Living in Paris is easily the best travel experience I’ve ever had, and in November of 2009, the city was preparing for Christmas even as I was preparing to leave early in December.
Christmas market stalls sprung up near the Louvre as well as in places around the church of Saint Germane and more far-flung places such as La Defense. We’d had rain, and snow was expected to come soon.
I don’t remember exactly what day it was – it was sometime before Thanksgiving – but I read that French actress Charlotte Gainsbourg would be lighting the lights on the Champs Elysées that night, so I shrugged into a coat, grabbed my gloves and camera and hopped on the Metro at Place d’Italie, getting off at L’Etoile – where the Arc de Triompe is – and walking back down the Champs Elysées until I found a huddle or people and a fenced-off area.
The place around the fence was crowded, but I worked in as close as I could, considering pulling out my press pass from the United States and telling them I was on assignment so I could get close. Deciding that was unethical, I hung around the fence and waited, my breath steaming in the crisp air even as more people crowded in and the temperature started to rise from our massing of body heat.
A limousine pulled up and Gainsbourg got out with an entourage. She made her way through the crowd quickly before stepping onto a stage with some local dignitary or other (All I really knew was that the man she was with wasn’t French President Nicolas Sarkozy).
There was a quick speech that was too fast for my learner’s French to understand, and then Gainsbourg flipped a switch.
Trees that line the Champs Elysées had earlier been strung with lights, and all at once they flashed on. The boom of air canons being fired made me look to where confetti now fell, and Christmas music began playing over loudspeakers as the assembled press and onlookers clapped and cheered.
Gainsbourg hopped off the stage, shook a hand or two and then hustled back into the limousine.
Now that Paris was officially celebrating the holiday, I took a walk around the city to check out some of the other Christmas lights that the City of Light had to offer.
Some of the stores on the Champs Elysées, were turning on their lights, and I headed in the direction of Boulevard Haussmann to check out the Grands Magasins – the department stores of Galeries Lafayette and Au Printemps.
The world-class shopping destinations didn’t disappoint, as the entire façade of Galeries Lafayette was alight with a constantly changing light show.
Inside the massive department store, a Christmas tree took up a significant portion of the circular entryway, and I found myself wondering if it had been designed with that in mind.
Au Printemps was more muted, but Christmas decorations hung from the sidewalk overhangs, and the storefront was lit with a flickering Christmas display.
I smelled something unusual and realized that a man actually had chestnuts roasting over an open fire. Something I had heard being sung for my entire life had never before had any real resonance for me, and now, standing in Paris at Christmastime, a classic American Christmas carol finally matched a smell.