Paris is certainly one of the world’s most romantic cities. The charming avenues, iconic Eiffel Tower, street cafés and galleries combine with its subversive streak to create a culture of freedom and possibility that sparks the imagination and quickens the heart.
This romantic power comes from a passionate commitment to the ordinary. Essential simplicity is cross-bred with the meaning of life. Authentic, basic and real is done with excellence, while the extraordinary is handled with the familiarity of the seasoned artisan. A bookseller, working from a blue metal box next to the Seine River carries the same air as the Director of the Louvre. Nothing is complicated, even when it’s complex, and everything is taken for granted with fierce possessiveness. The place is a paradox and I’m in love with Paris.
The city may empty your pocket but it will definitely enliven your spirit.
It is also an amazing place to multisport. And many people do – more, perhaps, than in any other city I’ve visited recently. Runners and, of course, cyclists abound, often in large packs. Long, crisp loaves of bread are carried along, and coffee is enjoyed, as part of the outing. Sport seems to be as much a part of everyday Parisian life as are foie gras and onion soup.
So does sitting around in the evening, taking ages to have a simple snack and a glass of pastis before dinner. One old wooden board, a few slices of cold sausage, a small round of butter, and, of course, wedges of elongated loaf hacked off and plonked down by the waiter, create a King’s Feast.
To give you an idea of how institutionalised this evening practice is, over two litres of pastis are consumed per person per year in France in this manner. That’s pretty impressive, considering that it is usually diluted one part alcohol with five parts water. Slightly more for kids, since the herb spirit, flavoured with anise and liquorice root, is further fortified with sugar after bottling at a minimum of 40% ABV. Paris really is about doing the basics with excellence and flair, while taking the marvellous for granted.
Fundamental, ordinary life is tackled with the learned nonchalance of the truly skilled. For example, the bicycles being raced up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, around the Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile and back down again, are mostly reliable, old, straightforward machines, ridden with all of the passion that makes the Tour de France the sporting highlight that it is. All the while the participants in this everyday race seem unaffected by the grandiosity of the sculptured arch, built by Napoleon in 1806.
Bread is treated in a familiar way. Long crisp loaves, hiding soft succulent centres are carried under arm or sticking out of a small green handbag. Waiters manhandle it without apology and it lies around on café tabletops until wanted. But slap a hunk of that yeasty heaven together with a ripe brie from Provence and a glass from the Champagne valley, and you’ll be in a high state of ecstasy that only a Parisian could enjoy without showing a tremor.
Okay, so this is not Gastro-Traveller Monthly. It’s a multisport magazine. So here’s the point – we multisporters might be Parisians for how we make a fuss of the simple while handling the extraordinary as commonplace.
A bicycle is a common means of transport for most. But we save for ages and debate hotly with our closest friends, before choosing the right one which we wipe with its own special soft cloth and keep in the bedroom.
That piece of green belt next to the road, which is driven by thousands of commuters each day, is our secret playground. We park, strip down and run there with the passion of a five-year-old on his first surfboard.
That pretty bay, where they park to watch the whales, is our weekly nemesis. Wearing little, we do great things, learning to breath against the windy waves as we swim its breadth.
Yet, despite this uncharacteristic celebration of the ordinary, we handle the magnificent with little fuss. Listen to this: It is not normal to run 11 kays to work and then another 11 home again. It is not usual to be talking about the marathon of last weekend, and the cycle race of next, as you get out of the pool at the gym. It is not common to be forty-something and ripped from challenging nature most days. You think it is, because you have come to take these marvellous things for granted.
Tell me when, anytime, and I’ll meet you at Les Deux Magots. We can have a simple few hours of hard exercise, and then marvel over a piece of bread and a small coffee. We eccentric creatures will be in excellent company.