Paris for Julian

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Hi Julian,

You asked me to write about what I did in Paris, and I promised I would.

Of course, I'd already explored Cachan on the Tuesday evening before the conference, walking as far as Bourg-la-Reine in one direction and Arcueil-Cachan in the other, in search of an evening meal. Which, although the bars all advertise food, they don't sell. If you ask, they look at you with the same air of disdain that an English publican would use if you'd tried to buy a beer after 2:30 pm in the era before all-day opening, and say "Ah no Monsieur, I am desolé, that is only for lunch".

While exploring, I'd bumped into a Turkish grocery owner whose son asked me to look at his computer. "You know about computers?", he said. "Windows froze when I started it up this morning, and I can't make it continue". It's funny how many people assume, when you say you're in computing, that you can Harry Potter any problem involved with (a) hardware, and (b) Windows. In his case, it was probably (a): he had an old Compaq desktop whose chassis was out of its case and open to the air with its top removed. I told him he probably had dust in his connections, that it's not a good idea to leave the top open. I couldn't make a better diagnosis, because when I asked him to show me the problem, the machine started perfectly. I've noticed that machines often do, when an engineer comes.

On Friday evening after the conference ended, I spent three hours walking via Bourg-la-Reine to Châtillon then Malakoff and back. I don't know who or what Malakoff is named after, but it doesn't sound French. Perhaps a famous Russian who won some battle for the French. Or maybe a ship. Lovely clear blue skies and a park with evening dog-walkers looking more chic than if they'd been English. A writer once remarked that only Romance nations have the genes that allow them to look elegant merely in the way they sling a jacket from one shoulder.

Anyway, leaving the park, I could tell I was getting nearer to Paris because I was obviously climbing up the transport- and housing-density gradients: I climbed bridges over tangles of railway lines, and saw two-story brick council-style buildings containing five or six flats give way, in Châtillon, to streets full of tall white balconied apartment blocks. But because these were white, and because there were lots of trees, and because pavements were wide, still feeling spacious and a reasonable place to live.

On Saturday, of course, we met for breakfast. (I'd got up before you and walked to the pâtisserie near Cachan station to buy the fresh-baked goodies. Something else you can't do in England.) Then after we parted, I wandered round the market in Rue Carnot, and chose between two kinds of peach at a fruit stall — "white peaches" were one kind, but they weren't white — by the smell alone, which was strong enough to smell from the other side of the counter. Lovely.

Then I had a siesta, and from noon, walked 12km into Paris. Again, spacious pavements. And much less smell of car pollution than in London. Got to the Seine, wandered along the banks for an hour or two. Some nice books in the riverside bookstalls, but too expensive.

Then, I zig-zagged back right to the south of Paris, to Parc Montsouris. It was still bright at 9pm: the extra hour the French have really makes a difference to how much one can be outside. We could have that too if it weren't for three men and a sheep on the Isle of Skye who don't want to do their winter milking in the dark. I stopped in a book-and-comics shop that was still open at 8pm. Then, because it was now 8:30, I took the RER back from where I'd now got to, namely the Périphérique, the outer ring road that delimits Paris.

On Sunday, I got up early, and took the RER to Gare du Nord. I wandered round the Arab district behind the station — there are Moroccans and Berbers — and from a tailors that was open even on Sunday, bought a pair of those Moroccan "sarouel" pantaloons that are very baggy at the top and gathered below the knee, with lots of pleats. In the heat, much more comfortable than shorts, because your genitalia have room to breathe. As it were. Next year, if it's equally hot, I could gain lecture-room comfort by wearing them to the conference.

Or perhaps not, because people are so sensitive about dress. I was asked not to wear shorts this year, because "we want businessmen as well as academics, and we must show a professional image". (Though the guy who gave the final, EASA, talk, was wearing shorts.) So tell me, why are businessmen judged to be more offendable than academics?

