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As many of us still aren’t traveling, for safety and health reasons, I thought you might enjoy a vicarious trip to Paris today. Please enjoy!
Each time I arrive in Paris I head directly for the Place des Vosges, the most beautiful square in the world. How many writers and painters have stumbled upon this famous Marais square and said, “Oh, I see. This is why I came to Paris!”? Once discovered, it becomes a place to be remembered. A working artist can spend whole days there—writing, soaking up the ancient and the contemporary, and living ideally. Surrounded by Renaissance townhouses whose street-level arcades are filled with cafés, art galleries, and (in summer) classical musicians, it is lively, quiet, shady, safe, inviting, and gorgeous. You can write for an hour, move to a café table under the arcade for an espresso, write some more, stroll twice around the square, and resume your writing.
During the morning hours, the Place des Vosges is cool, still, and mostly empty. Mothers and their children arrive at about ten. They head for the sandbox on the western side of the park, which is warmer in the morning than the identical sandbox on the eastern side. At about the same time, the first busload of tourists arrives, the passengers feeling self-conscious at such an early hour in so empty a place. Their guides fill the square with historical information in French, Italian, German, and Portuguese—about Victor Hugo, who lived at No. 6, about Mozart, who played a concert here at the age of seven.
As noon approaches, the park begins to fill up. Workmen renovating nearby buildings come to eat their sandwiches. Men and women on the move stop for a moment to use their cell phones. Tourists who have been rushing through the Marais drop onto benches. Lovers arrive. Wine bottles are opened to complete picnic meals. Books are read, set aside, picked up again. The afternoon passes with people coming and going, life flowing, and artists working. In the early evening, well-dressed couples stroll slowly around the square, waiting on their dinner reservations, as incongruous-looking as their eighteenth-century aristocratic counterparts.
Tourists take their last pictures in the fading light. Worn-out backpackers nap on the grass. Two lovers sleep in one another’s arms. A man who might be Monet pores over a street map. Children chase the red-legged pigeons. A last tour group arrives to be drilled with history. The facades of the buildings on the eastern side blaze red. The summer light fades; but there is still plenty left for writing.
What is the magic of this place? The wrought iron lamps are certainly beautiful, as are the low wrought iron fences shaped like bent twigs. The placement of the fountains is right, the arcades that surround the square are right, the red brick mansions are right—it is all right, but I don’t believe the square’s allure is only about golden proportions. It is the ethic, the cultural imperative. Here you are encouraged to sit and write and people-watch, to adjourn to a neighboring café and write and people-watch some more, to pass an entire day this way. This is not encouragement that you will receive in America.
You feel at home in Paris because the things that you care about—strolling, thinking, loving, creating—are built into the fabric of the city. Despite its negatives—eighteen million tourists annually, 11 percent unemployment, large numbers of homeless people—Paris remains the place where you can feel comfortable decked out as a dreamy artist. The Place des Vosges supports your artistic nature. About how many places can that be said?
It is almost nine. A uniformed guard begins shouting and gesticulating. He is closing the Place des Vosges. Too bad. I will be forced to stroll the back streets of the Marais and stop for a glass of wine at a café. I pack up my pad and my pen. The guard is getting animated. We are not leaving quickly enough. Of course not, as he is unceremoniously rousing us from a beautiful dream.