Despite the excellence of its public transport, and the pedestriacidal tendencies of its traffic, the French capital is a walking city. If you cannot stroll comfortably from place to place, much of the pleasure of living in Paris is spoilt. When it rains, unless your destination is close to a Metro station, or you brave the demolition derby in the streets, you have to walk. In Paris, as in most other cities, the buses and taxis dissolve in water.
In other places I have lived (Bolton, Brussels, London), rain was tediously predictable. In Paris, the rain is malevolent. It rushes out of pipes placed at head-height by the city's archaic plumbing system. It gathers in great globules on the beautiful, wrought iron balconies and falls with astonishing accuracy down the back of your neck. If you have an umbrella, the aggravated rain-drops canon off the pavement and soak your trousers, or, if you are a woman, so I am told, bounce impossible distances up your tights.
Parisian street gutters tend to resemble mountain streams in the driest weather (part of the municipal cleansing system). In heavy rain, the gutters become raging Amazons. I have, incidentally, been asked by a reader to explain one of the mysteries of Parisian street life. What on earth is the purpose of those rolled up pieces of sacking, or blanket, or carpet, tied in string, which litter the gutters of Paris? Are they the bed-rolls of foreign students, who fell long ago into the sewers? Are they provided, thoughtfully but untidily, by the Town Hall to allow prams to ascend the high curbs?
I believe I know the unpoetic answer to this existential mystery, raised by Anne Hegarty of Baldock, Hertfordshire. Long ago, I worked a night shift in Paris and would walk home at 6am. I would see the African foot- soldiers in the city's great army of street-cleaners manipulating the unappealing bundles with their sweeping brushes; they are designed to block and direct the flow of water which cleans the gutters of dog-poo and other detritus. Who said the French are not a resourceful people?
Back to the rain. It was on the wettest day of the week, that I had to look after the children. Initially it was just Charlie, who is seven. Clare, aged 3, had been packed off to her best school-friend, Charlotte. After a couple of hours the girls decided to re-stage the Holyfield-Tyson fight and I was summoned to remove Clare before they reached the ear-severing stage.
What can you do with children in Paris in the rain? There are dozens of places the children have come to enjoy: the marvellous Jardin d'Acclimatation in the Bois de Boulogne, which is a permanent fair-ground set in beautiful gardens; the donkeys in the Jardins du Ranelagh; the toy yachts in the Jardin du Luxembourg (actually they don't like that one, but I do).
The problem is that, apart from being costly, all these activities are impossible in the rain. Only one option was left: the puppets. There are 15 puppet shows listed in the Paris entertainment guide. My favourites are the Marionettes du Ranelagh in the 16th arrondissement. But they have a suspect, corrugated iron roof. The last time we went there in the rain, it was like having a cold shower with your clothes on. The Marionettes in the Champs Elysees are in the open- air and, anyway, disappointing.
It was agreed that we would try the marionettes in the Luxembourg gardens, which have their own miniature opera house.
Puppet shows are a revelation of national character: an admission of the nation's true self, or an assertion of what the nation secretly believes itself to be. In Britain, we have to put up with the tedious Mr Punch: boorish, violent and self-opinionated.
In Paris, the puppet shows are much funnier and more varied, with wonderfully elaborate costumes and scenery. They almost all chronicle the adventures of Monsieur Guignol, a French everyman: cheerful, playful, feckless, resourceful, loyal, polite but finally not too respectful of authority. He is usually dressed as an 18th-century butler, with a strange waxy three-cornered hat and a long pig-tail.
It is Monsieur Guignol's task to resolve, with a mixture of silly puns and slap-stick, the bizarre complications which arise in a classic children's story (for instance Little Red Riding Hood with a cuddly wolf who only eats pasta). The one we saw this week was a cock-eyed mixture of Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella.
We emerged after 45 happy minutes into ... bright sunshine.Reuse content