The Champs-Élysées Goes Green and a Picnic at the Place des Vosges

June 15, 2010

la Ville Lumière – “The City of Light”; a common nickname for Paris, in reference to the ideas of the city’s philosophers during the Age of Enlightenment (and, some say, to its early adoption of street lighting)
un quartier – neighbourhood
se retrouver – to meet up (with each other)
Quel truc de ouf ! – “What a crazy stunt!” *
faire un pique-nique to have a picnic
Et si on se faisait un pique-nique? Why don’t we have ourselves a little picnic?


“This afternoon I will go to les Champs Élysées. They have transformed it to a big garden for the week end.”

I squinted groggily at the message on my cell phone, the words on the tiny LCD screen slowly swimming into focus.  Roused just seconds before from a near catatonic sleep by a lo-fi version of the Beatles’ Revolution (theme song and ring tone for Orange, my service provider), I wasn’t yet operating at a fully-cognitive level.  The wheels in my brain screeched loudly in protest as they sluggishly kicked into gear.  I blinked again, still processing, then sat up straight in bed.

Did I want to see Paris’ most famous avenue and busiest autoroute transformed into a giant garden?  You bet your fancy Hermès scarf I did.

I shook the last traces of sleep off and quickly texted my friend Sebastien back.  “When and where do you want to meet?

The famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées, sometimes referred to by Parisians as “la plus belle avenue du
monde” (“the most beautiful avenue in the world”), is often choked with traffic. Photo courtesy Julian So.

A Quebecois expat who’s been working and living in Paris for the last 10 years, Sebastien met my friend Heather a few years ago as she was travelling with friends through la Ville Lumière.  It’s a story as old as time: girls go out dancing at local night club, girls get stalked by creepy German tourist that they can’t shake off, girls are rescued from unwanted attention by a friendly Quebecois who then joins their little group and dances the night away.  Okay, maybe it’s not that common a story.  At any rate, Heather and Sebastien became fast Facebook friends and when she found out I was moving to Paris, she sent me his contact info and instructed me to look him up.

As good-natured and friendly as Heather had described, Sebastien met me for dinner and drinks my second week in Paris.  Gallantly taking pity on a lonely Canadian expat, he generously welcomed me into his social circle, inviting me along on fun outings with his friends that served the dual purpose of boosting my morale and rescuing me from watching endless French-dubbed reruns of bad American television. (You think I’m kidding, but two episodes of Charmed were running back-to-back every day on channel M6.) Before I knew it, I was dancing up a storm in the quartier Saint-Germain, cheering on the Canadiens hockey team with a group of Quebecois expats, picnicking in the Bois de Vincennes…  and today, it appeared, I was going to see the Champs-Élysées transformed into a giant garden.

Two hours after receiving his text message, I met Sebastien near the Petit Palais, not far from where the garden started.  Ahead of us, in the direction of the Arc de Triomphe, a daunting sea of tourists and locals appeared to merge into one teeming organic mass of moving sound and colour.

From May 23-24, 2010, over 1.9 million people came out to see the Champs-Élysées
transformed into a giant garden. The massive expanse of green stretched 1.2 km from
the Rond Point des Champs-Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe, just visible in the distance.

The garden project, entitled Nature Capitale, was taking place over the May Pentecost long weekend.  It was the brainchild of artists Gad Weil and Laurence Médioni, who orchestrated the astonishing feat in collaboration with France’s Jeunes Agriculteurs, a union of some 55 000 French farmers under the age of 35. Overnight, hundreds of little French garden gnomes** transformed the 1.2 km stretch of road from the Arc de Triomphe to the Rond Point des Champs Élysées into a giant garden, converting three hectares of the normally choked-with-traffic thoroughfare into a vegetable bed composed of 8000 plots of earth, 650 fully-grown trees, 11 000 young trees and 150 000 young shoots — 150 different species in total — plus a few cows, pigs, horses and sheep thrown in for good measure.

