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Old flame still surprises

Return to Paris  Herald Travel Section

After 12 years in Auckland, Diane Clayton returns to the city of her birth, Paris. City of Light. City of Love. City of dog poo.

Paris is many things to many people but for me a catchy, emotive nickname no longer cuts the moutarde.

I was born in the working-class 12th arrondissement, went to school in the posh 16th, university in the historic 5th and lived most of my life in the leafy northwest suburbs.

But for the past dozen years I've lived in Auckland - the beautiful City of Sails and, according to a recent survey, the third-best place in the world to live.

How does life in Auckland compare to life in the city of my birth?

Well, I found out with my first trip "home" in almost half a decade.

Like all good Parisians my first real Paris moment begins with catching the Metro. It's a disturbing feeling of the ultra-familiar and completely unknown.

Am I still a Parisian or a tourist in my own city?

The only thing for sure is that rediscovering the city won't involve catching the Metro to the Eiffel Tower or the Champs Elysees - my old instincts quickly remind me that no real Parisian goes there.

These two most-celebrated Parisian attractions are for tourists only.

I decide my first stop will be Metro Grand Boulevards - a two-minute walk to what was my favourite restaurant - Chez Chartier in the 9th arrondissement.

Reassuringly nothing has changed - the exquisite 100-year-old dining room, the paper table-cloths (upon which the grumpy but extraordinarily efficient elderly waiters write your order and add up "l'addition") and the simple but tasty food is exactly as I remember it.

I do sense the restaurant has, like so much of the best of Paris, become a bit of a tourist trap, but I guess you can't have it all.

Stomach pleasingly full, I decide to ditch the Metro in favour of a cheaper and healthier option - the bike-sharing "Velib" scheme.

Paris was the first major city in the world to introduce the concept back in 2007 - it now has 14,000 bikes and more than 1200 bike stations across Paris.

And despite what you might think about Parisian drivers and traffic gridlock, it turns out cycling across the city is easy and fun.

Velib's success has now spawned Autolib - an electric car-sharing system in place since 2011. For about $24 a week, users can pick up and drop off cars where and when they like.

Another change in public transport since I left is the reintroduction of trams.

There are now five lines offering the speed of the Metro while still being able to enjoy the sights of the city.

So getting around has never been easier, and in some ways is now easier than Auckland - a city with just a 10th of the population of greater Paris.

The problem now, where to go that's authentic but not obvious.

Fortunately, my old friends let me in on a new secret - Paris in 2014 is all about bringing new ideas to old and unexpected spaces.

First up, Le Comptoir Général - an underground bar built in an old factory that doubles as an art museum dedicated to ghetto culture.

The bar is behind a nondescript door in a back alley in the 10th arrondissement near the Canal St Martin (where Amelie Poulain skimmed her stones).

It's hard to find but open that door and you'll find yourself in a bubbling, vibrant hub of food, drink and creativity.

Along similar lines is the popular Centquatre (the 104) in the 19th. For most of its life the building was a notorious funeral parlour - a place where the corpses of soldiers from the Algeria and Indochina wars were brought.

The building has now been transformed into a centre of artistic excellence with everything from drama to music, cinema and urban art all under the same roof.

The "recycled space" theme is also reflected at an official level with numerous new green spaces.

In the 17th Les Batignolles is the site of Paris' failed bid to host the 2007 Olympics.

Again the space has become the centre of a radical renaissance.

One corner, which used to be a gloomy rail freight yards is now le Parc Martin Luther King, a sanctuary of rural peace in the heart of Paris.

So better public transport, new bars, restaurants, buildings transformed and many more green spaces - the next question is obvious: has this general air of change and freshness improved the notoriously sour mood of the people?

Like Parisians themselves, the answer is complicated.

In the anonymous hustle and bustle of the metro, footpath and mall - no.

The default expression is still an unsmiling frown. The default mood still one of worry and stress.

But just when you think all is lost, an unexpected moment of conviviality and solidarity.

Like the moment I emerged from the Metro into the main hall of the teeming St Lazare train station.

Commuters of all ages and styles had stopped running, and frowning, and were joyously listening to and discussing a virtuoso piano performance in the middle of the train station.

Of course the brilliant pianist was just another commuter killing time before his train.

When he stood up to catch his train, a different commuter took his place for another masterful performance.

It was the perfect example of "le complexite Parisien" - distant, discreet but also secretly friendly and wanting to share.

The one thing that hasn't changed is the average Parisian's adoration for their pets - the number of tiny poodles I spotted in handbags was astounding, as was the number of dogs wearing frighteningly expensive looking coats.

Fortunately the locals do seem to have caught up with the rest of the world and are much better at picking up their dog's "crotte de merde", which is just as well as the once-omnipresent motocrotte (poo patrols on motorbikes) are no longer in operation.

And it's not just dogs - in September last year a cafe for cats opened in the 3rd arrondissement - le Cafe des Chats is an upmarket cafe that's become so chic and popular you now have to book months in advance if you want to go there with your cat for a drink.

For all its changes, the one thing that hasn't changed is this fascinating city's capacity to surprise.

By Diane Clayton

Paris has not lost its capacity to surprise. Photo / Thinkstock

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