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Two Faces of Paris
|by Barbara Lewis|
Paris excels in window-dressing its many assets; it is regarded across the world as the city of light, city of romance, of art, romance, style and sophistication. The reality of life in Paris, though, is not all glamour and architectural beauty. As the philosophical French are all too well aware, tourists often enjoy Paris far more than its permanent residents do.
In fact, over the intense summer months, when pollution levels rise in the heat, the majority of Parisians abandon the capital and head to the French coast, the mountains or perhaps abroad. They return en masse at the beginning of September for 'la rentree', as the French refer to the beginning of the school academic year.
The Parisians who stayed back and visiting tourists find a relatively empty capital. That has its benefits too - free street parking (traffic wardens require their summer holidays as well) and apartments easily available on rent, as some of the more business-like Parisians rent out their homes while they are away.
This summer migration has darker consequences as well.
Two years after the heat wave that killed over 10,000 people across France (in August 2003), people are still grappling with their consciences. Paris - where temperatures soared to 38.1 degrees Celsius and, more crucially, failed to cool down at night - was quite severely impacted. During the holiday period, the already run-down health service in Paris was woefully understaffed, adding to the damage caused by the heat wave.
Many of the victims were elderly persons, living alone in cramped, airless apartments. The thousands of deaths showed how many French people had no one to care for them. The 1999 census, in fact, found that one in eight city-dwellers in France lives alone. The census also recorded that Paris has a total population of around 11 million - more than one-sixth of the nation's total population of around 61 million. That's a lot of lonely people in one place!
The 2003 crisis also highlighted the problematic Parisian work ethic. Former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, already under fire for his 'late response' to the heat wave, had proposed the scrapping of several public holidays in the month of May to generate tax revenue to help look after the nation's older citizens. This generated heated public demonstrations and protests. However terrible the French might have felt about the 2003 deaths, they were quick to take to the streets carrying 'no to free work' placards. Raffarin has since resigned.
A flagging economy appears to be kindling the discontent further. Analysts question whether France is capable of meeting its forecast of between 2 and 2.5 per cent growth in Gross Domestic Product this year, and unemployment has stubbornly held at around 10 per cent. This, in spite of a shortened working week - only 35 hours - in an attempt to create more jobs.
Paris has other reasons too for being less than smug. In July this year, Paris lost the 2012 Olympic Games bid. Instead, London will stage the event - for once stealing the march on Paris, which Londoners envy for its leisurely cafï¿½ culture, efficient transport system and harmonious architecture. When all is said and done, though, Paris continues to dominate the cultural consciousness of Europe.
Away from the main tourist attractions, such as the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower, Parisians seek out lesser-known pleasures. The city's streets are filled with music during the midsummer Fete de la Musique in June and there is also a permanent music scene, notably for jazz. One of the most famous venues is New Morning, where greats such as Miles Davis, Chet Baker and Dizzy Gillespie have played.
Another cool Parisian pastime is cinema. The capital has a host of intimate, art-house venues, showing non-commercial films to cognoscenti. For picnicking Parisians, there is also the annual Cinema en Plein Air - in the Parc de la Villette on the northeastern edge of the capital, in July and August - which screens classic films beneath the stars.
Autumn culture includes the Festival d'Automne (Autumn Festival), a highbrow programme of theatre, music, dance and cinema that runs from September to December.
Less intellectually taxing is the annual grape harvest festival - the Fï¿½te des Vendanges - in October. This festival celebrates the harvest from the vineyards of hilly, village-like Montmartre in north Paris, which has been harvesting grapes for wine since Roman times.
Montmartre is also home to the grandiose, white basilica of Sacre Coeur. From the top of the church dome, there is a panoramic view in all directions extending over 30 kilometres. You can also see the Place du Tertre from here, considered a haunt for 'artists'. In the earlier days, many famous artists have lived in this area. Picasso and Modigliani were among the guests at the Lapin Agile, a cabaret, where traditional French songs dating back to the 15th-century are still performed.
One thing Paris lacks is the extensive, grassy parks that provide the lungs of central London, but it does have its share of smaller open spaces and squares. One of the most arrestingly beautiful is the Place des Vosges in central Paris. The capital's oldest public square, it was begun by King Henri IV in 1605. Now tourists and Parisians alike sit beneath the lush horse-chestnut trees, gaze up at the crumbling red-brick architecture that surrounds the square and almost certainly forget the welter of discontent that lurks beneath the seductive, Parisian faï¿½ade.
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