Rolling retro-style (and doing laundry) in Paris
August 25, 2010 by Rolf Potts
There was a time when, believe it or not, I thought Paris was no big deal. This was before I had ever been there — back in the days when I was living and traveling in Asia. At the time, I was so enamored with places like Bangkok and Varanasi and Ulan Bator that I thought Paris would be a bore by comparison. I was wrong, of course: Not only is Paris a fascinating place; it is (in ways that are more subtle than you might think) my top candidate for the most beautiful city in the world.
Paris is, however, not always easy to write about. As the English author Evelyn Waugh wrote in 1930: “The characteristic thing about Paris is not so much the extent — though that is vast — as the overwhelming variety of its reputation. It has become so overlaid with successive plasterings of paste and proclamation that it has come to resemble those rotten old houses one sometimes sees during their demolition, whose crumbling frame of walls is only held together by the solid strata of wallpapers. What, after all these years, can we say about Paris?”
Eighty years later, it’s still hard to write about Paris without feeling like you’re saying something trite. I first visited Paris (from Asia) in 2002, and since then I’ve returned seven times to teach nonfiction classes at the Paris American Academy summer writing workshop. Still, I’ve written far more about places like Thailand or Egypt than France, since my Paris experiences have been less centered on rigorous travel reportage than long walks and good wine.
For the most part, this visit was no exception: I spent a fair amount of my 36-hour no-luggage visit in an American Academy apartment, catching up on blog entries and shooting a video about my laundry routine (see above) — and when I did get out into the city, I didn’t explore any new places. I did, however have the privilege of seeing some standard places in a new way: from the back of vintage Citroën 2CV, on an auto tour that a friend of a friend in Paris set up for me.
Before I visited France, I didn’t know a thing about the 2CV (French for “deux chevaux fiscaux”, or two-tax horsepower); I just assumed that those funky, Beetle-looking cars were some squarish, rag-top model of Volkswagen. As it turns out, this model of Citroën is one of the most classic cars of the mid-20th century — as beloved and iconic as the Land Rover, the Jeep, and the VW Beetle. Built at low cost and designed to be simple, reliable, and versatile, the small 2CV had an unconventional design and was marketed to the common Frenchman. Critics mocked the model when it debuted in 1948 (“Does it come with a can opener?” one auto journalist quipped), but it eventually captured the French imagination. Nearly four million 2CVs were sold during its 42-year production run, and the car even made a chase-scene cameo in a James Bond movie (1981’s For Your Eyes Only).
My 2CV was a 1960s model driven by a French college student named Mikael, and (in addition to the sites of the city, and watching Mikael aggressively navigate the chaotic traffic) half the fun was watching French people react when we buzzed past. Imagine the reaction you’d get cruising around Washington’s monument district in a vintage Model T, and you get a sense for how the French regard their “people’s car.” Though I had already seen all the Paris landmarks we passed during my late-afternoon car tour, it was a kick to see those sights from a quirky new perspective.
The following morning I got a no-baggage bonus in Paris. Where normally I might have just sat in a cafe with my luggage and killed a couple hours between apartment-checkout and my onward flight to Madrid (yes, I took an EasyJet flight — not as romantic as Eurail, but literally ten times cheaper), my utter lack of bags allowed me to simply get dressed and hit the city before taking the RER train to the airport.
I ended up wandering the Luxembourg Gardens for a little over an hour. I’d been there before, of course — I go for runs there a couple times a week when I’m visiting each July — but I still managed to make some new discoveries (how on earth had I previously missed the bocce court?) and relax by the central fountains.
That’s what I love about returning to places like Paris: Even if you think you know the city (or a given park) intimately, there’s always something new to experience.
Note: My vintage Citroën 2CV tour came compliments of Experience Paris, with assistance from the excellent Karen Fawcett. A 2CV tour similar to my mine would cost about 99 Euros. Thanks also to Peter Carman and my colleagues at the Paris American Academy for setting me up with an apartment during my time in the city.