Taking time to smell the Paris roses

Serendipity: For the French Open, the subway is closed. It could be a disaster, or it could be delightful.

June 04, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

PARIS -- Only a few days after I arrived in Paris to cover the French Open for The Sun, a friend said to me, "Why is it you go to Paris and everyone goes on strike?"

I laughed. After all, only the museums and the baggage handlers at the airport had gone on strike.

But then, two days ago, the Metro went on strike too, and it was no longer funny.

The Metro is the Paris subway. With its workers on strike, the City of Light snarled to a halt. Buses, if you could figure out the routes and transfers, were packed and slow. Taxis were filled and caught in massive traffic jams all morning. When I found one available and asked to go to Roland Garros, the tennis stadium, I was told, "Madame, c'est impossible!"

And so I walked. Across Paris. Setting a fast pace for two tense hours. Trying to read my map and making wrong turns. Seeing the inside of pharmacies and chocolate shops only to seek out kind people who were willing to come into the street and set me on the proper course.

By the time I arrived at Roland Garros, I was exhausted.

My whole body hurt, as much from the tension and the weight of my work satchel, loaded down with a computer and tennis reference guides, as from the walk.

A walk that was a good six or seven miles, according to a bus driver I asked on the way home that night.

But yesterday was different.

Instead of a trial, it was an opportunity. I had left the computer gear in a locked desk at Roland Garros, and I gave up trying to cut the distance through a maze of Parisian back streets.

I knew where I was going and how to get there.

From the Arc de Triomphe, I headed straight down Avenue Victor Hugo.

And this time, it was a chance to window shop, to have cafe au lait and a pain au chocolat at the small cafe, Paris Patisserie, where the waiter sang, gave French lessons and otherwise made it a happy place to rest.

When I got to the private garden at Square Tolston, it took my breath away.

On Tuesday, I had smelled the roses as I sped past, but this time, I stopped. Nearly a dozen of its lovely red and white rose bushes intertwined into a glorious display of spring.

I took time to buy a few newspapers, the International Herald Tribune, USA Today and the London Times.

I peered in the windows along Victor Hugo: the riding shop, filled with fine leather saddles and jodhpurs and bridles; the shop Lolita, its window filled with an incredible sheer, black dress made of nothing but lace and delicate beads; a cheese shop, with intriguing smells from too many kinds to identify or count; the windows of Lenotre, a shop of gourmet chocolates, bread and delicatessen delights.

And shoe stores. Who knew there were still places to buy graceful, thin high heels -- not the thick, clunky platforms favored by today's youth?

As I sat on a bench looking at a wonderful old residential building with long French windows, open to let in the fresh morning air, I realized I was no longer going to be able to tell friends: "Yes, covering the Grand Slam tournaments is wonderful, but if you want to see the marvelous cities in which they are held -- the French Open in Paris, Wimbledon in London, the U.S. Open in New York or the Australian Open in Melbourne -- you have to come days early or stay after, because there is never time to see anything but tennis during the event."

Certainly, that is no longer true. I'm seeing parts of Paris I've never seen before. And compiling a story to tell my dad.

The next time he tells me about how he used to have to walk five miles to school each day, I will tell him about the time I had to walk six miles to work for several days in Paris.

At home, we'd probably call it a long hike. Here, the French might say it is Le Grand Marche. The French have it right.

Yesterday, it was a very great walk.

On this day, it took nearly three hours, with all my gawking. But I arrived at Roland Garros without feeling tired. No Tylenol needed. A wonderful morning spent. The rain even held off until I got here.

And if the Metro remains closed, it could be another Grand Marche tomorrow.

Pub Date: 6/04/99

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