Our regular columnist Stephen Clarke gives expert tips on summertime in Paris
Summer is a time of great possibilities in my home town of Paris. I don’t just mean wandering through the Jardins des Tuileries, trying to imagine Emperor Napoléon III doing the same with his glamorous courtiers before the Republicans generously opened his private walkways to the public; or sitting on a café terrace and giving thanks to the European Union for subsidising France’s cheese and wine industries. No, there is an even better thing you can do in summer – become a Parisian.
I’m not necessarily talking about a full mutation. It’s tough to morph into a true Parisian; it has taken me the best part of 20 years and even now there are still occasions when I am much too easy-going to be a native. When, for example, I am sitting in the Tuileries, as I was the other day, and order a beer at an open-air café using the correct technical term for a small 25-centilitre glass – un demi – and the waiter asks “grand ou petit?” I don’t guffaw and ask him “who do you think I am – a tourist?” (Which is exactly what I used to do.) Nor do I enquire whether he has forgotten everything he learned at catering school (which is what a Parisian friend once did, only to wait hours for his beer to arrive). No, I just frown philosophically and say “un demi, 25 centilitres, merci,” thereby clearing up this unfortunate, and no doubt accidental, misunderstanding.
Parisians are easily roused to confrontation, which is the one area of life in the city where I try to differ from them. They seem to have got everything else right, which is why it can be intimidating for visitors who arrive for a few days and have to take a crash course.
The great thing about summer, and August in particular, is that Paris is so free of Parisians. They are the first to boast about this. Anyone who isn’t going away in August will tell you that they love the city then – it’s so quiet (they usually mean the kids are away, staying with grandparents), the office is empty (the boss is absent, so lunch breaks border on the infinite), and the neighbours are all in a good mood (because so many of the other occupants of the building are not there).
Because so few Parisians are around, it gives the visitor the chance to take their place. It’s rather like being an actor’s stand-in. The star of the production is away making a perfume ad? You can step in and play their part. There might not be many spectators, because they come to see the star, but at least you get your opportunity on stage.
In August, you are able to wander into the poshest department store, try on ten things and buy one – or none – and wish the sales assistants “bonne journée”, then glide out as if you own the world, and no one will bother you.
You can come to Paris and show the waiters you know exactly how to order a meal, including making little alterations to the menu. “Cette salade sans le jambon, s’il vous plait” is a perfectly Parisian idea and, if you smile and behave as if there were nothing more natural in the world, you’ll get it. The same goes for any other reasonable request. You ordered your tea with cold milk rather than hot, frothy stuff? Ask politely and insistently and you shall receive.
Paris is, as always, a lifestyle playground, but in August there are far fewer Parisians to try to get on the best rides before you. It’s just a question of stepping into their shoes.