It's like a damn good scavenger hunt finding Parisians in tourist laden July. After I visit the crowded Musée D'Orsay, even my shady patch in the Jardin du Luxembourg beeps with digital cameras, cellphones and twangy drawls of ?Oh my god! Isn?t that cute??
In cosier streets on the other side of Boulevard Saint-Michel, I'm still hard-pressed spotting a Parisian couple, let alone one arguing passionately while waving away cigarette smoke around a carafe of Bordeaux. Sipping an Orangina, I wonder, Where are the Parisians?
Handing over an almond croissant, the local patissière has the answer and suggests the Bal des Pompiers on Bastille Day. Though it means ditching my friends at the Eiffel Tower fireworks, I'm determined that my visit to Paris be more than a perusal of fridge-magnet landmarks.
It's a proud tradition for fire halls (casernes) in most Paris arrondissements to swing open their doors to the public for July 13 and 14 Bastille Day celebrations.
Based on its festive reputation, I choose the Port-Royal fire hall in the 13ième near Les Gobelins Métro station.
Dressed in French red, white and blue and 3-inch heels, I happily hand over the 3 euros admission. In a finely pressed uniform, a pompier (firefighter) smiles, "Bienvenue mademoiselle," and extends his arm, leading me to music and laughter.
In the 19th-century stone caserne courtyard, there they are - Parisians! At the food bar chewing creamy croque monsieurs, Parisian parents cradle sleeping babies. Beyond the shiny disco ball, lovers converse quietly at café tables drinking Veuve Clicquot.
The Parisians - teenagers and white-haired folk - are also jiving to Rocky's Eye Of The Tiger, blaring from the loudspeakers courtesy of the pompier DJ.
In fact, the pompiers run everything. They bounce their heads, poking out the coat check cubbyhole, offer a hand to dance, light our cigarettes and serve ice-chilled cans of Heineken from the bar for only 2 euros. They also dominate the table dancing. Yes, real pompiers strut their shirtless stuff.
I stand by the coat check gob-smacked - especially when every half-hour sirens screech above the music and a few pompiers scramble off the dance floor, slip on jackets and hop into fire trucks.
At 3 am I leave a still substantial crowd behind and wave goodbye to my friend working the coat check in the caserne. I know I have found Paris - like a hybrid Robert Doisneau photograph with a splash of champagne and designer dresses.