Jan 6, 2013

A Continentalist in Paris: Skating at the Grand Palais / The English Bookshop

Two gems in the 8th - the rink is about to close for the season, but the Grand Palais and bookstore are there for good.

After our earlier abortive attempt, we finally took up our skating session at the Grand Palais. We anticipated large crowds and made a point of getting there for opening time at 10 am. With our pre-booked online tickets we didn't actually have to wait too long to get in, but the line for buying tickets on the day was vaguely shocking.

It's a shame that it will close on January 6, because the setting is amazing. It's housed in the neve (la nef) of the building, a space topped by huge steel and glass vaulted dome. It's usually used to exhibit specially commissioned artworks, which my mother says have been pretty breathtaking in the past.

The rink is great, with a good main skating area and a decent-sized beginner's section with a selection of skating aids. However: it was clear that the organizers were maximizing their gains to the last minute and let as many on-the-day ticket buyers in as possible. So it was pretty crowded on the ice. The area also included refreshment stands, plenty of restrooms, and bleacher seats for non-skating companions.

I was pretty impressed by the quality of the equipment, especially the skates. Normally, rental skates are of the plain hockey variety - but the ones on offer were a type of hybrid with the plastic casing of hockey skates with little toe picks which make skating a lot easier for those used to figure skates. Also, there are free helmets of various sizes for kids. All the items were visibly used but in good shape.

We found out pretty quickly that T is not a natural born skater. She struggled from the moment her skates touched the ice and wouldn't let me help or guide her much - despite our pleas, she just didn't understand that she had to keep her feet still but instead continued to try to walk on the ice. This caused her to slip and get increasingly upset while I was dragging her up by the armpits to keep her semi-upright. We eventually got a chair-like skating aid, but T was not a fan.

And after bragging about how chill and tantrum-free she is, T had a glorious meltdown when I tried to help her take off her skates. She almost kicked a little boy in her efforts to get the skates off her feet more quickly, leading me to hiss at her to be careful, which in turn caused her to go from petulant whining to screaming for her daddy to come and hug her. My sisters and mother alternated watching her so I could get in a few rounds, but ultimately I spent most of the time sitting on the warming benches in the company of many more families with tantruming children. My favorite was the mother who'd put her highly reluctant four-year-old in a full skating outfit with the teeniest figure skating shoes and chastized her husband (I presume) for all the things he'd been permitting the child to do which would damage the kid's "form" - or the figure skates.

T cheered up as soon as the rest of the family was off the ice, and we headed to the English Bookshop near Place de la Concorde. The store is part of the W. H. Smith franchise, which for me conjures up the image of a halogen-lit newsagent selling magazines, Ribena, "crisps," and the top-20 bestsellers at every larger train station in the UK.

I was pleasantly surprised that this store instead exudes old-fashioned Gemuetlichkeit. It's spread across two floors with a great selection of contemporary fiction, classics, and non-fiction (as well as local and international magazines and stationery) and a dedicated kids' section on the second floor. Word of warning: this contains a huge number of book-related toys, so stuffed animal book characters, calenders, stationery, and other "I want that!" merchandise abounds.

Though she was mainly fascinated by the toys, T did look at a lot of books and gave me a stack she'd selected for purchase. To my own surprise, the one I liked best from this lot was Lynne (spouse of Dick) Cheney's Our 50 States. I think she chose it because it's illustrated by Robin Preiss Glasser, whose drawings she knows and loves from Fancy Nancy, and it turned out to be a treasure trove of accessible (and, from what I could see, non-partisan) information on the past and present of each united state.

I didn't buy anything this time around since the books are - unsurprisingly - more expensive than through online retail, but the whole experience reminded me of how lovely "real" bookshops can be. Sister 1 says she and her friends will sometimes just come to the store to sit down and read, and the atmosphere is definitely inviting.

The second floor also has a good selection of British and American treats on offer, including my beloved Reese's peanut butter cups. T was true to her roots by going for a pack of Cadbury chocolate buttons.

My mother and I did giggle at the table of diet books prominently positioned right by the entrance - oh, January.

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