What Gets Caught Between Paris and New York

A Picture of a Picture

I visited the shops at the Parc de Bercy in the rain in the spring, which is how I saw so much of Paris. Because of that, I tend to remember the city as an upside-down place, reflected most clearly in the streaky puddles on the street, green from the fallen buds.

My feet got wet that day.

I tend not to love the places in Paris that feel as though they’re somehow trying to be like New York. The Marais feels that way to me sometimes — a neat row of clean-lined boutiques with black-painted walls and half-empty shelves, impossibly sparse and chic but too much like SoHo, or the galleries on the West Side. France without arcs and curlicues is hardly France to me. I want to see a breath of Versailles, of the lavish, even if it’s done with no effort. I liked the old stuff in Paris better than the new. Or maybe the New York-ized Paris just made me homesick.

The shops at the Parc de Bercy are of this sort. Bright and glassed-in, and built into old stone storage warehouses, the shops capitalize on a modern idea — put new stuff in an old space, and leave the old space as unmarred as possible, so it can exude all of its original charm and character. It’s well done, but it’s boring.

I skipped the travel store and the soap store and the gift shops. There was nothing I wanted to buy. My sandals were soaked through. Plus, I could do the same thing in Chelsea Market — hell, in Faneuil Hall.

I ducked under a stone arch to get some shelter from the rain and lowered my umbrella. That’s when I saw it.

There was a photo exhibit on one wall — large-format, vertical black-and-whites, all of them rather moody and dark — of street scenes from New York. I stopped in front of one, aghast. The photo was of a prewar building in the West Village, the typical fire escapes clinging to the brick like spiders. The ground floor was occupied by a shop, a dry goods store that sells coffee. The barrels were clearly visible through the front windows.

The shop in the photo — and that prewar building — stood exactly two blocks from my apartment in New York. I passed by it every day, smelled the coffee, watched the patrons shuffle in and out on weekends. And there it was, in an art exhibit in Paris.

I took a picture of the picture. I could not resist. A thing to take back with me, to restore to its rightful place on a quiet tree-lined block. A block where there once passed a French girl with a camera, who aimed her lens, and thought, “This looks like Paris. Only more so and less so, and maybe not at all.”

Go there: Bercy Village, a patch of new shops in old buildings, is located at 28 Rue François Truffaut in Paris. To get there, take metro 14 to Cour Saint-Emillion.

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