garden tales from a Brit at home and abroad
Where do I most feel at home in Paris? That was the question put to me by photographer Chloe Lodge, as part of her portrait series on foreign women making new lives for themselves in the French capital.
It didn’t take me long to suggest parc Monceau, the splendid 8-hectare public park that’s just a few minutes walk from our apartment. What is it about Monceau? Well, most obviously, it is our nearest green space, and our daughter goes to school in a building right next to the park, and plays there every day.
But Monceau for me has a magic beyond its mere proximity. As a landscape historian, I find its past pleasingly extraordinary. Much of its history is still apparent, if you know where and how to look: the vestiges of the mad 18th century pleasure grounds with their Disneyesque attractions and rumours of the owner’s debauched behaviour; the 19th century features installed when the site became a public park under Napoleon III; the reminder of the terrible end to the 1871 Commune.
Every path and feature and tree is familiar to me, from the gilded entry gates designed by Gabriel Davioud in the 1850s… …and the traditional pony rides offered for kids on Wednesday afternoons and weekends…
…to the frenzy of picnickers and sunbathers on the lawns when all of Paris tumbles out of doors during the long summer months.
I love Monceau slumbering under light snow in the winter, its gates locked whenever bad weather threatens; its fresh bright colours in Spring’s lengthening days; its soft autumnal hues as the ancient trees mellow to brown and gold.
Several of Chloe’s subjects chose public parks as places where they felt most comfortable in the city: the gardens of the Palais Royal, parc des Buttes-Chaumont, the Tuileries, the jardin du Luxembourg. It’s clear that, for many of us as foreigners here, the parks of Paris quickly become proxy gardens, refuges, symbols of the city, and welcoming friends.
Certainly for me in Paris, parc Monceau is where I feel most at home.
I’d welcome comments from anyone who finds him or herself in a foreign place: have you discovered somewhere there that feels to you like home?
When we lived in Switzerland, I felt most at home walking the hills and forests, rather than in a formal park surrounded by crowds of people. I think of that Lost in Translation biography. Coming from Poland to England, a new language. A new At Home.
Diana, thanks for the comment. I can imagine feeling at home in the wonderful mountains of Switzerland. Your mention of the Eva Hoffman biography is interesting – her shift to a new culture and a new language was of course more dramatic than ours, but there is something of that same search for comfort, of wanting to belong and feel at ease.
A beautiful place to call home! I can see you’re already a bit nostalgic for your neighborhood park. I thought of you when I saw this post with some lovely Monceau photos by a Paris photographer, Barbara Brink, whom I follow on Twitter (@bbononthebrink): http://bbonthebrink.blogspot.com/2011/06/marvelous-monceau.html
Jan, thanks for the comment, and the link. You’re right that, with our departure due in three weeks, we are feeling rather wistful about all of Paris…
Paris is a hard city to leave and visiting always makes me wistful — especially when I walk in the Jardin de Luxembourg, which I considered my “home garden” from 1988-92. I wonder how many hours I spent there, pushing my double pram and sitting by the sandboxes?
When I lived in Paris (1997-1998), la coulée verte was my personal outdoor space. I lived just opposite it in the Avenue Daumesnil, and every day I would be the only male au pair promenading with a small child.
The beauty of having la coulée verte as my local “park” was that on good days – when the weather was nice and I’d packed all the paraphenalia relating to child-minding (the kid was 3 months old when I arrived) – I could follow la coulée all the way to Vincennes… And for an abandoned railway track, la coulée has a nicely variated planting scheme!
Soren, thanks for sharing this memory. The name of your blog seems so apt.
I can imagine how the coulée verte (now more commonly called the promenade plantée) would be a great place with a baby and a stroller. Unlike most of the city, it’s flat and easily navigable (once you’re up there of course!), and there is something about the rhythm of passing through the different areas which could become very familiar and soothing.
My husband and I will be meeting up in Paris tomorrow for an extended weekend, and I can’t wait to go walk-about in the international capital of flânerie! 🙂
When I lived in Paris, the Jardin des Plantes and the jardin du Luxembourg were my two “anchors,” but the walk I took between them was important, too. I almost always went the same way, and seeing the exact same route in all weathers and in different guises went a long way toward making me feel at home. The day when I did that walk and found myself saying, “Ah, I see they’ve finally moved that illegally parked car,” I felt like I really belonged (even though I totally didn’t). So even though the gardens were important, simply because they were gardens and green, the sense of pattern–knowing what did and didn’t fit in the pattern–was perhaps more useful to me in creating the kind of familiarity that makes a place feel like home. I hear some of that in your description of Monceau, the love of knowing a place in all seasons, of recognizing it no matter what face it wears on a given day.
Stacy, thanks for calling by. You’re right that part of the joy of Monceau for me is its familiarity in all weathers and at all times. I feel it is somehow mine, and after 5 years living in Paris it is the only part of the city I would describe that way.
Your story is fascinating – that in walking between those two wonderful parks you came to realise that the walk itself was what mattered, with its increasingly well-known layout and and small daily changes. I can imagine how gradually that route became an intimate part of your life, and gave you a feeling of attachment to the wider city.
Jill, This post made me think about my last visit to Paris, when I got to spend two weeks and got into a routine that started to make me feel at home. Probably the most important part of that routine was to begin each day by walking to the jardin du Luxembourg (about a half mile from my hotel) and walk every part of the garden before returning to the hotel for breakfast.
Jean, hi. It fascinating how many of us look for patterns and repeating rhythms to help us feel comfortable in a new place – and how welcoming green space can be in a big city.
Oh my goodness, if I ever were to imagine the park of my fantasies, this is exactly what it would look like, right down to the ponies!
Cathy, thanks for the comment. Monceau is a wonderful, traditional park.
Soon after cycle tourism was introduced in Paris I hired bicycles with my French friends and for the first time in over 20 years I took to the streets on a bike… in Paris, of all places. But we had a wonderful day, Starting from Les Halles, driving through the courtyards of the Louvre and around the Isle, then setting off for the Parc des Buttes Chaurmont and then the Parc de la Villette. Exhilirating!
As for ‘feels like home’. No, you don’t go from Africa to Europe to ‘feel like home’… but my favourite spot in Paris is the Place des Vosges. Through a door in the south-western corner of the square you can access a ‘private’ garden which I believe is part of the Hotel Turenne Le Marais… I’m about to walk there with the googleEarth Man and see if I can pass through that door…