CATHERINE HEANEY finds every city has its own version of the season, from street parties in London to the deserted arrondissements of Paris …
When I first moved to London in the early 2000s, one of the things that surprised me most was that it had a proper summer. Not a theoretical one based on what the calendar said, but an actual ongoing, mood-altering, no-jacket-required-not-even-in-the-evening spell of warm weather. Having grown up in a city where summer often felt more like an aspiration than a guarantee, this was as revelatory as it was unexpected. (Weren’t Dublin and London basically interchangeable, weather-wise? I’d always thought so.)
I had arrived mid-winter, but during June, July and August of that first heady year, I watched the city blossom, and in the sunlit camaraderie of its parks and thronged evening pubs I finally saw a crack in the carapace of Londoners’ implacable reserve. Suddenly it felt allowable to make eye contact with a stranger, if only to silently commiserate on the volcanic heat of the Bakerloo line. Over 18 years later, I think this is still largely true. It’s as if – sad to say it in the current moment – London discovers a kind of European alter-ego in the summer months, and collectively thinks “sod it, life is short – pass the Aperol”. The ways in which this manifests are as varied as the city herself – in Hackney’s London Fields, teenagers line up on their towels at the Lido to sunbathe and flirt; on Hampstead Heath, the north London bourgeoisie bring their picnics to open-air concerts at Kenwood House; young foodies congregate in Pop Brixton, a series of converted shipping containers, to graze on fish tacos and organic wine. More than anywhere else, London’s parks – its pride and joy – become a hub of community life, hosting open-air cinema one week and local book festivals the next. Then again, maybe it’s not just a continental thing – Londoners have always loved a good street party, be it the annual behemoth of the Notting Hill Carnival or the bunting-bedecked celebrations of each decade’s royal wedding. Indeed, it’s an irony that a city which can often feel so atomised on an individual level excels in coming together on a grand scale (remember the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony? It feels a long way from the current mood).
Across the English Channel in that other great capital, the effect of summer on the populace is a bit harder to gauge – largely because they have all left. As anyone who has visited Paris in August will know (and as I found out two years ago when I spent a month at the Centre Culturel Irlandais), there is hardly a French person or an open boulangerie to be found, as the locals abandon their boulevards and cafés to a frankly alarming number of tourists. On the upside, this means you can explore without running the gauntlet of the Parisians’ famous disdain for visitors to their city – the businesses that have remained open might actually be happy to see you. (And in truth, I found the few Parisians I met much friendlier this time around.) You are also forced to be a bit more imaginative and head beyond the Marais and the major museums in a bid to escape the throngs yourself. This might bring you to the quieter, well-heeled neighbourhood of the Bois de Boulogne to visit the Frank Gehry-designed Fondation Louis Vuitton art gallery or, at the edgier end of the spectrum, to the vibrant neighbourhood of Belleville, home to cafés full of unapologetically chain-smoking locals and the Buttes-Chaumont park with its great views. However, as charming as this languorous, home-alone version of the city is for a while, there’s no denying the intoxicating, invigorating effect as the tanned Parisians return to reclaim their quartiers, bringing some much-needed chic back with them: goodbye nylon backpack, hello Givenchy sac.
My newly minted (and not very watertight) theory is that, much like dogs looking like their owners, cities more visibly take on the characteristics of their residents in summer. Take Berlin, which offers up a perfect distillation of its young, right-on, international population when it shakes off the Mitteleuropa winter and gets ready to party. Berliners take drinking in the outdoors to an art form, from sun-dappled beer gardens to pop-up bars and deck-chairs ranged along the banks of Spree, and yet it always feels good-humoured, inclusive and leisurely. And that’s a clear reflection of the city’s enduring appeal: it manages to balance a very German, civic-minded sense of order with a freewheeling hedonism in a unique way that finds its truest expression in the summer months. In a city that is all about the simple pleasures, there’s a kind of pure joy to be found in cycling along the leafy streets of Kreuzberg on a warm summer evening, or meeting friends for a picnic at the former Tempelhof airport, its wide open spaces and runways now a huge public park.
Of course, you could name a whole alphabet of cities with their own glorious versions of summer in Europe alone: Athens (for outdoor living and great food cheek by jowl with ancient ruins), Bordeaux (the family scene around the riverside Miroir d’eau and a food market to die for), Copenhagen (for festivals and concerts at the stunning Louisiana museum)… and Dublin. Maybe it’s the distance of years apart, but I’ve come to realise that I came from one of Europe’s great summer cities all along. I remember it every time I have a sunset dip at Seapoint, or see a concert in the Iveagh Gardens, or take a walk around Howth Head. And you know what? If it means wearing a jacket in the evening, that’s fine by me.
EATING Poké bowls, (good pour garder la ligne) DRINKING whatever the bartender decides at Bisou in the Marais WEARING the new Dior 30 Montaigne bag TALKING ABOUT The giant bio-degradable fresco at the Eiffel Tower
EATING On the pretty oudoor terrace at Narcissa in the East Village DRINKING Negronis at Cecconi’s in DUMBO – what a view! WEARING white wide-legged cropped pants and SLP velvet slides TALKING ABOUT Finding a pool in NY: The Sentry is the new hot spot
EATING AT Petersham Nurseries, Covent Garden; Berners Tavern at The Edition hotel Drinking English wine – now officially A Thing Wearing MiH Mabel shirt (wait-list only since K-Middy wore it to the Chelsea Flower Show) Talking about Bo–Jo, Deal or No Deal; the Manolo Blahnik exhibition at the Wallace Collection
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