April in Paris, rain, rainbows and all
By Jerry Marterer
April rainbow in Paris. Images provided by the author.
We had never visited Paris in April. A late-March conference in London allowed us to us to extend our trip and take the channel tunnel to Paris for un sejour of two weeks. We arrived on March 30. The next day I boarded the Number 8 metro at the Ècole-Militaire to go browse the art at the Drouot auction house. During the brief stop at the Opéra station, I glanced out the window and saw that the blue letters on the white tile read Apéro (slang for aperitif) instead of Opéra. Something was wrong!
Then it hit me. It was April 1. I bought a newspaper at my stop and read that 12 other metro stops had their names altered for the day. At the auction house, some of the young clerks were kidding around with paper fish drawings. This was my first exposure to the holiday known as Poisson d’Avrilor “April Fish”! It starts the day with schoolchildren drawing pictures of fish, cutting them out, then trying to tape them on the backs of other children. Adults sometimes join the fun. The goal is to have the recipient go walking around unaware he is an April Fish, the equivalent of the April Fool.
Digging a bit, I learned the legend of an edict by King Charles IX changing the first day of the year from April 1 (the start of the planning season) to January 1, the Julian calendar. Some of the rural folks didn’t accept the change and were seen as bumpkins. At the time, April 1 was the end of Lent during which fish was eaten instead of meat, so paper fish became the joke.
French newspapers delight in furthering April Fish hoaxes in April first headlines. Some historic gems:
“The Académie Française announced today that French nouns will no longer have male or female genders.”
“European motorists soon required to drive on the left side of the road to accommodate British drivers after the European Common Market begins.”
“Negotiations have begun with China to relocate giant pandas to the Pyrenees to repopulate the bear population.”
“The French game of ‘Boules’ will soon be banned as a dangerous sport.”
“The Eiffel Tower will be moved to the Euro Disney Theme Park west of Paris.”
“Since Germans have no speed limit of their autobahns, the European commission has decided to allow German drivers to drive as fast as they want in the other EC countries.”
By April 2 I had gotten over my disorientation, but I found that I had the “April in Paris” song in my head, and I couldn’t shake it. It was the Ella Fitzgerald big band version:
April in Paris,
Chestnuts in blossom,
Holiday tables, under the treeeeeees
More than 50 songs have been written about April, many of them downers that include references to rain. T. S. Elliot wrote: “April is the cruelest month, breeding / Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing / Memory and desire, stirring / Dull roots with spring rain.”
It was raining almost every day. I was fast concluding that when Yip Harburg wrote “April in Paris” in 1932, he must have just been looking for a two-syllable month. July and August were out of the question since most Parisians leave town during the canicule or dog days of summer, so April won. But the lovely words do not accurately describe April in Paris. It’s true that April showers bring May flowers, but why would anyone want to sit through the showers part for a whole month?
Umbrellas in hand, we took the Number 8 Métro to the Grands Boulevards stop and walked the nearly-200-year-old covered passages in the ninth arrondissement. We made an afternoon visit to the Louvre. A gloomy day was ideal for appreciating art at a relaxed pace. Colder, damper weather also led to long, relaxed lunches at restaurants that evoked a warm country-style auberge, like the Brasserie de l’île St Louis. It’s brusque waiters and heaping platters of Alsatian choucroute garnie made us forget the cold and rain.
Brasserie de l’île St Louis (left) and Brasserie Saint-Malo (right).
France is the birthplace of cinema. It is known as their Seventh Art, after Architecture Sculpture, Painting, Music, Poetry and Dance. Paris has the highest density in the world of cinemas per inhabitant, and France is the most successful film industry in Europe. This makes going to the cinema a prime rainy-day activity. There are two major chains of cinemas in Paris, UGC and Gaumont. Their multiplexes boast up to 20 theaters, which are open daily. Dozens of one-of-a-kind cinemas can be found in neighborhoods. Paris is in many nice ways a “back to the 50s” experience.
To help us decide where to go, we consult the weekly Paris Spectacle. It costs one euro and lists all concerts, art exhibits and what is playing at all cinemas. Knowing the “code” helps. French films are in French with no subtitles, but there are always some films from the U.S., U.K. or other Anglophone countries. The countries of origin are always identified, and if VO (version originale) is indicated, the film will be in the language of that country. We usually stick with U.S. and U.K. films in English with French subtitles. But beware, many of these take on a new title in France, so a little internet research will help. At the cinema, kiosks in the lobby are used to choose the film, select available seats and play with your credit card. Popcorn and candy are available as in the U.S.
We always seem to end up at the Gaumont complex in Montparnasse. With 19 screens there is always at least one VO film we like, and it’s a short ride on the 92 bus. We prefer start times between two and three p.m. That way we can buy our tickets then have a leisurely lunch at the Brasserie Saint-Malo across the street from the cinema. I always order the salade de chèvre chaude (warm goat cheese salad) and my wife loves their soupe à l'oignon because of the way the cheese topping is served.
The Paris bus system is extensive. There are 16 metro lines but 58 bus lines. Many of them cross the city. Most visitors to Paris figure out the métro system but don’t consider using the bus system because the routes are less visible. Riding a bus can be a great rainy-day activity. There are no stairs to descend or climb. The bus actually lowers itself to the curb when it stops. Buses can avoid the worst traffic since the main streets have bus-only lanes. There are never any vagrants sleeping on a bus and no musicians expecting tips. For some reason, bus riders are more genial. The driver greets everyone. (Don’t forget to say bonjour!) Younger riders usually stand so that us older folks can sit. Buses are great for sightseeing as you cross the city.
Some buses are legendary, like the No. 69 that starts near the Eiffel Tower, travels past the Esplanade des Invalides, then crosses to the right bank and alongside the Louvre and the Hotel de Ville (City Hall) and through the luxury Saint-Germain neighborhood; then it’s on to the Bastille, ending at the Père Lachaise cemetery, where Americans seem to always go to see Jim Morrison’s grave. On the return, the bus runs past the Marais and the Place des Vosges, past the Palais-Royal then right through the seemingly too-small entrance to courtyard of the Louvre past the I. M. Pei glass pyramid. Metro tickets can be used on the bus, but not vice versa. Metro tickets are sold in the stations, and the best deal is the unlimited ride pass, called the Mobilis, which can be purchased for one, two or three days at a cost of 12.30, 20.00 and 27.30 euros. You can get on and off as many times as you wish. A single ride ticket is 1.90 euros, still slightly less than on the bus.
I. M. Pei pyramid at the Louvre
Back to the rain. Near the end of our stay, after dinner one evening, we glanced out our apartment window that overlooks the dome of the Invalides and beheld what makes rain tolerable, a stunning rainbow arching over the dome. My son Brian was quick with his fancy camera and captured it.
There should have been a rainbow in that song.