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April 04, 2014

April In Paris

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Aimee Suggitt

The feel of spring in Delhi, makes Madhu Jain reminisce about travel to various parts of the world and a return to Paris as she saw it as a three-year-old

Remember that old Frank Sinatra number:

‘April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom,
Holiday tables under the trees,
April in Paris, this is a feeling
No one can ever reprise.’

I certainly did, remember that is, as I sat in our garden looking at the glistening jacaranda, kachnar, neem and cassia fistula (amaltas) trees, all sparkling green after the sudden shower this morning. The clouds have now lifted and the sun zooms back as fast as it had vanished. It reminds me of a smile breaking through a veil of tears. March, this year in Delhi, has been quite mercurial. The sting of winter has you wrapping your shawl tighter one moment and discarding it the next as the heat from the rays of the gradually more confident sun makes you uncomfortable and hot.

Don’t worry: this is not going to be a weather report. It’s just that the current indeterminate weather – a rather bitter winter has begun to lose its bite – reminds me of spring. And spring, well, it brings to mind Sinatra’s hummable words about April in Paris, and with them the feeling of Paris. Paris more than most other cities is not just a place, a capital, or a mere summing up of latitude and longitude. It’s where the lives of many passing by or stopping to set up home for a while have changed direction. Actually, make that just changed.

A promise of paradise

Spring is also the time when thoughts turn to travel. The newspapers spill over with advertisements for both mundane and exotic destinations, promising paradise in package tours. The hard-pressed start dreaming of escape. The more organised and the fashion-slaves go shopping for their holiday wardrobes, giving the task even more importance than what they will see and do.

An increasing number are already salivating about what they will eat. Like: have palate, will travel. They map their journeys, zeroing in on places that offer the kinds of cuisine they presently lust for. Long before Indians started going on culinary tours a media tycoon whose publication I once worked for used a Michelin Guide to plan his sojourns in his quest for the best restaurants – much like an explorer looking for the source of the Nile or hidden treasures. This ardent, self-confessed gourmet only went to the cities or towns or villages in Europe which boasted restaurants with the most stars.

Lately, small groups of men or women, who occasionally take a break from their spouses, increasingly enlist for week-long cooking classes. Tuscany is probably the most frequented, following in the wake of the Americans who began the invasion of the gourmet meccas of Tuscany in Italy and Provence in France decades ago. Many culinary explorers also take their cue from books by authors like Frances Mayes, the food and travel writer and gourmet cook. Her books, Under the Tuscan Sun and Bella Tuscany, undoubtedly launched hundreds of amateur cooks and set many off on the gourmet trail.

The latest avatars of travellers are the selfie-generation. They go where their visages can be poised against spectacular views and quaint by-lanes and captured for their moment, spark if you will, of immortality – the 15 seconds of fame on the social media they seek. Where they go, others are sure to follow.

Memories unspooling

For me, the stirrings of spring will, alas, be short-lived, soon to be cannibalised by the hot oven that Delhi becomes late April. But, for a brief moment let me indulge in my never-changing fantasies of Paris, since I may not be headed there this summer. Let’s call it time-travelling. Paris is no longer the Paris I first knew and related to like a character in a romantic novel one has an enduring crush on while growing up.

Yet, in the memories unspooling as I write this column the Paris of my youth has not aged. Nor has it been botoxed into an artificial beauty and outfitted in chrome and glass – that is as long as I look at the city of light through rose-tinted glasses. Through the lens of nostalgia the ubiquitous fast food restaurants, which have long been elbowing out the more intimate neighbourhood cafes and brasseries peopled by the locals, become invisible. Berets and cobblestoned little streets reappear.

Reverie allows the ineffable aroma of freshly baked baguettes and croissants to gently invade your olfactory senses as you pass by a boulangerie. Bread is no longer made in most bakeries, but in some industrial place far out in some suburb. Actually, many restaurants now cart prepared food from a centralised kitchen – so much so that recently the government has made it mandatory for restaurants to state that the food was not being cooked on the premises.

Perhaps my ‘crush’ on Paris has to do with the fact that my first memories surfaced here. I can remember, as if it were just yesterday, the seductive aroma of pain au chocolat wafting towards me each time we entered the boulangerie next door on Avenue Kleber where we lived for a few months when my father was working at UNESCO. I must have been about three years old at the time. No pain au chocolat has ever smelled or tasted the same since, except in the musings in my head.

It isn’t just the tiny slice of childhood spent in Paris that draws me to the city. After spending the formative years of my life (10 to 19) in Washington D.C. and New England, going to the Sorbonne to study in the late ’60s, when much of the States was rather provincial, was a lifechanger. The short-lived revolution of 1968 had just happened, and life changed for everybody.

It was the heady whiff of what being cosmopolitan was, long before the word became the preferred drink of Carrie Bradshaw in the popular television series Sex and the City – and not just a drink.

No wonder, Paris, je t’aime, but mostly in my reveries.

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