Preparations for the holiday season here in the City of Lights aren’t much different here than they are in any other big American City.
The shop doorways are draped with the obligatory garlands accompanied by gold bulbs and sprinkled with white or blue lights. The more posh shops, especially those in the first arrondissement along rue Saint-Honoré, seem to favor white garlands as opposed to the natural evergreen variety (white, I imagine, says class and sophistication). Of course these shops also stock a healthy supply of pretense alongside their overpriced suits, dresses, Italian shoes, watches, jewelry and handbags. The passers-by, decked out in tall, spike-heeled boots, black slacks and fur-lined coats, engage in the usual window shopping or léche-vitrine. The literal translation is “window licking” which better describes the desire and envy on the faces of these holiday shoppers as they salivate over the baubles in the windows.
I wandered over to the Hotel de Ville, the grand city hall, where they’ve set up an ice skating rink on the great square (this is also the site, in the summer months of July and August, where the city trucks in tons of beach sand to set up three or four volley ball courts for those of us who can’t afford to take our vacances in the South). The gentle swishing sounds of blades on ice, without the accompanying organ music thankfully, brought back memories of the old ice pond across from my childhood home in New England where, with a used pair of black figure skates, painted blue and purchased for $10, I learned to skate and fall like a pro on ice.
There’s a tall Sapin de Noël,or Christmas Tree, set up in front of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, that famous symbol of Paris and Victor Hugo. During my first year here there was an enclosed tent set up on the little square where the tree is now. It housed a multi-media exhibition titled “Mysteries of the Nativity” which showed slow-fading images, melting into each other, of famous works of art — sculptures, frescos, temperas and oil paintings — featuring (you guessed it!) scenes of the Nativity, all timed to music. It was well done but it struck me how odd that such a modern theater piece should stand so close to such a powerful symbol of the Christian religion (though the cathedral itself is built on a site of pagan Roman fertility worship, celebrating a black Virgin, so everything is welcome, I suppose).
Back uptown at Les Grands Magasins, there is a huge artificial Christmas tree hanging from the stained-glass dome at the Galleries Lafayette. It floats above the parfum counters of Dior, Chanel, Hermes, etc. Not quite the seasonal scent of pine and sap. Next door is Printemps, another grand department store, where the seasonal animated windows are in full swing. This year the theme is Nøël Féerie Nordik (that’s the exact spelling from the windows, whether it’s accurate or not, I haven’t a clue). White stuffed animals owls, bears and, I think, something related to a reindeer — cavort around white dinner tables, refrigerators and workbenches, riding bicycles, tangled in fishing line, eating snow cones and such. It’s wonderful nonsense. The real fun, of course, is watching the kids looking at the mechanical mayhem, eyes wide and fingers pointing. “T’as vue ça, maman!?”
Along the Champs-Elysées the trees lining the boulevard are draped with flashing white lights. This year the lights are LED, power-saving bulbs, in an attempt to prove that the recent conference on environmental concerns wasn’t a total waste of time. The tree lights click on at dusk (which is around 5:30 in the evening these days) and sparkle from Place de la Concorde all the way up to The Arc de Triomphe. It’s really a beautiful sight. Foreign tourists, digital cameras in hand, dodge cars and angry drivers to stand in the middle of the Champs to snap that perfect picture of the boulevard heading off into the horizon where it meets the Arc (I know because I’m right behind them, waiting for that Dutch couple or that Asian group draped with photography accessories to get out of the way).
All this seasonal frivolity is echoed, I’m sure, in many of our big American towns; the same white garlands around the doorways, the same white sparkling lights blinking from the same shop window trees, whether on Main Street or the mega mall just outside of town. The sounds of traffic and bell ringers at the Salvation Army stands (the Armée du Saluthere) are mixed with jackhammers and piped-in holiday music. The same experience could happen in almost any town, save for one moment: instead of taking a break from the crowds at one of the ubiquitous food courts, I can step out a block or so in any direction to a café, order a chocolat chaud or vin chaud, and sit outside on the sidewalk beneath a portable gas heater and watch Noël in Paris unfold before me like a child unwrapping a present on Christmas morning.
Editor’s note: This is a best-of A News Cafe column that originally ran December 20, 2007.
Doug Cushman is a former Redding artist/author who now lives and works in Paris. He was born in Springfield, Ohio, and moved to Connecticut with his family at the age of 15. In high school he created comic books lampooning his teachers, selling them to his classmates for a nickel apiece. For more information about his books or to contact him, visit doug-cushman.com.