And why do people worry, anyway? It's superficial to think that a tie makes someone respectable and shorts not. Besides, in that heat, wouldn't you prefer someone lightly clad in short cotton to sit beside you, than three hundred pounds of greasy businessman oozing sweat from every over-suited armpit?

Still on the topic of genitalia, I then walked down to Les Halles. In Rue St Denis, there were all these brothels with beefy women standing outside. Probably wearing fishnet stockings, which I believe is traditional in the business. Definitely wearing fishnet tops and brassy necklaces, plus the yearly world output of Max Factor Fire-Engine Red Range on their lips. This isn't meant to be racist, but I don't think bright red works against African skin.

Without being really conscious of it, I was staring at one lady because I was thinking how I might draw her. But when a beefy man walked over to me and asked whether I was interested, I decided it better to gaze less intensely.

Several of these shops had signs announcing un "grand destockage". I don't want to think too closely about what that implies. Stock-clearance. In a brothel?

At Les Halles, I decided I wanted countryside, so walked back to Gare du Nord. The women who had been standing each outside their own brothel were now all in a group outside the same one. Chatting amiably, about soap operas. This surprised me. Somehow, I've always assumed that the women would feel themselves in competition with one another. And also, being English and therefore more prudish than the French, I suspect I've assumed that their job is so degrading that they don't have normal social relationships, or indeed joy.

If you come out of the campus and turn right, you go towards the Rue Carnot I've already mentioned. But immediately on the right of the campus, there's a park, and a little track that runs down its side. In the afternoon, I walked down that, into the centre of Cachan proper, and then up the hill that you see from the campus. I'd hoped that the track would continue as a footpath would in England, leading me for miles through countryside. But it didn't, it took me through a few parks and gardens between new blocks of flats, then came to a dead end against a housing estate.

I've noticed this often in European cities. They don't like public footpaths in the way that we do. Indeed, when I worked in Portugal, I found the idea was foreign to my friends. They liked an evening in the countryside: but this meant driving there, strolling alongside a river for fifteen minutes — you'd find 300 yards of footpath alongside a specially cleared segment of river bank, but no further — and then driving back.

Anyway, I walked along a track by the side of a small wood, and found a road that led through another village, L'Haÿ-les-Roses. A rural feel. One house had lots of kitsch standing on its outside windowsills, including a huge china spotted pig. There was a pâtisserie open, from which I bought a nice loaf and a tuna quiche whose maker had somehow compressed about a kilo of tuna into the bottom of a pastry shell. It was exciting to see such a choice of breads, and know that they would all actually taste of something. Here, I could concentrate on choosing the best; in English bakeries, I can only think of choosing the least worst.

On Monday morning, I visited STEF and showed them my work. Eric lent me a guidebook, Paris à Pied, and suggested a route. So after lunch — in the canteen again, but an ordinary University meal rather than a sumptuous conference one, so no wine — I took the RER to Ourcq, getting there at 3. I spent the next six hours on foot, following the book's route. And I thoroughly recommend this. Because of this, I never did take your tour bus, but the foot route shows you so much more. It brings you close to elegant little villas in lanes too narrow for traffic, and to views that sweep above artificial grottoes in parks. If you go to Paris and want to follow the route, I'll tell you the name of the book. I spent an awful lot of time admiring those pretty little houses, the villas and views.

So then at 9pm, I was standing near Notre Dame in bright sunshine, admiring the flying buttresses and the views up and down the Seine. Plenty of time to meander to the nearest RER station, get back to Cachan, and buy my evening meal from the late shop I discovered last Tuesday in Rue Carnot. (I said goodbye to the shop owner, and thanked him for his useful shop. I'd been buying his peaches and carrot salad, a source of good cheap meals.)

And at 9pm on Tuesday, having emerged into London in the centre of a titanic hour-long thunderstorm, the first time I'd ever consciously noticed that lightning is blue, I was standing under a sky-sized raincloud, shivering. It felt ten degrees cooler. Dusk was reflected in the puddles on the pavement. This is why the French have joie de vivre whereas the English have tea and custard creams.