this time, since Al and I planned to meet up in the lobby at 2 in the afternoon. It helps to have something planned out in advance. This works as a great motivator to drag me out of bed, and it keeps me from falling into the same routine that I tend to do on many of the Paris trips.

I recreated that routine perfectly for Al on this trip. It might start with a visit to the cash machine and/or a visit to the Monoprix grocery store down the street. Al exchanged $20, which gave him only 10.50 Euros. That’s about enough for a few bottles of water, which we set out to find.

We walked north through the Luxembourg Gardens which can be quite amazing. Unfortunately the flowers were only recently planted for the season. But it’s fun to see the kids sailing their rented toy sailboats across the pond. This time I noticed that a few of them had managed to score boats painted up as pirate ships. We stuck around to watch for a while, but there wasn’t enough pillaging from these pirate boats to hold our interest.

There were Italian ice-cream stands all around, but I was especially impressed with the choices this one offered:

We picked up two bottles of water which, even at $4 each, felt great in the 75F/24C degree temperature.

Just north of the Luxembourg Gardens, is the Latin quarter. It’s so named because of the Latin spoken by the students of the Sorbonne University hundreds of years ago. I suspect these students have given up on their conversational Latin though when ordering from a local Starbuck

The narrow, easily walkable streets of this part of the city have made it my favorite hang out. I usually pick up a Crepe Nutella (chocolate crepe) from an outdoor vendor and either stop for a $12.50 pint of Guinness at The Mazet pub, or continue on to the river.

I grabbed a crepe, but I couldn’t interest Al in one, and we elected to skip the pint of Guinness. We walked to Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. At the middle of the bridge is the tip of an island where there’s a grass park. It’s a nice place to hang out, and many couples enjoy the view while having a picnic of wine, bread and cheese there. Al commented on how much nicer it would be to have someone along to share it with (and no, a fellow pilot just doesn’t count). Oh, well. At least the other pilot, Dave, was probably having a good time with his family somewhere in the city.

We strolled around the island, walking past couples sharing their wine and kissing under the warm sun. Families were laughing with their cute French-speaking kids, completely oblivious to our presence. An artist was finishing a charcoal drawing of a couple across the river who were staring into each other’s eyes. Just then, BAM, a pigeon flew over Al and crapped on his leg and his water bottle.

Fortunately I knew of a free bathroom just a few hundred feet away. Al dropped his half full water bottle into the trash and he went into the bathroom to wash the lower part of his left pant leg off. He tried to dry it off with toilet paper before giving up and sitting out in the sun to let it air dry. I felt rather lucky to avoid the pigeon’s bomb run.

It was time to continue our walk, so we went east away from Pont Neuf to Île Saint-Louis, which has some really nice restaurants and a wonderful place to grab an Italian ice-cream. It also has some of the most expensive real estate in Paris.

We worked our way back to the Latin quarter where we planned to meet up with some of the flight attendants at 5 p.m. We had intended to have dinner together at a nice restaurant, but unfortunately, they were across the city and couldn’t make it in time. Stood up AND crapped on–what more could Paris offer? We decided to go to a cafe nearby.

After picking a great table next to the sidewalk, I ordered something I’ve never had in Paris before. A cheeseburger and fries–for just $23. If you can stop choking about the price, the cheeseburger was surprisingly good. It was cooked perfectly-not overdone at all-and the seasoning was ideal.

It was still rather early when we started to walk back towards the hotel. We passed the Paris Observatory on the way and I took a few pictures of it as the sun went down. They give tours just a few times a year, but the price is a steep 120 Euros.

I showed Al the bike owned by one of our captains that’s locked up near the hotel. He brought it over a few pieces at a time and assembled it. Not a bad way to get around the city. A note to the owner, Captain John: I checked the tires, they’re holding air well.

We stopped in at the crew lounge in the hotel, where pilots and flight attendants from different airlines often get together, eating cheese and sampling Monoprix wine. We could have had a few drinks there, since our flight left almost 18 hours later, but I was just too tired to visit much and since it was mother’s day, I wanted to try to call my wife and mom with Skype to wish them a happy mother’s day. Unfortunately the call quality was really bad, no doubt because of the slow connection at the hotel.

It’s best if you can stay awake until at least 1 a.m. Any earlier and there’s no way you’ll be able to sleep all the way through. I just couldn’t keep awake for another 4 hours, so I broke the night’s sleep into two parts–a 2 hour nap and another longer doze that lasted 6 hours. 8 hours is about the most sleep you can get out of these trips, if you’re lucky.

The next morning we visited with the rest of the crew before getting on the bus that takes us to the airport. Everyone had pretty much scattered to do their own thing the day before. And even Dave and his wife had dropped their exhausted son back at the hotel room before going out to Sacré Cœur and seeing the sights.

I thought it might be a nice thing for Dave to fly my leg back to Boston, since his family was on board. I’ve had another pilot do this for me (when my family was on board), so I figured it was time to spread the favor to someone else. Naturally the pressure was on Dave to make a great landing back in Boston and of course he did a wonderful job.

I have three more Paris trips this month. If you have any recommendations for things I must see or do, feel free to leave them in the comments. I might do a Versailles bike tour on one of the trips, but I’m open to suggestions for something new. Maybe you can help me break from my typical routine. (Update: I just got my schedule for next month. 6 more Paris trips! Is it possible to run out of things to do there? We’ll soon find out!)

To see more pictures from the trip, take a look at the gallery below. Thanks for coming along!


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.