There’s a deliciously 80s’ retro feel to the Eurostar now, as it moves from looking dated to looking cool. I hadn’t been to Paris for years, except all too briefly to nip out of a trade show for a less than average meal about fifteen years ago. We packed a picnic, like a couple of elderly biddies on a coach trip to Eastbourne, and were in France by late morning.
Somehow, I’d expected that detached aloofness that I’d always experienced in Paris, that even my other French friends had dismissed, with a Gallic shrug, as being a misplaced sense of superiority. You know what I mean; that glazed look as you speak perfectly decent French that they pretend not to understand, or ignoring your presence at the patisserie to serve Madame behind you.
Such attitude has gone. Everywhere we went we were welcomed with a genuine sincerity. And even more noticeable, was how many staff spoke good English. My schoolboy French was scarcely needed.
We stayed at a small but charming hotel in the 7th Arrondissement , near the Musée d’Orsay . Cold, and crisp, with brilliant January sun, the city enchanted me once again. The familiar sights took on a new dimension as I had, unusually for me, time to enjoy.
We wandered through the main streets, and took little back routes. One thing struck me more than any other, and that was the sheer number of independent shops. Despite France’s economic woes, there were very few vacant premises, and every side street seemed a mini village. The patisserie, boulangerie, family run bistro, cheese shop: all are there, like a mini provincial town. But, within a stone’s throw of the Louvre, or Notre Dame.
How different is our retail landscape here in London, and the UK’s major towns and cities. Here, these small local businesses have long disappeared, replaced by chains and multiples. Landlords are responding to demand, and biggest covenants, and these come from the big boys.
But something else is different in Paris; it’s the French way of life. Parisians value their local shops, and understand the quality, in a way that we just don’t. The retail landscape is not dominated by Tesco local or mini Sainsburys, because the demand isn’t there in the way it is here.
Change is coming here; the big four are suffering, and small is once again beautiful. But I fell in love with Paris, and I can still taste that croissant at the corner patisserie. Vive La France.