Tips for a Post-Christmas Parisian Winter

As I write this blog, I am hugging a mug of tea against myself, and counting the minutes until I can justify turning the heating back on. The rain is attacking my single-glazed windows with their poorly insulated frames, and I am contemplating putting on a second jumper. This, ladies and gentleman, is a Parisian winter.

As a lifelong resident of the UK (until last September, at least) I am used to the wind and rain that accompanies winter (and spring, and autumn, and summer). When I was younger, I used to love the rain. My parents called me a water baby, and any time rain clouds started to gather, I prepared to run outside as soon as the first drop arrived. But, at some point in one’s life, dancing in the rain becomes unacceptable, so we have to find coping mechanisms (and other ways to expend energy).

Anyone who has ever visited Paris between November and March knows that it can be an exceptionally bleak time. Leading up to Christmas, gaudy decorations and flashing lights do their best to brighten the place up. But in January, it’s a different story. The grey pavements reflect the white sky, and the beige buildings surround you on all sides.  Unfortunately, it’s not quite socially acceptable to hide at home all winter. So, one must find ways to enjoy the city, whatever the weather! Here are my tips for surviving a Parisian winter.

1. Prepare yourself.

With the Paris soldes in full swing (they started on 8th of January, and will finish on the 11th of February) now is the time to invest in that perfect winter coat. Mine is from Zara, and my friend Thérèse tries it on every time she comes round. I’m almost sure it’s the only reason she’s friends with me. I will lament the day when it is too warm to wear my coat: it makes me feel like a true Parisienne, and therefore was worth every single penny.

Also, don’t be afraid to spend a bit extra on an umbrella. Those €5 brollies from the street vendors may look incredibly attractive when your hair is dripping and your whole body is shivering, but they WILL break, usually within about five minutes, and you don’t want to be caught out in front of a crowd of camera-wielding tourists like this poor couple.

Umbrella couple

2. Take advantage

Those attractions which are normally bulging at the seams with tourists are now relatively tourist-free. For an example, I spent last Friday at Versailles. When I first visited the château in June 2013, the combination of stifling heat and a conveyor belt of tourists transporting you through the house made for an overwhelming and frustrating trip. In January, however, the place was near deserted. We didn’t have to queue at all (compared to the 45 minutes I spent in June) and we could stand in wonder in each room for as long as our hearts desired. Plus, the obligatory hall-of-mirrors selfie had far fewer awkward loiterers in the background.

Now is the perfect time to take that picture you’ve been desperate for since you got here – maybe holding the tip of the Pyramide du Louvre between your fingers, or looking pensive on a bridge. Snap it now, because the tourists will soon return.

3. Change your perspective.

The tourist-less places and rues mean that you can take a clearer, wider look at things.  I’ve never seen Place de la République as glorious as last week, when the Lady Marianne of the Republic held her head high despite the rain on her Phrygian crown. The redeeming feature of those grey pavements is that their shining clean surfaces (as ensured by the cleaning trucks assaulting Paris’ streets every morning) reflect beautifully in the rain. It’s the only chance you’ll ever get to see all your favourite monuments twice.

Statue of the République

Marianne, Lady of the République, holding her own in the rain.

What are your top tips for winter in Paris? Let me know in the comments!

Pere-Lachaise

Nobody does death quite like the French.

On Friday, I found myself in Place de la Nation fulfilling a frustrating administrative task. So, to console myself, I decided to walk home via the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Perhaps this sounds odd, that I intended to improve my mood by walking amongst the dead. Still, those who are familiar with off-the-beaten-path-Paris will know that many of the city’s greatest sights involve death – or at least, dead people.

If it’s not Père-Lachaise Cemetery, it’s Montparnasse Cemetery or Montmartre Cemetery. Maybe even a visit to les grands hommes who rest in the Panthéon. Then there’s the catacombs, for the brave visitors who dare to cross the threshold which warns: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la Mort!” (“Stop! Here is the empire of Death!”). Here, you’ll find winding paths, an underground city complete with road names, each street lined with the skeletal remains of over six million people.

Creepy stuff, sure. But that day, I felt drawn to Père-Lachaise. Entering the grounds, I felt a serene sense of calm descend over me. The roaring din and honks of Parisian traffic faded, and I was surrounded by cool stone and leafless trees. I paid visits to all the famous locals. I was approached by an excited man with long, unbrushed hair, who told me in a strange Franglish who I should visit, and instructed me to take a photo of his map with my appareil photo.

Père-Lachaise map

I spent two hours or so amongst the graves, contemplating to my heart’s content. After some time, I noticed that the roads radiating from the crematorium were lined with cars. As I saw the crowds, I realised: there was a funeral today. I walked hurriedly in the opposite direction, only to see a girl about my age, standing in front of a grave I probably would have walked past, clutching flowers and murmuring softly, her glistening eyes reflecting the January sunlight. I stopped, not wishing to impose myself on her moment of grief, and turned to a grave close by, examining its letters in detail, but not really reading them. Suddenly, the place had transformed – it was no longer an opportunity to be closer to Oscar Wilde or Isadora Duncan or Frederic Chopin than I had ever been before, but a place of mourning. A place where dead people rest.

Then, I thought of respect. We tend to think of respect as solemnly and dutifully extolling the numerous virtues of the deceased, of lamenting their loss for a day of black clothing, and then not daring to mention their name for the rest of our years. Many argue that opening up cemeteries as tourist attractions is distasteful and disrespectful, but I believe it’s just another opportunity to show respect. Although Oscar Wilde’s tomb, one of the more ‘popular’ in Père-Lachaise, has had to be fenced in with glass panes to stop his adoring fans from causing damage, many people do come simply to ‘pay their respects’. In fact, the most disrespectful behaviour I witnessed came from this cat, who many might argue could not have known better.

grave cat

I suspect he could have, but simply chose not to.

Since arriving in Paris in September, I’ve come to realise that British and French cultures towards death are very different. In Britain, we prefer to honour the dead solemnly, with statues and memorial services and hushed words. In France, it seems that they celebrate the dead. Their tombstones are not grey and simple, hidden away behind churches. They are marble, they are ornate, they are often gaudy (to my tastes). But they are respectful.

Denial is not a step on the path to respect. However, celebration, exhibition, and, yes, gaudy celebrations, are very good stepping stones along the way.

 

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