I know Paris. I love Paris. I spoke French before I spoke English. I love tartare. I thrive on the Bordeaux and I cherish the Sauvignons. I get my art fix at the Orsay, inhaling Impressionists like asthmatics inhale Albuterol. I’ve slept in the Hospitel-Hotel Dieu, the oldest hospital in Paris whose skylights open to the Notre Dame, and I’ve napped in The Tuilleries. I’ve breathed the night soil in Les Egouts de Paris, The Paris Sewers.
This Paris, however, was a Paris I’d never seen before. My friend and I visited La Defense with Alexandra, our Paris Greeter, a lady who takes on the world riding a motorized scooter.
La Defense, the Manhattan of Paris, is perpetually new. It sits at the very end of the #1 metro line, 20 minutes from the Louvre. So close and yet so far. It’s all pedestrian, a modern urban ensemble of parks, fountains, statues, and glitzy new buildings. No cars in La Defense, except for occasional garbage trucks and delivery vehicles. Young children play in the street, skateboarders zoom around, old people play boule, new lovers lay by the fountains romancing each other in French.
New buildings get demolished to be replaced by newer, taller, shinier ones. They’re mostly offices but also social residences for the needy. The waitlist is up to 10 years.
The whole Ensemble de La Defense is built above the ground, higher than the rest of Paris. The dark, hidden ground level belongs to the cars. Up above, the sun caresses the people, reflects in the buildings and filters the green light in the parks
Alexandra doesn’t do stairs, so we take the delivery road. We emerge into light halfway between the Arc de Triomphe and its younger sister, La Grande Arche de la Defense, in a mostly deserted space of modern buildings and functional urban art. The statues, the benches, even the chimneys are art, covered in modern style colored designs or air cleansing greenery. There’s a yearly contest for the best outdoor entertainment area and the winning project gets to stay.
Alexandra then takes us to Courbevoie, her quartier. The French-style McDonalds serves beer with their burgers. They were the first in Paris to offer wheelchair-accessible bathrooms. The second floor is a de-facto workspace. You can use the wi-fi for the price of a coffee. It’s packed, especially on Sundays when the public libraries are closed.
Alexandra teaches us how to tell the good Boulangers from the other ones. It’s the Eclairs. If they’re perfect, they aren’t fait-maison – homemade. Look for imperfections – chocolat dripping, irregular shape, imperfect glaze. Les macarons, shiny as jewels, the ruby red fraise, the amber chocolat and the jade-colored pistachio are all fait-maison, light as air and prettier than Christmas ornaments.
She takes us to her favorite mid-eastern boulangerie, where baklavas and cataifs soaked in butter and dripping with honey are piled high for Ramadan. She loves this “truc,” a sticky brown pretzel covered in sesame seeds. The boulanger offers us a taste. He sets hers gently on the arm of her scooter. She picks it up with the two functional fingers of her left hand. Her right hand never moves. I want to know but I don’t dare ask.
She tells us anyhow. She was born this way. “I’m very lucky. When children like me were barely taught to read, my mother insisted that I get an education. I went to school, I learned languages, I got a good professional education. I’m an engineer.”
We talk about education. The French education system starts at 10 weeks old with free childcare. L’Ecole Maternelle starts at three. It’s also free and it’s about to become mandatory in order to foster cultural integration and teach French. France feels a deep responsibility for all her children.
Alexandra tells us about living with limited mobility. Some stores make her angry. “Ils n’ont pas brise la marche, they didn’t break the step.” she says, showing us the high step up from the street into the shops. For her on her scooter, that step may as well be a mountain. “It’s the law, but they find excuses. They don’t care, so I won’t give them my money. You don’t break the step, you don’t get my money,” she yells.
Others did. We visit her bakery, where the buttery smell of croissants and the scent of fresh-baked bread makes me dizzy. She waves and smiles at the “tres sympa,” very cute young owner of her neighborhood bar. That’s where she stops for drinks.
We end back at La defense, under her chosen finale: ‘La piece de resistence’ is an immense concrete arched roof held up by the abstract laws of physics alone, spanning over a wide mall. The French engineer in her is proud.
She takes her time saying goodbye. She tells us about her organization, “Les greeters de Paris,” Paris greeters, a volunteer organization showing off Paris. She’s one of their few English speaking guides. She loves sharing her life and experience with those who care. We do. We are grateful and humbled. Alexandra showed me a face of Paris I didn’t know and a life that makes me humble.
Merci, Alexandra. This trip to Paris was like no other thanks to you. Until we meet again.