Sunday, April 6, 2014

Staying Big by Going Small in France

            There will always be a France.
            On the airplane the stewardess, middle-aged and personable, returns my smile. So I ask her if the air temperature inside plane could be made a little less chilly. She will take care of it; we are on good terms. After the Air France meal, continental dining at midnight over the Atlantic – memorable because of the quality of everything on the tray (the cheese! the wine!) —she pushes a trolley between the aisles. Is there more? More coffee perhaps.
            It is very dark, very late, mostly very quiet, still a little chilly, and the hours are rapidly escaping because we are losing time rapidly as we head east. It will be a short night, in which I will try to will myself to sleep, followed by a very full day. She murmurs something I cannot quite hear. I look my question.
            “Mais oui!”
            Approaching central Paris, in the hands of a young Parisian driving a hired car on a Sunday morning, the avenues are very broad, the architecture magnificent. The scope of the urban public design impressive – a Washington DC size public mall tucked inside Manhattan -- the continual parade of statuary and stone carving, on buildings and stand-alone, figurative, ornamental, is astonishing. Beaucoup de grandeur. Nothing will ever be built this way again, anywhere on earth.
            When you leave the big squares, wide avenues and monuments, the approach to size and space is very different. The “rue” on which our hotel is situated is narrow, a mere alley by American standards, but very charming. It looks the way it's supposed to. American drivers would have difficulty traversing it. But small and narrow is part of the appeal here. The buildings, four-five stories, the streetscape, the tall windows, all are perfect; speaking once again to a city that established beauty as its first criterion.
            Our hotel front, distinguished by a show of green including a little forest of bamboo beside the doorway – no room for an English garden in this street layout; if you want trees, grass, flowers, go to the formal gardens and public parks – is squeezed neatly into the street. At the end of its modest lobby is a narrow elevator for taking ourselves and our luggage upstairs. Inside, the lift is an area the size of a phone booth.
            Voila, I think. The secret.
The French have kept and scrupulously maintained everything in the city that is old and beautiful, and simply squeezed the new facilities, when absolutely required, into the smallest possible space. Careful not to ruin the esthetic effect. This is we suspect a tough city for wheelchairs; no ADA.
            We pull the two wheeled suitcases into the phone-booth elevator, rearranging our positions a few times in order to leave space enough for the security door to close. At our third floor landing (that would be fourth in American but the French start counting floors with zero) you find yourself in a landing with just enough space to execute a left turn with a wheeled case and address your locked door. It’s an approach sure to winnow the field of less able guests. And when the door opens you find yourself in a curved arc of narrow tunnel, more like the design of the intestine than anything you expect to find in linear, symmetrical classical France. You pull your suitcase through the curve – a salle de bain, retrofitted, opens off one side of this corridor; then tunnel on until – enfin! – an actual room appears: wide bed, narrow furniture, and some graceful curtained windows designed in the – well, French manner – that open from the center.
            When you pull them open and look outside, there it is – rows of apartment windows that look exactly like your own, their own silky curtains floating above the charming alley. Admirable! Tres charmant!