Falling for Paris in the Fall: Part One

Yes, I love springtime in Paris. But I might just prefer fall. The colors of autumn leaves, the sudden crispness in the air, the food, the promise of uninterrupted sleep—something impossible these days in summertime Paris. All these things and many more make me a huge fan of l’automne à Paris.

Those who gripe that the “thrill” of autumn rhymes with “chill” don’t realize that it’s the chill that adds atmosphere to the city, and cloaks it in seductive silence. Climate change or global warming or whatever it is generally provides SoCal weather in Paris now from mid-April to mid-October. Enough already with the heat, the parched soil, the crowds, dust and round-midnight diners chortling under our windows!

As everyone knows fall isn’t merely l’automne in Paris anyway, it’s mainly la rentrée. That’s the re-entry, as I’ve pointed out in many an article and even a book or three.

This year’s “political re-entry” has been heat-wave hot, with the Socialists gunning for the presidential elections of May 2012, and holding their own ground-breaking primaries. The incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy and his men are gnashing their teeth in frustration and anger. The left has stolen the show.

This means the pols have had no time to notice the change in season, and the sunset beauty of the city in autumn.

The horse chestnut trees everywhere in town are nearly barren by now, and their plump, inedible fruit, marrons d’Inde (horse chestnuts) are all over the ground. They’re under the feet of the second-hand booksellers along Seine-side sidewalks, in the Bois de Vincennes and Bois de Boulogne, and, most evocatively, they fill the Luxembourg Gardens and the most gorgeous cemetery in the world, Pere-Lachaise.

Some chestnut-lovers clearly think of Proust in this season, and make offerings of marrons on his tomb at Pere-Lachaise (that’s what this strange still-life is all about).

As I walk the October streets of Paris, Paris – my double-headed, double-edged city of light and city of night – I can’t help being seduced all over again, every day, as I was when I first moved here over a quarter of a century ago. Yes, I moved into my maid’s room in April of 1986, but I came up and rented it in October, 1985, and spent a magical time in this place that would soon be my home.

From the aesthetic standpoint, each year Paris becomes not only more desirable but more intelligible in fall. When the lindens and sycamores and those horse chestnuts denude themselves the perspectives, the layout of the city, seem to change. Paris has been photo-shopped into something wonderfully stripped down. The light changes. Color is more saturated. Brick leaps into life. And a wealth of architectural details pops out. Look up at the keystones, garlands, composite and Corinthian capitals, the masks and gargoyles, or the ironwork on a million balconies.

Ah, you exclaim, the maddening symmetry finally makes sense, a universe of stone dreamed up 150 years ago by Baron Haussmann at the behest of Emperor Napoleon III!

The newfound chill in the air doesn’t discourage the intrepid. It revitalizes some of us. Out into the world we go, come rain or whatever—you provide the shine.

Even the most insensitive visitor can’t help being impressed by the sheer number of café and restaurant terraces that sprout on every flat surface in town, spilling chairs temptingly into the path of pedestrians year round. Yes, the terraces do stay open even in inclement weather.

Looming on the near horizon is Halloween—no longer just a silly thing Americans celebrate. And that perennial favorite of guzzlers: the bibulous annual swilling of Beaujolais Nouveau. As everyone knows the Parisians are unlikely to uncork Château Margaux and Romanée Conti in July and August, so fall is awaited with taste-buds on high alert: time for real food, and real wine.

Come back soon and read part two… in the meantime, you’ll always have Paris, Paris…

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All photos copyright David Downie 2011

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