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Paris tango

Like Alice tumbling into Wonderland, ex-Sydney girl Carla Coulson reveals a portrait of Paris and its prized gardens that is both familiar and fantastic.

I will be forever happy in a garden, thanks to my father. My sisters and I could always find him outside, tending to his crimson hollyhocks and yellow snapdragons, climbing roses and glossy tomatoes. Dad had many gardens over the years; they were always rambling, in the English style, with surprises planted in their depths. Our backyards exuded a heady perfume of freshly cut grass twisted with the sweetness of white gardenias and old-fashioned roses. The sight of sweet peas tumbling down the length of an old paling fence is a treasured childhood memory.

The first time I walked through the Jardin du Luxembourg, I thought of my softly spoken father and how he would love it here. No matter how many photos I send him, I can never capture the scent of chestnut trees in bloom, sprinkling the faintest perfume of tuberose over the sixth arrondissement. Showing him a photo of hot-pink geraniums cascading from the Italian-inspired urns set around the lake would never provoke the sigh of admiration that I know would escape his lips if he stood before them. I would love nothing better than to walk the length and breadth of the Jardin du Luxembourg or the Tuileries with my father in autumn, watching the spectacle of nature turning from green to red as the leaves crunch beneath our feet, the season's very own soundtrack.

Most Parisians live in apartments and don't have the luxury of creating a garden of their dreams. Instead, the exquisitely manicured public gardens are their backyards, their refuge from tiny living spaces. In my first year of Parisian life, when I lived in the cabin's twenty-two square metres, I learned to appreciate many things that I had always taken for granted, such as sleeping in a normal bed instead of commando-rolling into a narrow bunk bed perched at the top of fifteen stairs, or lying full length in a hot perfumed bath instead of squeezing myself into a shower cubicle that threatened to fall apart with my every movement. Not to mention cooking in a kitchen, with more than just a stove and a sink, where at least one other person could join me. In the cabin, going to the bathroom meant taking just a step sideways, and entering the kitchen from here, a step forward. Going to bed involved a scramble up a wooden ladder and was accompanied by the sounds of my neighbours making love. It is this lack of space in Parisian apartments that forces everyone to spend more than half their lives dawdling in a bar, picnicking on the banks of the Seine or stretched out in a garden with millions of others.

Even though the Tuileries was closer to the cabin, and the Place des Vosges only around the corner, Francesco and I would happily ride across the Seine to enjoy the splendour of our favourite Parisian outdoor lounge room, the Jardin du Luxembourg. Falling in love with a Parisian garden is like falling in love with the past: almost nothing has changed for centuries. As we sat by the lake on stifling summer days I imagined I could see Maria de' Medici, wife of Henry IV, walking out onto the balcony of the Palais du Luxembourg (now the home of the Senate) and ordering us out of her garden and back to our apartment.

Homesick for her native Florence, Maria dreamed of creating a French version of the Boboli Gardens. Today the only trace left of her influence is La Fontaine Médicis, with its dramatic statues and voluptuous lines. The rest of the garden's design is French in every detail; symmetry and restraint are the keynotes. Twenty-five hectares remain of the original eighty hectares set aside for the garden. Baron Haussmann was the last bureaucrat to slice off a chunk of land, to open up boulevard St-Michel and widen rue de Vaugirard.

Wanting to learn more of the garden's rich history, I decide to seek out the head gardener. I wander into the original eighteenth-century L'Orangerie du Luxembourg, a building with a glass roof that is now used as a car park for the gardeners. A team of gardeners is clipping and trimming plants in modern hothouses next door and I'm told that the head gardener, Monsieur Brat, can be found in a far corner of the garden. A cute young guy called Christian offers to escort me there.

We find M. Brat in the garden's floristry boutique, which supplies the bouquets that decorate the Senate's offices. I came half-expecting to find a calm man, like my dad, but instead I meet a hyper Frenchman who speaks with the speed of a machine gun. He takes me on a tour of the garden, explaining that he started working in the garden as an eighteen-year-old apprentice, planning to stay for just a couple of years. Thirty years later, he still leaves his tiny balcony garden each day and crosses Paris to come to work in one of the city's most splendid gardens.

'The first thing you need to know about the Jardin du Luxembourg,' M. Brat says, pointing me in the direction of a series of hothouses, 'is its greatest secret! Our eighty specialist gardeners nurture a heritage of plants that has been handed down by our forebears. Paris's finest collection of orchids and exotic plants is tended here.' Passing through one hothouse after another, we watch the gardeners at work. While surveying a gardener trimming orchids with the precision of a surgeon, M. Brat explains that each plant is catalogued in a vast database. He ushers me inside a hothouse heated to 35 degrees Celsius; the tropical atmosphere, complete with staghorn and fishbone ferns, watered on the hour by bursts of mist, seems out of place in Paris.

M. Brat leads on, showing me rare species and telling me stories, while I race to keep up with him. 'In the nursery we have six hundred precious varieties of apple and pear trees, and we are one of the oldest gardens in France that still nurtures the seville oranges.' He tells me that the orange tree was a symbol of luxury in the eighteenth century, revered for its precious fruit, which was made into marmalade and orange-flower water and distilled for liqueurs. 'L'orangerie was first built to protect the royal collection of orange trees. Oranges are native to warm climates like Asia, and they can't survive our winter without protection. We remain faithful to the rituals. In winter, when the snow falls, the seville oranges are nurtured inside. But on the first of May we move them all into the garden where their beauty and perfume can be enjoyed by everyone.'

