Productive in Paris*
I like nothing more than to be productive. Contradictorily I’m a free spirit and roam Paris’s boulevards and streets. Some days that means assuming the mantle of the Flaneur and like one of my favourite authors, Edmund White, losing myself in its diverse arrondissements. Perhaps walking for miles is productive in its own way. I’ll keep convincing myself of that.
There’s my favourite new finds in the 6eme arrondissement, close to St Germain and the Quartier Latin. You can have a browse in upmarket store, Bon Marche, or walk past the plentiful cinemas with their bounteous supply of French-produced films.
I sometimes wonder how the French film-industry will cope with delays to film-making caused by Covid. But then I imagine directors will choose to cast Juliette Binoche or Isabelle Huppert in a frothy flick about a woman who doesn’t know their husband is having an affair until they discover his mistress’s mask.
Sometimes I kid myself and pretend that simply “being here” (as a decent support to my family) is in its own way productive. Alternatively, I try to reassure myself that discovering new sights is an accomplishment of sorts.
On Monday, I was so out of it that I couldn’t tell east from west. I kept on circling Rue de Vaurigard and the path to Rue du Bac. But yesterday, I managed to walk 14km in what probably counts as one of my longest ever walks – not just in Paris, but in any city I’ve ever visited.
I had a great chat with my mate about impact and whether at this stage in our lives we feel we’ve had quite the impact we hoped for. I concluded on the walk that while this past year I’ve been unproductive by my standards, I’m using outmoded and unfavourable benchmarks to judge myself. Why strive to be ‘productive’ in Paris when I could simply choose to feel contented instead?
I may never spend a whole month here again, so why hide myself away indoors just to “work” when as a writer much of my source material will come from experiencing life outdoors? Yes, even in a pandemic.
Talking to Dad, who has worked hard his whole life and still does age 75, I don’t hear someone contented, but someone grumpy who remains deeply dissatisfied. It makes me even more determined to try and enjoy my life and not worry too much about whether I’m a “success” in the mould of my Dad.
Peculiarities of Paris
I try hard to absorb the sights, smells, tastes and sounds of the city, but I really ought to take my notebook with me and capture more of these experiences.
There’s the fancy little jingle you hear on the Metro which echoes when you walk past the Metropolitain subway exits. There’s the high pitched drawl of the emergency vehicles which are still satisfyingly less shrill than the sound of police cars in London. There’s the churches that smell of century-old books. There’s the tinkle of ice cubes in your long drink as you customarily find a table spoon served inside for you to stir. And there’s the slim-fitting trousered millennials who pull off striped marinieres and cute linen shirts.
Paris beams in glorious sunshine – from experience September is a wonderful time to visit. La Rentree means all the brasseries and bars that shut up shop over the summer have now re-opened. The return to work and school is taken very seriously here. I hear boulangeries bake special cakes just for the occasion. Returning school kids have something sweet to mark the milestone moment.
Talking of boulangeries, they often sell a snail-shaped pastry with raisins or pistachio, and sometimes even chocolate. It’s not unlike a pain aux raisins, but tastier. There’s even a patisserie that Anthony Bourdain once recommended dedicated to the produce, called Escargot Patisserie. I must check it out.
When you look at a map of Paris, the same snail shape takes effect with its spirals and twists. It’s hard for a foreigner to fathom how the 5th arrondissement neighbours the 14th and how stretching your legs, you can walk in a straight line from the 3rd arrondissement close to le Marais, and next find yourself in the 11th close to Republique, and within minutes, in the 20th, without crossing any of the numbers in between.
Paean to Paris
Scrap anything you’ve heard me say about Paris in recent days. If there was anything other than glowing praise, forget what I’ve written and concentrate on this heady latest emotion now. It’s a stunning city with its seemingly endless avenues and overflowing street cafes.
This is what always happens when I’m in Paris for long enough. My defences collapse like the walls of the Bastille.
If I take a strong coffee or two, I suddenly want to consume and experience everything on offer, to wrap my long arms around what tantalises me on my caffeine-fuelled strolls. There’s a crèmerie; I might order a glace. There’s a viennoiserie; I’ll buy another pain escargot, if you please.
