Friday, 10 September 2010

In praise of Alphand

Paris again, and luck brought me to a quiet apartment in the 14th. I looked it up in my history of Paris and found familiar names: Denfert-Rochereau, Raspail, Montparnasse. I knew them from books and metro maps - it wasn't an area I knew at all and had no idea what to expect. All I knew was that I was very tired and it was time to take things easily.

I'm also trying to budget carefully without being absurdly stingy. Like so many people, I'm anxious about what George Osborne's statement of cuts on the 20th October will bring. Every time I hear him there seems to be an additional note of relish in his tones. As the millionaire heir to a baronetcy he's cushioned from any temptation to join the "welfare-scroungers" he condemns. I remember interrogations by job centre staff in the 1980s; they made it plain that my pregnancy was proof of my feckless laziness and told me off severely for wanting to breast-feed my baby. However much I wanted to escape from memories and fears, they were bound to gang up on me. Sleep wasn't easy; three nights in a row I was carried back to England in vivid nightmares.

Days were for calm wandering. Last year I visited a wealth of museums and monuments. This year I looked for the free Paris city museums and wandered vaguely, sometimes taking buses with only a vague idea of their destination. Suddenly I came across the rue Soufflot, which leads up to the Panthéon. But I turned, strolled in the opposite direction and found myself at an entrance to the Luxembourg gardens where Parisiens strolled, watched their children and sat, in considerable numbers, on the white metal chairs provided. Some ate picnics but more had brought books and enjoyed the sun and the calm as they read.

As I strolled, I seemed to have found an August Paris that was in holiday mood and not over-run by tourists. I gazed at the pond and the palace which houses the Senate, reflecting that no government building in London is so lightly protected - but the people seem to have a sense that they own the gardens and the city.

I decided that this week in Paris would include time spent wandering in gardens, partly in tribute the engineer Alphand who decided that a city needed parks as a body needs lungs. The Park of Montsouris was one of his creations and only a short bus-ride or long stroll from the wonderful boulangerie where I could enjoy an espresso with mini-croissant or brioche for a delicious and leisurely breakfast.

Montsouris is made for slow wandering, though excellent small playgrounds allow parents to rest can watch their energetic children. There's a lake, trees and curving paths. It's easy to get lost, so I did. Gradually the gardens of Paris unpicked the nightmares and brought me back to calm. I knew it wouldn't last - and much as I love Paris, it has its own anxieties - but Alphand's gardens gave me the breathing space I needed.

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