The Parks of Paris

In the Guardian last weekend William Boyd wrote about the parks in London and the inspiration they have been for novelists. In Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Peter Walsh goes for a walk in Regent’s Park after visiting Clarissa Dalloway who had earlier that day been there herself on the way to collect the flowers for the party she gave that night. In Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, several key events take place in Clapham Common, a park not far from where he had lived one year.

Boyd has a strange definition of parks. Namely, there must be tall trees that must give the impression of random planting. An avenue here and there is OK and the ground must be undulating in a significant way and you mustn’t be able to see all the sides of the park at once. And finally you must have a gated entrance. All these “musts.” Consider what this means for Paris: on this definition Les Tuileries isn’t a park, nor is the Parc Monceau or the Luxembourg Gardens for that matter. Isn’t this absurd?

In reading Boyd’s account of the parks in London and the many others he would like to visit, I was reminded what the parks of Paris came to mean to me one summer several years ago. After being there awhile, I thought the romance of Paris had begun to fade. Maybe it had all been an illusion in the first place, one fostered by all those storytellers who have written so beautifully of love in Paris and the beauty of the place

But as I walked about the city that summer, I wondered what had happened. It was crowded. And noisy. In some places dirty. Even a bit shabby. With one exception--the parks. The parks of Paris brought me back to the romance of the city. And they were everywhere, on almost every block and corner.

They never looked lovelier. Many with well-tended flower-beds in full bloom. Lawns that had been freshly mowed. Trees that had been carefully trimmed. Each park appeared perfectly manicured and yet I never saw a gardener at work. I kept wondering who were these people who took such good care of the parks? How were they paid? Where did the funds come from to maintain these jewels? It surely cost a fortune to do that.

So in its parks, I saw a different Paris. Or more exactly, the old Paris. Children playing. Lovers picnicking. Others just out for a stroll. Or a little nap. Then there are the benches and chairs found in every Parisian park. Not just one or two. But many, spread out along the open paths. There are no chains bolting them to the ground in Paris.

And more often than not they were occupied by individuals who were quietly reading, oblivious to the passing scene. Young and old. Each one reading something. It was wonderful. The flowers, the children and people reading.

In City of Books Don Bell writes, “Perhaps no city in the world rivals Paris for its voluptuous literary pleasures.....In warm months parks become outdoor libraries. Walk through delightful Parc Monceau on a fair day, for instance, and on virtually every bench you will likely see some happy-looking citizen, book in hand, mind faraway in an enchanted otherworld.”

I have a feeling Parisians don’t spend much time in their apartments on the hot, sultry days of summer. In most cases, their apartments are probably not very inviting then anyway. Little or no sun. No chirping birds. No children sailing their little boats on the lake. How much nicer to take a book and head for their neighborhood park. Coming off my background in social research, I thought how interesting it would be to interview some Parisians—to ask them what the park meant to them? How often they visited their park? Did they have a favorite?

I wanted capture of the psychological meaning for Parisians of being in the small neighborhood parks, as well as the larger, better known ones. I wanted to know if the parks represent a Third Place in the sense that Ray Oldenburg uses the term in The Great Good Place.

I was reminded of all this by Boyd’s literary tour of these urban oases that he describes as “a refuge for lovers, loners, children and outcasts—parks provide the settings for some of our most innocent and illicit encounters. No wonder they are such an inspiration for novelists.”

A few years ago the New York Times ran a lengthy article on the numerous, no less beautiful hidden gardens of Paris, places I had never heard of or seen that are spread throughout the city. Perhaps one day I will be able to return to Paris to continue my encounters with those who go there to read or admire the lovely flowers.