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Being Outside

photo: sunset, sails, paris plage

Sundown on Paris Plage on Saturday.

Better than Camping

Paris:– Saturday, 24. July:– The way the calendar works this year a lot of Parisians have scheduled their holidays to begin the weekend after Bastille Day, so true to form a couple million of them jumped into their cars for the annual getaway and enjoyed an all–France national traffic jam.

Out there, in 'deepest' France, a lot of them tended to cluster along the route of the Tour de France. The imagesphoto: sand, palms, paris plage relayed back showed millions clinging to the Alp–d'Huez, with their signs, costumes, picnics, water bottles, urging their favorites to the top in incredible scenes of cyclomania.

Sun, Seine and sand.

This was the major story on Thursday, but Wednesday's opening of Paris Plage made the front page too. The weather was right for it and the crowds came down to make sure the ersatz beach beside the Seine conformed to past versions.

The final 't' gets crossed and the 'i' gets dotted on Sunday when the Tour de France rolls into the city and wheels around it a bit. Tonight there are huge traffic jams on the roads surrounding Paris as holiday motorists from the north attempt to circle the city on their way to the delights of the south.

So, after the last mega–scene on Sunday, Paris can settle down to being a pokey dozer in summer. There will be free seats on Métro trains, shopping will be full–price again – until the 'white sales' in August – and everybody will have to walk an extra half–block to find an open boulangerie.

According to news reports about ten million French don't go on holidays. They haven't got anything against vacations, but as you may have noticed not much is free, or even reasonable–priced, in France. Some other residents here have already taken their holidays, and many of the remaining lucky will scoot off in August.

With 'everybody' gone, only about five or six million sad souls are left in Paris. Even though tourism is down this year like last, there couldn't be more than a couple of million visitors in the city. And then, somebody has to stay behind to keep the museums, monuments and movie cinemas open, as well as empty the trash on Paris Plage and run the projector at the outdoor movies at La Villette.

Yes, Paris is a pretty limp spectacle in the dead middle of summer. This is what I was thinking when I gotphoto: fog spray, paris plage on the Métro at Raspail to ride down to the Cité station earlier this evening. I was on my way to see the first Saturday night on this year's Paris Plage.

Popular fog is back.

There must be 43 major hotels for visitors down at the Porte d'Orléans because lately the trains have been pretty full, when normally they are nearly empty. I saw nobody rushing to catch the Métro and when I got out at Cité, the area around the Palais de Justice was deserted.

But just around the corner at Châtelet, crowds lined the Pont au Change, just as the sun was sliding down behind Samaritaine There seemed to be an army marching along the speedway on the Seine's right bank – an army stretching from the Pont Neuf to the Pont d'Acole, as far as I could see.

The sky was clear and the air was warm and fine, helped along by a puffy breeze. Sunset was happening beyond the Louvre, tracing a bit of pink on far–off wisps of western clouds. It was that time between the end of daylight and when the street lights come on with their orange glow that makes the darkness brown.

Thousands, tens of thousands, were strolling along the expressway, ambling in both directions. Many more were on the grass plots or on the patches of yellow sand, not doing anything much except watching it get darker. Watching the blue sails flutter, watching yellow lights come on in the Hôtel Dieu across the river, watching the excursion boats slide by downstream.

Silhouettes of palm trees, outlinedphoto: striped kiosks, paris plage against the deep blue sky reflected in the river, reaching up above the silhouettes of the bridges. White and blue stripes of the beach cabins, the white boxes holding the palms, all getting dimmer, saturated by falling darkness.

Beachside stripes.

It was a time between the many activities of the day and before those of the evening so the crowds weren't doing anything except being there, outside in Paris on a warm summer night in July.

On a warm summer night in July, in Paris, you, everybody, can be outside. Paris Plage isn't exactly necessary for this either. Without it all the cafés have open terraces and in daytime all the parks have free chairs and many have cafés under the trees. If you feel like sitting, Paris has seats.

If you start to think of it, imagine it like this – if it's 25 degrees there's no need for heat, none for air conditioning, and all doors can be left open. Even through the humidity we had earlier I've left all my windows open for weeks.

For all the people ambling along the three kilometres of Paris Plage, safe from motor traffic, there are others strolling by the canals or lounging around café terraces in every part of town. Or sitting on the quays around the islands – on the tip of the Ile Saint–Louis, they looked like nesting birds. From across the river, sounds of drums and guitars and laughter.

A man fishing next to me pulled up his capture basket. At first I thought there was nothing in it, but there was. What, eels? Another asked for a closer look before he let the basket down again.

It got darker but the crowds were undiminished. Like being on the Champs de Mars in the dark, Parisians are safephoto: fishing, sunset, paris plage outside. The boats gliding by on the river began turning on their searchlights, all the brighter because the streetlights were still unlit.

Fishing at sunset in the middle of the city.

I went back up to the street and crowds in the sidewalk were dense too. I crossed to the Ile Saint–Louis on the Pont Marie. Thirty people in t–shirts and short pants were waiting in a line outside a restaurant with an outside window for selling ice cream.

Another restaurant had a line waiting to get in and there were more of them at other restaurants around the corner in the Rue Saint–Louis–en–l'Ile, and more yet crowds waiting for more ice cream. It must be the ice cream centre of the world.

The entire terrace of the Oasis was full, with the waiters hurrying around dressed like penguins. The 'explorer' was there with his desert Vespa, with the ratty palm fonds. About two hundred people were in the dark on the Pont Saint–Louis watching a acrobat do tricks on a bicycle, while only a few others paid attention to the lady violinist.

In relative peace, the terracians occupying the café on the other side of the bridge. Further along beside Notre Dame's stone hulk, other cafés being locked up but the big one on the corner still with its outside line waiting for ice cream, and everybody inside as close to glassless outside as possible.

Being late, the daytime lines waiting for Notre Dame were resting elsewhere for the morning. But over by the Pont au Double a huge crowd was an appreciative audience for an African band of drummers. On the parvis in front of the illuminated cathedral, several hundred just sitting in the relative dark, passing the time for nothing, sitting for free.

And everywhere else, people, groups, standing around, walking, bursts of singing, sounds of music. Café terraces spilling out yellow light. Cars quietly gliding, being careful. Pedestrians ignoring the signals, police ignoring the stray walkers.

The street lights were coming on just after 22:00, probably a half hour after dark. Their glow is yellow but morephoto: glaces, kiosk, paris plage like orange, and it turns the predominant stone, sand and gray asphalt, warm brown. The green of tree leaves shifts to black in the darkness. Neon signs make festive highlights.

Line for after dark ice cream.

Warm, calm, outside. In this city, at this time of year, outside is everywhere and everybody is out in it. It is like there is no 'inside' anymore, like all Paris is outdoors. It must be summer. It's a good place for a holiday if all you want to do is be outside.

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