The epic undertaking was an attempt by financially strapped French farmers to remind city-dwellers where their food comes from, drawing attention to both their trade and their increasing struggle to stay in business in the face of dropping food prices and high operating costs.  “[Do consumers] want the cheapest products in the world or do they want products that pay producers?” William Villeneuve, president of the Jeunes Agriculteurs, was quoted in a BBC article about the event.

It was a fantastically impressive sight and a profoundly noble cause but to be honest, my less-than-profound first thought upon seeing the massive expanse of green stretched out before me was, “Neat!”

Very likely the only time I will be able to sit dead centre in the middle of “les Champs”
without getting mowed down by oncoming traffic.

In addition to the garden, the avenue was also lined with booths offering samples of delicacies, plants and produce from different regions in France.  Champagne and tomme de savoie anyone? In the afternoon, a massive barbecue was being held by Parisian butchers. Leave it to the French to make their point in such a monumentally grand and festively foodie way. As my friend Aurélia later put it, “Quel truc de ouf !

Sebastien, managing to look cooler and less touristy than me.

Sebastien and I braced ourselves and plunged into the sea of people, inching our way along past the various plots of land and taking a few pictures for posterity in the process.  The size and scope of the project was awe-inspiring, but eventually, the constant effort of fighting through the noise, crowd and heat started to wear on us a bit.  “Et si on se faisait un pique-nique?” Sebastien suggested.  Sounded like a great idea to me.

We extracted ourselves from the melee and agreed to se retrouver by Métro St-Paul, Sebastien making the journey on his bike, and me braving the now super-jammed Métro at Champs Elysées-Clemenceau.  Thirty minutes and a few cursory stops later, we had in our possession a sweating cold bottle of rosé, some tantalizing olive bread and a basket of fresh strawberries to go.

We settled happily onto a patch of grass at the Place de Vosges, a delightful little square of park in the 4th arrondissement.  After the massive crowds on the Champs-Élysées, it was a welcome relief to stretch out, breathe and bask in the sunshine, lazily snacking on strawberries and wine.  The park guardian stopped by briefly to inform us that a (very) recent law now forbid the consumption of alcohol in public parks — then in the next breath, basically told us to just keep the bottles out of sight — nudge nudge, wink wink. Vive la France.

Sebastien went from store to store to store in the St. Paul neighbourhood, determined to find a place where
he could buy a bottle of wine. Sundays can be a bit tricky that way in Paris, as most shops are closed.

Doing my best Vanna White. Believe it or not, our very decent bottle of rosé only cost 4 euros.
Wine seems to be about the only thing that is less expensive in Paris than elsewhere.

After about an hour, we were joined by Ghislain, another friendly expat Quebecois, and as the afternoon progressed, a few more people showed up.  Natalie, an Ottawa native, came packing reinforcements of veggie sticks and dip in her super-chic picnic kit.  Faire un pique-nique is a cherished summer pastime to Parisians.  They take it seriously.  There are tools.

And then there were four…

The afternoon passed in a pleasant, languid haze of jokes, good conversation and furtive drinks poured from dutifully concealed bottles of wine and beer. The hours flew by until suddenly we realized that a slight chill had crept into the air, the sun had started to set and nearly everybody else had left the park.

We reluctantly packed up the remains of the picnic and meandered slowly down the rue des Francs Bourgeois.  After a brief detour to “American Hot Dog” which, according to Sebastien, is one of the very few places in Paris where you can buy a hot dog “like they make them back home,” we ended up at a little bar not far from the Hotel de Ville for a round of friendly drinks before calling it a night.

All in all, it was a perfect way to spend a Sunday.

* “Ouf” is actually the word “fou” (which means “crazy”) spelled backwards. It comes from Verlan, a slang spoken among the younger French generation, which takes regular French words and inverts them.

** I have no substantive evidence to back this particular claim, other than my own fervent wish that it were true.

One Response to “The Champs-Élysées Goes Green and a Picnic at the Place des Vosges”

  1. Andrea Says:

    Girl, you look chic and urbane. Sebastien, while undoubtedly cool, is wearing a backpack. ‘Nuff said.

    I miss Paris.


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