The tentacled boulevards stretch in diagonal lines from the Left Bank to the river islands and far beyond, up the hills of Montmartre and to the east, along the Canal St Martin.
There’s the never ending surprises: on this trip, I’ve joyously stumbled across La Chappelle, Elise Sainte-Eustache and the tarted up Les Halles, the imperious Val-de-Grace (so grand, I assumed from a distance it must be the nearby Pantheon), Elise Notre-Dame-de-la-Croix de Menilmontant, the Marche de Reine Elisabeth II and the tea gardens inside the Grande Mosquee de Paris, where you can sweat off any pastries you’ve wolfed down, in a hammam. Countless buildings claim to have some connection to Marie and Pierre Curie and if you look up high enough to see the plaques, also to Louis Pasteur.
And then there’s the contrasts, the hallowed air of Saint Severin next to the multifarious donor kebab establishments close to Boulevard Saint Germain.
I want to be in three or four places at once, to simultaneously speed up and slow down so I absorb everything and feel the city’s potion sink down my gullet.
There are times where it gets a little frantic. This past ten days, it’s felt as though half of Paris has descended on to the streets. The local economy might not just survive but even thrive in the coming months. Parisians see eating out as a holy rite. In any other city, I’d walk past the vitrines of minimalist boutiques and ponder what future they could possibly have but sauntering past designer stores le Marais or the shops tightly packed in on Rue des Quatre Vents and Rue Gregoire de Tours, I’m certain everything will be just fine.
But for an escape from the noise (although possibly not the €150 price-tags) you might want to venture to Ile St Louis, one of my preferred positions in Paris to watch the bateaux mouches and mooch around. It could be a fortressed island with its shuttered houses and sprinkling of independent traders.
Much like Berlin, city authorities have spared no expense and missed no opportunities to remind us decades later how many of its citizens were murdered by Nazi terror.
There’s the plaques installed around the time of the Chirac government that serve as a reminder how many schoolchildren were snatched and murdered in their prime because they were born Jewish.
Lately, more and more households have plastered their own poster memorials dedicated to former inhabitants who likewise were murdered in the Occupation because they happened to be Jewish. Many of these are now torn or fading away.
There’s the impressive memorials to the Shoah and to deportees in and around Ile de Cite and Ile St Louis.
There’s the tribute to victims of the slave trade in Jardins du Luxembourg. And a curious and not entirely satisfactory memorial to the countless Algerian dead when disgraced Vichy war criminal Maurice Papon and the Paris prefecture threw them into the Seine at the height of the Algerian war. Yes, thrown into the Seine – you read that right.
There’s the faces that stare out at you as you crunch over autumn leaves in Cimitiere Montparnasse, stolen from this world far too soon. A young beautiful woman whose face adorns her gravestone, taken at 25.
There’s the words engraved on gravestones in Montparnasse marking victims of the round-ups in the Val d’Hiv. Vichy officials were viciously complicit in sending fellow Frenchmen and women to Auschwitz. And then there’s the names of Jews who somehow survived the 1940s terror and thanks to the righteous Gentiles and the Resistance, lived to whenever they lived – but, critically, weren’t murdered.
And then there’s the wall outside the Memorial to the Shoah naming each and everyone of these righteous men and women, from the Pyrenees to Brittany, Alsace and in between, who hid, and often at great risk, aided, Jews, so three quarters of the country’s Jewish population could survive.
As a gay man, I’m especially proud to see new streets marking Pierre Seel, a homosexual deported and killed in the Holocaust, and Harvey Milk from San Francisco.
There’s so many plaques and memorials, including to those who resisted but who fell in their (ultimately successful) attempt to rid this city of the Nazis.
This city hasn’t always been Woody Allen wet dreams and rom com flicks.
*Apologies to all purveyors of fine French linguistic skills. You’ll spot barely any of the French words in the text are spelt correctly. They’re all missing their accents. Unfortunately, I can’t yet work out how to produce accented ‘a’s’ and ‘e’s’, let alone ‘o’s’ and ‘i’s’!