John R. MacArthur is publisher of Harper’s Magazine and author of the book You Can’t Be President: The Outrageous Barriers to Democracy in America. This column originally appeared in the April 14, 2010 Providence Journal.
Was there ever a better setting for the debut of spring than Paris? I doubt it. Having just been there, I’m convinced that somewhere in a basement laboratory hidden on the rue des Francs Bourgeois, a reclusive genius is constantly at work ensuring that early spring (not the iconic “April in Paris”) remains a time when even the most dedicated right-wing French-bashers might succumb to the charms of the city and the people they claim to loathe.
Mind you, the weather was pretty bad, although I’ve been through much worse. As the third child of a French war bride, I’ve spent a great deal of time in my mother’s country, and it hasn’t always been pleasant. You’ve probably heard of the heat wave of 2003, when nearly 15,000 people died in non-air-conditioned misery. (Oh, those French hypocrites, with their supposedly splendid “social model”!) I wasn’t in France at the height of that public-service failure, but I did experience the canicule of 1976, which was awful enough. Fans were sold out everywhere that summer and my mother’s little two-room pied à terre on the Boulevard Exelmans turned stifling in the late afternoon. Since the apartment overlooked a very noisy underpass, and it was too hot to close the windows, I didn’t get much sleep that trip.
And, in January 1981, I landed at Charles de Gaulle at night in a tremendous ice and slush storm; it was all I could do to get on a packed bus that crawled from the arrival terminal in Roissy to the bus station at the Porte Maillot. I’ve never seen Paris so paralyzed — indeed, I’ve never experienced an ice storm of such intensity anywhere, not even in my hometown of Chicago.
But on this visit, I only had to deal with cold rain — every variety of it. Our first day, Sunday, there was a very fine and chilly rain, more than a mist but not enough to drench us. We took a taxi to the Marché bio (Paris’s wonderful outdoor organic food market) on the Boulevard Raspail and found that two little fold-up umbrellas were more than enough to keep my wife, our two daughters, and me dry. When the rain picked up, we simply took shelter under the overhang of the market stalls. What a pleasure, though, to find refuge in front of such a vast array of cheeses, sausages, fruits, vegetables and seafood, in some respects the greatest show of all in a place that specializes in breathtaking public-art exhibitions.
Because we were late to the market, I got the last remaining sole, but since four fillets weren’t enough for our dinner, my wife bought shrimp from Madagascar as a supplement. When we noticed the quizzical actress-director Julie Delpy, I was tempted to ask the discriminating comedienne whether “bio” baguettes were any good, but I wouldn’t ask a stranger such a personal question in socially conservative France (in fact, the bread wasn’t great; everything else was).
As we left the market at its bottom end on the Rue de Rennes, it started raining a little harder; with no cabs in sight, we took the metro home. By the time we emerged in the seventh arrondissement at the Ecole Militaire station, the rain had stopped, and we did something my wife is always remarking on in Paris, something we never do in New York: We watched the clouds. There is nothing like an overcast Parisian sky, with its ominous gray and its undulations above what is still essentially, a flat (except for Montmartre), low-rise city, broken only by church towers, the Tour Montparnasse and, of course, the Eiffel Tower. For me, the one remotely comparable sky is on film, in Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up,” though it takes place in London. With hardly any tall buildings to block one’s view, the Paris pedestrian is free to gaze at a constantly shifting assortment of cumuli, which doesn’t necessarily require intervals of sun to make it interesting.
Well, as I said, not necessarily. On Wednesday (Tuesday brought heavy rain during our shopping tour in Marais neighborhood) we took a stroll along the very bourgeois Rue de Passy in the seventh arrondissement. After an excellent pizza lunch on the Rue de l’Annonciation, we found ourselves in the Place de Passy, stuck in a genuine downpour and buffeted by strong winds. Huddling under the awning of a DVD stall outside the Marché de Passy, we realized we needed a more aggressive strategy to deal with the weather. I remembered passing an eccentric street merchant selling big, stout-looking umbrellas. Two for 20 euros did the trick for the four of us, and we re-embarked in a westerly direction, past La Muette metro, through the lovely Jardin de Ranelagh, and on to the Musée Marmottan, with its extraordinary Monet collection.
Even if you never wanted to be a painter in the City of Light, or anywhere else for that matter, how could you resist the temptation to try your hand at it after seeing the sun come out, suddenly and brilliantly, following a violent rain storm in a Paris park on the last day of March. In America, at least the parts I know, rainstorms have a beginning, middle and definite end. Not in Paris, where on this particular day the sun and rain seemed to alternate as often as the lead changed hands in the Duke-Butler NCAA championship final. Hard rain would begin and, “Oh, not again. Will this ever stop?” Then slanting sun backed by patches of blue would appear and, “Oh, have you ever seen anything more lovely!”
I suppose there’s aesthetic competition somewhere for Paris’s extravagantly beautiful spring sky-life. But I haven’t seen it yet. The next time I go, I hope it will rain.