Though it was recently voted the world’s most popular city for tourists by none other than TripAdvisor, Paris can be expensive. All those café coffees and museum tickets add up. Savvy travellers take advantage of what’s free. And free fun in the streets may just be why Paris remains in the world top ten.
So unstitch the schedule of your few precious days in Paris and hang loose at the weekend. The French have a verb for it – flâner – which means to stroll without a definite purpose in mind. Look up the noun – un flâneur – on Wikipedia and you’ll see that the person who does this is very French. It’s claimed there is no Anglo-Saxon equivalent.
The reason that Parisians continue to follow the example of the poet Baudelaire and take their ease in the streets is that it is so rewarding. Free events abound across the city – and the peak season begins about now.
This weekend (7-8 May), for instance, the big free happenings were the opera festival Tous à l’opéra and the Europe celebration in the square outside the Hôtel de Ville. But a little stroll this afternoon near the Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement (not far from the métro at place de la République), brought a host of unexpected happenings, and this pattern is repeated across the city.
The minute the sun comes out, the locals take to picnicing along the canal, strumming guitars, and generally being very Parisian and cool. But you don’t have to be Parisian or even cool to join in. You don’t even have to be prepared. Cafés and shops round about will sell you the makings of a picnic. Rue de Lancry has Greek and Lebanese traîteurs who do a fine line in nibbles, and the small local superettes (grocery shops) stay open on a Sunday afternoon in defiance of the Sunday trading laws to dispense chilled white wine and beer. If you’re not so young, and the hip you care about is the one you’re about to be operated on, there are lots of comfortable benches.
First up was a free festival of street theatre up and down the canal. My favourite was the carousel driven by parent power. Le Vache à manège seated its young patrons (2- to 6-year-olds only) on fantastic animals made out of scrap metal and feathers, while parents made the whole thing go round by pulling at the mamèlles propulsives (“propelling udders” is my translation but maybe you have a better one) of a metal cow. As the mums and dads tugged at the teats, the carousel went round to shrieks of delight from the little ones.
I passed one of the more typical street theatre types – a cross between Chaplin and Marcel Marceau – on my way to Place Sainte-Marthe for the inhabitants’ annual vide-grenier. This literally means “attic-emptying”. Every quartier has one. If you like jumble sales and junk shops, look out for an advertisement (usually a poster in a shop window or on a lamppost). So much less tiring than a visit to the huge flea market (marché aux puces) at Clignancourt, and probably better value. You’ll find vintage clothing, vinyl, books – especially BDs (bandes dessinées or comic books), junk jewellery and all sorts of housewares. The prices are much more reasonable than the flea markets or brocantes (junk shops) and haggling is very much in order.
Time to go home, I thought, taking a short cut through the 17th-century courtyard of the Hôpital Saint-Louis. Unearthly sounds greeted me. Two men with wings – no, horns – on their backs. One was playing the cello. The other stood around looking deep. L’Homme Cornu are two Belgians (maybe not so famous, but what does it take to be a famous Belgian?) whose artistic manifesto states: “the spectators, who play an active role in the performance, are confronted with a surrealist experience”. Now this is either the kind of thing you are intrigued by, or something you’ll break the speed limit to avoid. But surrounded by beautiful old architecture, on a sleepy Sunday afternoon, it’s worth a little listen surely. And don’t forget – it costs nothing.