Paris is divided into twenty arrondissements, each of which has a mairie, or town hall. Our mairie here in the 5th is in Place du Pantheon, and at least once during each trip to Paris we walk up rue des Carmes to the Place and visit the mairie for the free pamphlets they give out listing events in our arrondissement. The corresponding building for all of Paris is a wonderful large wedding cake of a building called l’Hôtel de Ville, or City Hall, located on the Right Bank just north of Nôtre Dame. Susie and I pass it quite often on our way to le Bazaar de l’Hôtel de Ville, or BHV, a big upscale department store where we have bought many of the items with which we decorated and stocked our apartment, including our elegant Philippe de Grenne dishware.
Parisians have a conception of public space entirely different from that of Americans, for whom the streets are simply an inconvenience connecting their private spaces. The socialist mayor of Paris has done a great deal to make public spaces available and attractive to ordinary Parisians. Perhaps his boldest move has been to create “beaches” along the Seine each summer, even trucking in sand, so that the folks who cannot afford to leave their Paris apartments for the côte d’azur can nevertheless recline under beach umbrellas and “get away for the month of August.”
The space in front of l’Hôtel de Ville is a large Place that is converted in the winter into an ice-skating rink and at other times of year into fairs, expositions, even a garden with all manner of plants and flowers. At the moment, it is home to an enormous outdoor television set on which the French Open tennis championship is being shown. Yesterday was a warm, sunny, beautiful early summer day, and when Susie and I walked through the Place on our way to BHV, we saw hundreds upon hundreds of Parisians reclining on attractive plastic “sofas” and sitting at little tables, or even just sitting on the flagstones, watching the extremely exciting match between Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. The Nadal/Djokovic match, although a semi, has widely been viewed as the real final, since everyone thinks that whichever one won the match would surely go on to win the title. Today, at three p.m., Serena Williams will play for the title against Maria Sharapova.
It is typical of Paris that behind the space where the tennis fans sit an actual tennis court has been set up so that people can play tennis, not just watch it being played.
Perhaps I am simply an unreflective enthusiast for all things Parisian, but this conception of public space seems to me infinitely preferable to the corresponding American conception. It is, by the way, the reason why Parisians are content to live in apartments so tiny that well-to-do Americans would consider them little more than walk-in closets.