- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 25, 2002

Twenty million tourists descend on Paris each year, hoping to capture a taste of the city's legendary romance. Meanwhile, the two million Parisians who live in the city that everyone wants to visit can't wait to get out of town. They spend their working weeks plotting weekends at country houses in Provence or skiing trips to the mountains with maman and papa. In December and August there is a mass exodus to sunny climes and ski lodges.
This year Mayor Bertrand Delanoe decided to give Parisians a beach-away-from-the-beach for those who hadn't yet departed for the real thing. In early July, billboards and newspapers started trumpeting 'Paris Plage' Paris beach. The idea was that the city would dump tons of sand on the banks of the Seine, plant a few palm trees and umbrellas, and voila. Our own little Riviera. There were a couple of drawbacks, as I discovered when I hit the beach the day it opened. The river, with its gray waters and floating debris, is hardly an inviting place to take a dip. The stretches of golden sand I had imagined turned out to be a narrow strip next to the cobblestone (board)walk.
As promised, there were the umbrellas, and palm trees.
A little more unexpected were the 500,000 other people in attendance.
True to the exodus mentality, the population had answered the call of the tan and descended en masse onto a stretch of riverbank less than 2 miles long. We shuffled along, walled in by colorfully-dressed parents and toddlers and Euro-cool couples in reflective shades. The cobblestone bank fell off sharply to our right, and we could feel the warm sun on our backs. A few brave souls hadn't even bothered with the sand. They'd plunked down their towels on the pavement and bared it all to catch a few rays. One guy in a Speedo had skin that gleamed so white it looked like he spent the rest of the year indoors. In a basement. Bathed in the greenish glow of a television screen.
Beachgoers who were used to more authentic French seafront found a few other differences between their favorite vacation spot and the Seine-front: no topless women. No pebbles, like on many beaches on the Mediterranean. No bouillabaisse. And the lounging-space was only about 20 feet wide, tops. Another 20 or 30 feet was devoted to the walking masses.
Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. The plage planners had also conceived an area of attractions for visitors, perhaps suspecting the sand wouldn't be enough to accommodate the crowd. In Paris the only people usually seen on the field playing petanque, a sport similar to lawn bowling, are over 55. Being male also seems to be a prerequisite. Here there were kids lobbing the balls erratically, young women in sundresses. Other children scrambled up a climbing wall. There was a place to try your hand at sailor's knots, bizarrely. And a graffiti exhibition, where artists blasted hip-hop, the sound of their shaking paint cans melding with the beat.
Given all that the crowd, the lack of swimming potential, the dearth of tanned flesh the plage offered a rare glimpse of community in a city whose denizens' camaraderie is more often seen during political demonstrations than laid out on towels. We were tied together by a collective longing for escape, a shared self-delusion that this 40-foot wide strip of concrete would allow us to bake ourselves golden and hear the cry of gulls flying overhead.
I prefer other Paris waterfronts to the one promoted so heavily by the city. I've taken to coming to Canal St. Martin, part of a waterway that runs from the Seine northeast through the city. Instead of palm trees and umbrellas, I can relax with pierced, rumpled-hair artistes and lecherous bums. The army-green water ripples by the in breeze, topped here and there by a mysterious, greasy film. I've never seen water so opaque. On sunny days young Parisians gather on the pavement in the place where two cafes offer cocktails on either side of the water. In the movie "Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain" (or just "Amelie" in the U.S.), this is where the heroine perched on one of the canal locks to skip stones.
It's an eclectic spot. This weekend, I saw two ladies sitting on a bench, one doing the other's nails in fire-engine red.
I saw many French bulldogs huffing along with determination at the end of their owners' leashes.
I saw shaved-headed lesbians with boxing gloves duking it out alongside the water. Down the Seine from the city-sanctioned plage is the Batofar, a nightclub on a boat with a lighthouse-like beacon at the top which blinks blue and red. The nightlife aficionados left in Paris during this quiet month gather here, another waterfront location, on Sunday afternoons to dance away their no-vacation-yet or vacation-already-ended blues.
The club has set up a wood patio, a huge bar, and yes, even palm-like bushes. The DJ presides over the scene from the boat itself as partygoers bob below. I don't exactly get my fill of beach time at these waterfront sites, but at least they provide a respite from Paris in August, that ghostlike city of closed boulangeries and strangely diminished traffic. I still haven't been to the Riviera.

Julie Hyman is an American reporter working in Paris.


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