Sunday in Paris is special. One sees a lightheartedness, a disposition to play, that is not visible on regular days.
Traffic is seriously diminished for one thing. People are strolling, often in family groups or in couples. Every other day (including Saturday), we see children being walked home from school by their mamans.. Those walks are clearly purposeful, even if the duo stop off at a patisserie for a four o’clock snack. Way back when, the snack was often a slice of baguette and a couple of squares of dark chocolate, referred to as “the four o’clock.”
I don’t know if bakery treats were always a part of upscale Parisian weekdays, as I experienced this tradition in smaller towns and in the country. However, we have seen a fair number of bakery visits on these walks home from school.
Sunday walks are different, though. On Sunday, it’s common to see a schoolchild enjoying breakfast or brunch in a café with a father, for instance. All you can eat, for the child. Or it’s very common to see a family with a little one in a pram, and possibly one or two older siblings along for the walk – everyone walking together, Dad often carrying or pushing the little one.
Sunday’s also a day when people take dogs for a stroll. It seems overall that there are fewer dogs in Paris this year. Most of the ones we saw were cute little purebreds on leashes walking along with their people or making friends with each other while their people chatted on the sidewalk. Today we saw a Lhasa Apso, reminding us of our ongoing grieving for the Lhasa we had to put down for temperament problems before coming here. We also saw a chihuahua (long-haired), a Maltese, a Shih-tsu, a Pomeranian, a shorthaired fox terrier, and several King Charles spaniels, the breed that seems to be most popular this year. In previous years, we’ve seen several papillons, but we saw none of those today.
Since it was Sunday, after all, we decided this morning to start off by attending Mass at St. Medard Church, which is at the end of the rue Mouffetard, where we planned to stroll and shop after Mass. Rue Mouffetard on Sunday is famous for the popular singing and dancing, to Parisian accordion music, which has gone on there every Sunday since at least the end of the second World War. While watching old French movies from the 1930s, we’ve seen similar street gatherings to sing and dance– so the idea has been around for a while.
The street singing and music apparently started today at around the same time as Mass. As we were listening to recited prayers and chanted church music inside the Gothic church of St. Medard, and attempting to find the silence within to pray, we could hear, coming loudly from the square outside, the strains of bouncy accordion tunes and loudly sung popular songs. The music outside sounded so joyous and inviting, it was hard to stay focused on the liturgy in which we were participating. I entertained the thought of Dueling Parties!
The church was quite full with people of all ages, which surprised us a bit. No one around us appeared to give in to the temptation coming from the street party going on outside. Mass was over in due time, of course, and we streamed out into the street with all those who had been praying with us. At that point, the street was really full of movement and cheerfulness.
We decided to walk up the hill a bit and shop for food for later meals. Rue Mouffetard is such a feast for the senses! We could imagine ourselves at the beach while standing outside the poissonnerie enjoying the fresh, salty smell, and the multiple cheeses in the Cremerie were equally fragrant and appealing. Great lines waited outside what was obviously a favorite pastry shop, and also outside the butcher with his outdoor rotisserie , from which wafted the aroma of sizzling meats. The grocers’ huge displays of fresh produce drew us (and also many wasps) with the fragrances of perfectly ripe fruits of all descriptions. One grocer had a huge display of different, vibrantly colored mushrooms of many shapes and sizes.
One store that was delightful to explore was an old fashioned hardware and notions store. I wish that store were online!! The space wound back through at least three different buildings – a single narrow corridor leading back, lined floor to ceiling on both sides with tightly packed items, and another, parallel passage bringing the shopper back to the checkout line. The store had all kinds of gizmos and gadgets and substances and tools… We finally found there the net shopping bags that we had been able to purchase in Paris years before, but which have in recent years become extremely hard to find .
