Thursday, May 17, 2012

American in Paris, Part II: I Go Out Walking

I purposely left most of my time in Paris unscheduled. I prefer to wander and get to know the feel of neighborhoods, discovering little neighborhood cafes and shops along the way. Being tied down to a schedule is too much real life for my taste.

Since I never adjusted to Paris time, I often woke up at 3 or 4 a.m. By day three I decided to take advantage of my strange schedule and used the morning hours to stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens, just a couple blocks from my apartment. From my journal:
"I walked part of the Luxembourg Gardens, which were more or less empty except for the joggers and what I think was a tai chi group. I mostly just wandered the paths and took some photos: the dreary gray skies and even grayer statues contrasted beautifully with the green grass and brilliant colors of the tulips."

I especially liked one statue in particular, which (according to Google's translation of the plaque accompanying the sculpture) "represents the character of Silene (foster father of Dionysus) nude, drunk and unsteady on his ass." I'm not sure whether "ass" refers to his buttocks or the donkey in the statue. I suppose it could be both.

 I loved the jovial look on his face. That's how I imagine I look when I'm drunk too.

A few joggers ran past me as I walked, but I mostly had the garden to myself. It rained the night before, so the paths were damp and the air was still cool. Statues appeared around every corner. Some were displayed prominently in the middle of lawns, but others were tucked into corners, framed by trees and shrubs.

The quiet, early morning calm made it feel like I was the only person in the entire place.

I only made it through half the garden that first day before I decided that I absolutely had to eat breakfast - immediately. I went back to meander the second half of the garden a few days later, on a weekday. It was busier then, with people cutting through on their way to work and school, but still beautiful and relatively quiet.

I branched out of the garden and walked plenty of city streets too, poking my head into shops and stopping at cafes to read and drink a noisette (an espresso with just a tiny splash of milk). At the start of the day I'd pick a neighborhood (or a neighborhood surrounding another destination I wanted to see) and then wander it aimlessly. Even though I generally had an idea of where I was going, I liked the idea of getting just a little bit lost and discovering something new along the way. There was a feeling of adventure to it all.

The majority of the times I got lost, I managed to do it two blocks from my apartment. I'm used to city streets that are laid out on a grid, a model Paris doesn't seem to have even attempted to adopt. For whatever reason, there was a two-block area between my apartment and the Metro station that was my own personal Bermuda Triangle. I knew I was close to my apartment, and I recognized landmarks - shops, intersections, buildings - but I couldn't for the life of me figure out how to get back to my apartment. Every single time I wound up in that area, I had to resort to Google maps on my phone. I ended up purposely avoiding it after getting lost three separate times.

Once, when I was really, truly turned around, I must have really looked it too, because a woman finally stopped and asked me, in French, "Perdu?" I speak zero French, but thanks to The Food Network, I recognized that one word. "Pain perdu" translates to "French toast," or literally "lost bread" (since it's traditionally made with day-old, or wasted, bread). The woman was asking me if I was lost. At first I shook my head, not wanting to look like an idiot, but then I pointed at the street in front of me, which was the one I thought I was looking for, and said its name, "Rue d'Assas?" She nodded yes, and I was back on my way. Whoever said the French were rude clearly wasn't speaking to the right French people.

Despite my useless internal compass (I'd make an awful migratory bird), I found that I loved walking everywhere. Each little neighborhood felt like an independent community, with its own bakeries, butchers, and markets. Someone would pop in at the patisserie on the way home from work for a loaf of bread and chat with the woman behind the counter like they knew her. People stopped and talked in front of buildings while they waited in line or headed home for the evening. It was such a stark contrast to my own life: traveling to work every day in my little hermetically-sealed car, without interacting with anyone along the way; coming home and parking in the garage, shutting the door without talking to my neighbors; dashing in and out of the faceless, maze-like grocery store as quickly as possible, never even really learning the faces of the people who work there. In Paris, daily life felt much more intimate; you're forced to interact with other people, bumping elbows on the Metro, making eye contact on the streets, talking to the person behind the counter as you pick up the ingredients for that evening's dinner. It felt like a life that was much more connected to everyone and everything around you.

I'm certain I'm romanticizing it. Cars in Europe are small and parking is scarce; it would be a royal pain in the ass to try to lug anything home from IKEA, let alone drag it up seven flights of stairs. Relying on public transportation leaves you dependent on someone else's schedule and majorly inconvenienced by labor strikes. It takes time to go from the butcher to the bakery to the market to collect fresh ingredients for dinner every evening, and French supermarkets seemed not to have as much selection as their American counterparts.

And yet, there's still something about walking those streets every day that's so appealing to me. Being surrounded by the sounds and smells of the city, connecting with other people as you go through your routine, feeling immersed in a place that is steeped in history at the same time that it's buzzing with daily life - I loved all that.

It felt vibrant and alive, and I felt more engaged with the world around me than I have in a very, very long time.


Katherine said...

Just read Parts 1 and 2. Your writing is just beautiful. I look forward to reading more.

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