I ask M. Brat to describe the defining features of the classic French garden. 'The Jardin du Luxembourg is French in every sense. The essence of a classic French garden is the mirror symmetry of its layout. Trees are planted in straight lines and nature is honed to perfection. Traditional English gardens have more flowers and are freer in their layout, whereas Italian gardens have more ornate statues and are wilder. Everything in this garden has been considered carefully, from the show of restraint in the colours we choose each season for the flowerbeds to the pale-green colour and angle of the metal chairs dotted around the garden. The elms, the gingkos and the chestnuts are trimmed each season with precision, the lawns are manicured and are rarely opened to the public, and each season the ancient stone urns are filled with petunias.' After thirty years of clipping box hedges into perfect round balls; of trimming the tops, the sides and the bottoms of lime trees into neat rectangles; and of obeying the strictest rules regarding symmetry, M. Brat dreams of 'a garden less formal'.

For Parisians, the Luxembourg and Tuileries gardens are a treasured part of childhood. Generations of children have floated boats on the lake, lined up for pony rides and watched the puppet theatre, leaving their parents to seek peace in the chairs spread beneath the trees. The garden plays host to many groups of people - the chess players who gather in its heart; the beekeepers who practise their craft on the hives set near rue Auguste Comte; the ladies from the sixth arrondissement who walk their toutous (small dogs) here each morning; and the budding Yannick Noahs who belt tennis balls around the asphalt courts to their hearts' content. Even photographers are involved in the life of the garden, turning the fence along boulevard St-Michel into an outdoor photographic gallery.

The Senate is the official owner of the garden, which has been open to the public since the Revolution. 'It is the Parisians who feel the sense of ownership here,' M. Brat tells me. 'If they are unhappy with the show of flowers or the harmony of colours, they are the first to tell us. They force us to maintain extraordinarily high standards. It is what they are used to-' He breaks off as a man interrupts to complain about the state of the lawns, which look perfect to me.

Even though I spend a lot of my time in the Jardin du Luxembourg, discovering a new Parisian park is always a joy. In every arrondissement, whether inhabited by the rich or the poor, there is sure to be a park filled with kids playing in the sandbox and old men reading newspapers. In the Marais alone we can count fourteen secret gardens. Parc Monceau, in the smart eighth arrondissement, is home not only to nannies with their charges and sixteen-year-olds swapping first kisses but to a beautiful replica of a Roman ruin. Jardins du Palais Royal, a well-kept secret in the first arrondissement, is a shining jewel as exquisite as Place des Vosges. In the fourteenth arrondissement, Parc Montsouris conjures up images of a lush English garden, while the Bois de Boulogne to the west and the Bois de Vincennes to the east are the lungs of Paris. The Tuileries, also in the first, is rigorously French: all clean lines and open spaces.

Summer heralds the carnival season, and inside the gate a mini Luna Park is set up, with a towering Ferris wheel, ghost trains and waterslides, not to mention fairy floss for the excited children who love to be tipped upside down, twirled around and dropped from dizzying heights. Other cherished outdoor spaces are the monumental cemeteries of Père-Lachaise and Montparnasse, where locals sit quietly reading, occasionally glancing up from their book to find a lost Jim Morrison fan searching for the famous singer's grave.

Just when I think this city is all about understated restraint and square black glasses, the French surprise me. Who wouldn't love the current mayor, Bertrand Delanoë, who signs off each year on Paris Plage, a project that involves closing a section of road along the Seine and dumping thousands of tonnes of sand onto the piazza in front of his office in the Hôtel de Ville. An instant beach is created, inviting the whole city to come out and play. Blue beach beds and matching umbrellas line the quays from the Louvre to Pont de Sully, and a 40-metre pool is installed in the fourth arrondissement, where ladies bump and grind in the morning to aqua gym and kids play water sports by Pont Marie. Beach volleyball courts are set up, next to blue-and-white change cabins. Chinese lanterns are hung in the trees, dyeing the air red, blue and yellow. Last summer the entertainment theme was 'Tahiti', and Tahitian performers swayed and crooned in grass skirts to packed crowds every day.

You have to love a city that invites its residents and visitors to attend outdoor ballroom dancing lessons, and sets up hammocks for napping, water jungles for the kids to run through and petanque courts just like those in southern France - all without asking anyone to pay. I say bravo to Paris Plage and to a city that gives back millions of euros to its residents so they can take a summer stroll along the banks of the Seine without choking on petrol fumes.

Summer in Paris is short-lived. With unfailing precision, on the first of September every year the weather gods haul in autumn, leaving summer just a breath away from being a memory. The wind picks up the browning leaves and dumps them into the quays. Each day, men dressed in electric-green uniforms chase the leaves away with giant air-blowers, only to be greeted by the same amount of leaves the following day.

In these first cooler weeks, Paris comes back to life as everyone prepares for a new year of school and work.

Soon the rain will fall again. The trees will lose their leaves and the grey will press down hard on Paris, squashing the colour out of everything. I will don my long johns, woolly hat, gloves, scarf and puffer jacket that makes me look like the Michelin woman. The weather will try its hardest to keep me inside, but I will walk where my father would choose to walk if he lived here - among the frozen winter trees and lakes and the snow-covered chairs - waiting for the first signs of life to appear in bulbs and buds, waiting for springtime in the garden.

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