Paris: Living like a native in the city of lights

From the moment I clapped eyes on her as a teenager, I’ve been utterly in thrall to Paris.

I have visited many times but my dream has always been to experience the city as a citoyenne, living and working there. So when I heard about the Centre Culturel Irlandais, my heart leapt.

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The CCI, or Irish College as it’s colloquially known, is our international arts centre and residence, located in the city’s historic Latin Quarter. I had stayed here before for work, as well as visiting my elder daughter who lived there when she did her Erasmus at the University of Nanterre. I know many artists and writers who attest to the creativity and peace the space offers, some adding the caveat that summer is more productive than term time.

The centre offers a wide array of residencies, bursaries and research fellowships. Friends and colleagues had raved about its residential language scholarships which are made available each year in August, aimed at cultural or media professionals who want to improve their Francais for professional purposes.

Scholarships cover return flights from Dublin, four weeks’ accommodation and about 80 hours of language classes. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity to spend an affordable month on the Rive Gauche.

The CCI really is a stunning asset in Ireland’s portfolio. For centuries, it trained priests and students. In 1807, its superior, Jean-Baptiste Walsh, persuaded Napoleon to change the name of its street by prefectorial decree from Rue du Cheval Vert to Rue des Irlandais.

As the Irish had previously sought refuge in the College des Irlandais and its other establishments in Paris from the 16th Century, they too made the college available as a safe haven to others in need. It was converted into a hospital to accommodate French soldiers during the Franco-Prussian war and in 1945 the premises served the United States army as a shelter for displaced persons claiming American citizenship.

In its immaculately restored old library, a collection of about 8,000 printed books and manuscripts includes ancient illuminated texts.Downstairs, the mediatheque offers a multi-media library. The chapel holds Mass every Sunday (except August) though I was lucky enough to attend, on my last day, a service conducted by Father Hugh in English, French, a little Gaeilge and some Latin.

Our days had a delightful predictability: up and a quick glance into the courtyard – the centre’s beating heart – to see who was about. Then breakfast in the Salon Des Residents before our morning commute.

This is literally life-changing: one colleague told me how a month of crossing the Jardin du Luxembourg, walking through its pristine rose gardens bathed in sunlight, observing groups of school children, joggers, equestrians and yogis, made her reassess everything.

The Institut Catholique, or the ‘Cato’ as it’s known, takes the business of teaching French very seriously. Hundreds of pupils, from Chilean rich boys set on diplomatic careers, through priests and nuns from the Vatican, to sweet Asian girls, decked out in Chanel, are all taught French through French.

If you don’t know a word, your (excellent) teacher will find a synonym. A two-hour online exam before arrival plus a five minute tete-a-tete with a francophone ensures you are accurately assessed. A mock exam happens halfway through, followed by the gruelling final. It isn’t easy. But, readers, I passed. I say that, not to boast (well maybe a little) but to underline the seriousness of the endeavour. This is, emphatically, not a doss.

I wrote a fable, debated immigration and racism, discussed the death penalty, wrote a play and a cartoon. We listened to heavily accented French radio, read Nemirovsky, Balzac and Simenon.

The weekend before our exams, the courtyard (scene of many smashing parties) was empty, bar the occasional student hunched over their books. This is the value of the place: for all the fun and laughter – and there was plenty – it is a place of work. You take it seriously.

That said, I had my jaunts too. Three of my closest friends visited one weekend and sprang me from ‘the convent’ as they dubbed it. I braved a dystopian downpour and the angriest taxi driver I’ve ever met, to cross the river and land in the fabulous Marais.

The heart of Paris’ LGBT+ community, this Jewish quarter is so woke even the pedestrian crossings are rainbows. A muddy swamp (marais) until Henri IV constructed the beautiful Place des Vosges, it degenerated into squalor after the Revolution. In the 1960s, it received a conservation designation and today is one of Paris’s most alluring quartiers.

We stayed in the divine, Neo-Gothic Bourg Tibourg, lunched in the Marche des Enfants Rouges: wonderfully atmospheric and one of the city’s oldest markets, it is named for the red uniforms worn by the children from the nearby orphanage.

Musee Picasso, housed in Hotel Sale, an exquisite 17th-Century mansion, was well worth the visit. The Marais is also home to the legendary Pompidou Centre and the Memorial de la Shoah. The latter commemorates the tragic fate of French Jews and in 2005, President Chirac unveiled the Wall of Names, engraved with the 76,000 Jews sent to Nazi death camps during World War II. Not for the faint-hearted, this superb museum is a must see.

A work project took me to La Defense, the city’s main business district. I found it fascinating. Taking the Metro, you emerge from its depths into a Paris totally unlike any other. A vista of vast skyscrapers greets you with all the major Gallic players represented – Orange, Total, Soc Gen et al – but in true Parisian style they’ve added a stylish patina of art with 60 or so sculptures by Joan Miro, Alexander Calder and others dotting the boulevards.

Among Paris’s endless charms are its wildly differing neighbourhoods. One steamy afternoon we visited Belleville and Menilmontant. Formerly outside the city’s walls, and therefore beyond its tax reaches, these arrondissements were popular with the working classes who would drink cheaply there. Low rents attracted students, ethnic communities and artists, who left their mark in the form of striking street art. The famous Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise where Wilde, Proust and Piaf eternally rest, is located in Belleville.

The epicurean experiences were as varied as they were – mostly – delectable. A little Lebanese bistro down the street was our go to place: cheap, delicious food served by a cross Korean lady. In ironic contrast, dinner at the fabled Michelin-starred Helene Darroze was distinctly underwhelming.

My favourite was a final supper with friends at Le Balzar. Steps away from the Sorbonne, this is a classic French brasserie: we dined on pan-fried veal liver drenched in butter and parsley, before a farewell digestif at Place de la Contrescarpe watching the kissing couples, the vendors, the drunks, the tourists – all so quintessentially, perfectly Parisian.

My lasting memory however, will be of my first night at the centre. Our group had met for bonding drinks in the courtyard and we were all talking. Suddenly I remembered Notre Dame. After all it had only been four months earlier that this loveliest and most iconic of buildings had brought the Parisians out in their droves, weeping, singing hymns and praying as they watched it burn.

Three of us dashed down to the Seine, the river is about seven minutes from the Irish college, and there it was – still sublime. We gazed, transfixed, at the golden stone before turning round to take the obligatory selfie.

When we looked back, the towers had started to turn coral, bathed in the roseate glow of the setting sun. It was unbelievably beautiful, romantic, moving, enduring. Much like my adored Paris.

Take Two: Top attractions

The Sainte-Chapelle

Located a short walk from Notre Dame this is a Gothic gem built by St Louis, king of France in the 13th Century. It boasts stunning stained-glass windows depicting scenes from the Old and New Testaments.

The Seine

Paris is a great walking city but for a different perspective try a boat trip on the Seine. The Vedette de Pont Neuf tour lasts one hour and takes in Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Tour Eiffel, and lots more.

Getting there

Madeleine Keane applied for the language bursary

Closing date for applications for a language bursary (which Madeleine, above, applied for) or artist residency is January 8. Ireland’s cultural flagship on the European continent, CCI supports a community of artists and researchers, while also presenting a rich programme which showcases contemporary arts, culture and society on the island of Ireland; during the annual Fete de la Musique on June 21, CCI has been known to welcome more than 9,000 people over one evening for the best of Irish music, from traditional to hip-hop to jazz and R&B.

NB: This feature originally appeared in The Sunday Independent.

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