Saturday, 16 November 2013

A Pedestrian in Paris

What could be better on a rainy Sunday than a 
good book and the smell of cooking?

The most beautiful walk in the world
by John Baxter

When you have lived in Paris for twenty years and walked in the footsteps of the famous and not so famous, what would your most beautiful walk in the world be?

John Baxter is the son of an Australian pastry chef, who married a French woman Marie-Do and settled in Paris to bring up their daughter, Louise. He is both an author of several books and a bloke who does walking tours with a focus on the haunts of literary artists and good cafes.

He lives on the rue de l'Odeon - a pedigree street where Sylvia Beach ran Shakespeare and Company, the bookshop that published James Joyce's Ulysses. Also out and about were notables Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas and Ernest Hemingway.

Between 1918 and 1935 Parisians shared their footpaths with Salvador Dali, Pablo Picasso, Man Ray, Magritte, Matisse, Toulouse Le Trec, Andre Breton, Djuna Barnes, William Faulkner, e.e.cummings, William Carlos Williams, and scores more attracted to the bohemian lifestyle, Montemartre and the Left bank.

John says that when he steps out of his building, tour groups on the opposite side of his street, who are being lectured in any of a dozen languages, view him with curiosity.

"I feel like a fraud," he says, "instead of thinking lofty thoughts, I'm compiling my shopping list...onions, eggs, a baguette..." p2.

Paris is a walking city. Parisians walk everywhere because, as John explains, Parisians regard their city as an "extension of their homes". It is their habitat - their quartier. Paris belongs to the pietons - the pedestrians. Even during the French Revolution angry mobs walked the ten miles to the Palace of Versailles to rattle the gates.

Everyone who comes to Paris, he says, will soon discover their own "most beautiful walk and their own favourite cafes, shops and parks and the routes that link them".

According to John, the average parisian "walks briskly and erect despite their breakfasts of croissants, foie gras, fried potatoes, steak, red wine and cheese" and he compares this to the physical state of Anglo-Saxon expats who are "pale, slouching, sagging." Also in the author's sights are other notable wrecks of the past such as "obese Gertrude Stein, the permanently sloshed Fitzgerald's and Henry Miller and the shuffling James Joyce. 

But one wonders, how did this Paris come about?

John explains, look no further than Napoleon. He is the one who ordered Paris to be re-built and styled by George Haussmann, who tore down festering alleyways, displaced citizens and replaced all with boulevards that formed the pattern of a star with the Arc de' Triomph at its heart. A city where no building was permitted to be built higher than the width of the boulevard, thus ensuring a city of human scale, tree lined and sunny.

"Wide clean streets encourage walking and a cafe culture on the pavements 
and the parks for strolling couples, baby carriages and picnics".

The only folly is tower block of Tour Montpanasse built in 1960 by President Pompidou. The locals have a joke about this tower block. From the top of its 60th floor, one can see all of Paris - except this building. See below.

John who caters to the curiosity of cultural tourists describes tourists in general as:

"Hundred of couples who pass me by every week, dressed in their burberrys, sensible shoes, 
distracted expressions and a much folded map."

The least offensive, he informs us are those (tourist guides) represented by an umbrella or flag raised, 

"Whom I saw every day leading bedraggled crocodiles of visitors up and down."

John tells us the best way to know Paris is through our senses, where France serves its very essence 
on a plate and the country's food speaks an international language.

"Seduction often begins with taste." p162

In Summer, we are told, "the cafes of Paris fold back their glass walls, so that one sits on the sidewalk with pedestrians brushing your tiny table, sometimes rattling your eau de menthe or jangling the coffee cups".

"...and few pleasures are more satisfying than strolling through a French market on a sunny day." p224

He urges us to "eat like the French do."

"A true French cafe breakfast remains one of the great pleasures of life in Paris - fresh coffee, croissants, brioche, baguettes still warm from the oven." p289.

Joi de vivre - arty, seedy, literary, revolutionary; scarred by war and rioters and invaded by tourists, what is the author's most beautiful walk in the world? Towards the end of the book, you will see it. A picture of John walking hand-in-hand with his baby daughter.

The story starts off with John, who is in charge of Christmas dinner being locked out of his house. This is not a good thing since the only time Paris is not a walking city is when it is blanketed by snow and all of Paris is quiet. Many leave Paris at this time. But all is well. The lock gets fixed and Christmas dinner of turkey, perfect roast potatoes, carrot and turkey gratin, foie gras, cranberry sauce and confiture d'oignons is served. 

French Onion Marmalade
Confiture d'oignons. 

Makes 300ml.

1 kg onions (red or white)
100ml olive oil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 bay leaves
2 sprigs of rosemary
150gm soft brown sugar
75ml white wine
75 ml red wine vinegar


Soften the chopped onions in olive oil.
Add the seasoning and the herbs.
Add the sugar, wine and vinegars.
Stir and simmer 20-30 minutes until sticky. Stir so as not to burn. 
Pour in to sterilised jar and refrigerate for 2 weeks to allow flavours to mature. 
But it tastes pretty good from the start. 
Serve with a cheese plate or meat of your choice. 

©2011 My Novel Idea by Ann Etcell-Ly/All Rights Reserved
The most beautiful walk in the world by John Baxter ISBN978-0-06-199854-6.

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