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Vas is das? Paris, Paris, Paris, Paris!

When I first moved to Paris in 1986 I lived in a 7th-floor walk-up apartment with no window. It had a skylight — at the top of a long shaft. “Not much of a view,” I remarked cheerfully — I was in my twenties and Paris was a lark. “Climb up and look out of the vas is das,” suggested a friend. Baffled, I obeyed, using a long ladder from the hallway. The view was magnificent — Paris rooftops, cupolas, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower snagging clouds, far across town.

“What’s a ‘vas is das'” I asked, once I’d climbed down the ladder. My friend told me the origin of this Germanic-sounding word. Whether it’s a true story or not, I’ve never forgotten it. Apparently when the Germans took over during the Occupation, they searched buildings from the cellars to the rafters. They were perplexed — as I was — by the tiny, usually grimy little skylights in the roofs of Paris. “Vas is das?” they demanded. “What is this?”

Here’s a view of the rooftop of the building where I now have an office. It’s not the vas-is-das of 25 years ago, but looks exactly the same. And I still have a view of rooftops, cupolas, and the Eiffel Tower (not shown), plus Notre Dame. So, “vas is das?” A wonderful, pigeon-eye view of the world’s favorite city!

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