Paris In The Spring

Our view of reality is conditioned by our position in space and time - not by our personalities as we would like to think. Thus every interpretation of reality is based upon a unique position. Two paces east or west and the position is changed.
- Lawrence Durrell,

The Gare du Nord is the terminus for trains coming into Paris from the north, from the high-speed Eurostar that zips all the way from London via the Channel tunnel, clear down to poky little locals like my 10:30 from Amiens. It was midday when I shouldered my pack and pushed out of the station and, as quickly as I could, clear of the immediate area, which had a certain creepy aspect - too many obvious whores and pimps and pushers, which always means thieves as well.

I made my first big mistake, then: I got it into my head that I ought to find a room close to the Gare de Lyon, where my train for Avignon would be leaving later that week. I didn't trust myself on the Metro subway system; I wanted to be within walking distance of the station.

So, not unlike a damn fool, I walked all the way from the Gare du Nord to the 12th Arrondissement, a long and exhausting hike under a hot clear sky, sweating heavily in my jacket but having no better way to carry it; and so even though I traversed a considerable bit of Paris, I didn't really see much of anything. I should, of course, have taken the Metro; and to a different part of town - the Contrescarpe, perhaps - but somehow I lacked confidence; underground systems always intimidate me, even though I rode the subways around New York for a couple of years.

And finally wound up taking a room I didn't much like, in a mediocre hotel I cannot recommend (Hotel 2 Gares, on Rue Bercy just off Ledru Rollin), just because it was available and I couldn't face any more walking. The room was on the fourth floor (or fifth if you count American style), clean enough but tiny and cramped, with the shower down the hall and the toilet halfway down the stairs. (I mean, the toilet was off the stairway. Getting in and out was a tricky and somewhat dangerous operation, especially if you'd had a few.) One might, under such circumstances, be forgiven for resorting to an expedient memorialized in a certain famous Lenny Bruce routine. One might, if one would ever do such a thing. Not of course that one would.

But just then all that mattered was that I could finally put down my pack, dump my jacket, wash up a bit and change into a clean T-shirt, and go have a long-delayed lunch.

Here we see our hero sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris, contemplating a profound thought that has just struck him: Holy shit! I'm sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris!

I mean, there are these moments when you finally get to do something you've dreamed about all your life, and you suddenly realize you're actually there and doing it.... The sandwich hadn't been all that good and the price had been too high, but at the moment nothing mattered but that I was sitting at a sidewalk table in Paris, watching the people go by in the springtime sunshine. And the beer was very good and very cold.

It was May 1: May Day, a major national holiday in France and for that matter throughout Europe. The streets were alive with people out strolling around, enjoying the fine weather; it had been cold and rainy, I was told, most of the preceding week. I did some strolling myself, observing various small but interesting things:

One thing I really liked about Paris was the practice of putting little explanatory notes on street signs; you could find out, if you were curious, just who the person was after whom the street was named. (Most often someone noted for his mental or creative powers, rather than for hurting people. In Mexico a street is likely to be named for a general. In France it is more likely to be named for a writer, a scientist, a philosopher or the like. This says something enormously attractive, I think, about France and French values.)

On the other hand THEIR DAMN GUM TASTES LIKE RUBBER! Seriously, this was another thing I liked immediately: the practice of having condom-dispensing machines in public places, right on the street, with no embarrassment or silliness about it. Not that I ever had occasion to need them; it just seemed to me to indicate a certain maturity and intelligence, greatly superior to the idiotic American attitudes toward such things. I can just imagine the reaction if somebody put a Trojan dispensing machine on a street corner in Tahlequah, or Tulsa.

Eventually I wandered down to the Seine, and turned up along the right bank toward the distant bulk of Notre Dame on its ancient island.

The streets and bridges were really crowded here; everybody in Paris seemed to be hanging out along the Seine today. Up on the Île de la Cité, the Parvis-Notre-Dame was packed with milling locals mingled with the tourist herds:

A parvis is a square in front of a church. Isn't it really cool that I know that?

Notre Dame itself, I'm afraid, failed to do all that much for me - either that day or on a couple of subsequent visits, later on that week. Too crowded, too many tourists; I found it impossible to feel much of a sense of the history of the place - and its history is fabulous, no question about it - with mobs of 21st-century people all around me, too noisy and noisome to ignore.

But also it simply didn't impress me as a particularly beautiful building. Imposing, yes, but esthetically not all that marvelous; its lines are too blocky and squared-off, lacking that soaring, reach-for-the-sky quality of Amiens cathedral. All right, I admit it, Amiens had spoiled me; Notre Dame didn't have a chance after that...but later on I saw other churches in France, and elsewhere, that struck me as considerably more beautiful than Notre Dame.

All the same, there's no denying Notre Dame has something; it should, they worked on the damned thing for two centuries...and then too the place itself is saturated with history, clear back to the first church built by the Merovingian barbarians back in the 6th century; and before that, they say, the Romans had a temple here to Jupiter. As Mark Twain observed, the spot must be considered pretty definitely sacred by now.

View of the tower; if you look really closely you can make out a few gargoyles.

I admit, I'd have liked to climb to the top of the tower, if only for the view and the Quasimodo associations. And you could do that, but the lines were incredibly long and slow-moving and I didn't even consider it. For the same reason I didn't try to go inside. Which may be one reason I never really connected with the place; maybe you have to see it from the interior.

Still and all, it's an interesting structure. Elaborate use of flying buttresses, though (and I know, I'm sounding like a cracked record but I can't help it) they didn't do nearly as much with them, esthetically, as the builders of Amiens.

Leaving Notre Dame and the Île de la Cité, I wandered across the bridge - the ancient-despite-its-name Pont Neuf - and back upstream along the left bank, checking out the houseboats:

Houseboats always exert a powerful tug on the imagination; you feel you could live on a boat like that and be happy - and even though I know perfectly well that a houseboat combines the maintenance-intensiveness of both a boat and a house, I fall for the fantasy too. Safe enough, there being absolutely no chance of my having a chance to live it out....

All along the river banks people were walking and sunning themselves; some of them were dancing, too.

And then there were the lovers -

Oh, yes, the lovers. Out in force, kissing and embracing and holding hands, oblivious to the rest of the world...one popular image of Paris turned out to be true, anyway.

Watching them, I felt suddenly very lonely.

I walked back to the hotel and later did a lot of walking, looking for a place to have dinner. There weren't many choices; I had gotten myself into a pretty poor part of town for restaurants and a lot of them were closed for the holiday. I finally settled for döner at a little Turkish place - speaking more-than-rusty Turkish with the staff, that was fun - and wandered around a little more and then returned once more to the hotel and its steep endless stairs.

Paris is supposed to be the City of Light and I knew I ought to go have a look at the lights but there was no place anywhere nearby that there would be any kind of view; it was a low-lying part of town, though perhaps I could have seen something from the nearest Seine bridge. The truth was I was too damn tired to do any more walking today. My feet and legs hurt badly; for the first time since turning 58, I felt genuinely old, and I didn't like it.

Anyway, I told myself I could do the lights thing another night before I left.

So I lay down and applied myself to the bottle of Dalwhinnie my daughter had given me for my birthday; and I tried to think what I thought of Paris so far, but fatigue and booze took over and I fell asleep.

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