These bags are brilliant. They are compact and lightweight to carry around, and they expand enormously when filled with objects to carry. Nancy had one she had gotten a long time ago, and I had one I had purchased when I first got to Paris in 1961 – they’re remarkably durable and reusable — but we hadn’t been able to augment our meager supply. Today, we each found a new color to our individual liking, and now we each have two “filets.” I had asked just the other day in our neighborhood grocery where we might find them, and everyone standing in line to check out had gotten involved in the discussion, as often happens in neighborhood settings in Paris. At the end, everyone agreed they hadn’t seen one in a very long time. I was so happy we chanced on a supply!
Finally, it really was time for lunch and some of the massive crowd that been in the Square Medard, in front of the church, as Mass was letting out, had dissipated. So we strolled back down the hill to the Square, where the accordionist was still playing , and bunches of people were sitting at tables on the square eating, while a couple of dozen others were dancing enthusiastically or singing in chorus to the accordion melodies. Different dances succeeded one another. Ballroom demonstrations such as tangos and waltzes morphed into individualistic exuberance, gave place to line dances, and finally ended up as traditional reels and squares, a la francaise. While watching the traditional dancing, I was reminded of dancing I’d experienced in Old Mines, Missouri, as fiddlers played historical French dance tunes and people swung and swayed and clogged enthusiastically in some of these same figures.
Only two musicians – accordionists — have kept the party going every Sunday since at least the 1940s. The fellow today, a man in his sixties, perhaps, who was Mr. Personality, has been leading, he says, for 30 years. I felt really appreciative of his devotion over all this time so that we can still in 2017 enjoy this traditional Parisian street party. I hope his successor is already being trained in the wings!
As the party was drawing to a close, a large green municipal solid waste truck pulled up, slowly rounding the beautiful fountain in the square, and stopped. Out of it hopped at least five young people, men and women, wearing gray and yellow safety vests. Together, with great verve, they hoisted into the truck at least half a block’s worth of green trash cans and huge black trash bags. They swept the place where the trash had been waiting, and hoisted the plastic barriers that had surrounded it into a trailer. Five minutes after they arrived, they drove off again, leaving no trace of the mountain of waste matter that had been waiting for them. It was a neat magic trick! It was Sunday, and I find it hard to believe that city workers would be busy on what generally in Paris is a solemnly observed day of rest. Plus the youthfulness of the crew and the fact that it included attractive young women makes me think this was some kind of volunteer gig.
We Ubered from the Square, having thoroughly enjoyed our worship, shopping, lunch and participation in the street party, because at 3:30, it was time to be on our way to the other event we had planned for today – a free concert on the famous and historic organ at St. Sulpice Church. The occasion was a celebration of the 17th century pastor of that church who also founded the religious order of Sulpician priests, who originally had been trained at the enormous seminary that M Ollio, the priest in question, had built next to St. Sulpice Church. Members of the parish read aloud some of the spiritual letters of the pastor/ founder, and the parish organist and some of the male choir members performed music that (mostly) had been composed in the 17th century for that organ. The organ showed its stuff beautifully.
A fascinating aspect of the concert was that a videographer or two were upstairs in the organ loft transmitting to a screen set up in front by the altar an ongoing video of the organist and his assistants, whom we could not see from downstairs. Watching the organist’s hands flitting from one keyboard to another (there were five of them) and watching his feet dancing on the pedals added a whole new dimension to the organ concert experience. Another new dimension was to see that the organist wasn’t alone. There was one assistant on each side of him, and in between pieces, both young men were very busy pushing and pulling stops according to a list each had on a piece of paper. Neither Nancy nor I had ever before thought about the possibility of the organist at one of these enormous instruments having assistants at his side to help change up all the registers and timbres between pieces.
When the concert finished, it was 5:30 – time to go home and prepare a simple evening meal. We discovered that the bus we needed wasn’t running on Sunday – we guessed that as we approached the bus stop from a block away, because no one was anywhere near it, and, sure enough, the schedule showed that the line doesn’t run on Sundays. Fortunately, the square had a taxi stand and we were able to get a cab to take us home – driven by a very pleasant and attractive young woman.
It was quite a day, with three different celebrations, each so different from the other, but all animated by music. The day was memorable, a high point of this year’s stay here in Paris.