12.  May Day, May Day

My email the next morning—the 1st of May—contained a confirmation from Hôtel Caulaincourt Square: there was a room reserved for me, and thus my trip’s last real challenge was resolved…I was free to spend my final couple of days in Paris as I pleased once I dropped off my bags. I unsentimentally left the Hôtel de Paris and went to the Charleville-Mézières train station to await my conveyance.

Speaking of conveyances: as I waited I had the opportunity to see how the SNCF handled wheelchair-bound passengers. They wheeled out a heavy-and-complicated-looking piece of state-of-a-PAST-art metal machinery, dark and solid, onto which a passenger in a wheelchair was more or less eased (it didn’t look like a smooth climb up the ramped lip). Then the two station workers in overalls who’d brought this thing out set about cranking a handle (maybe two…I didn’t notice) which very very slowly elevated the wheelchair’s platform to the height of the floor of the rail car, where a third person (onboard personnel, I believe) was standing by to help pull the wheelchair over any uneven patch and help the passenger turn the necessary tight 90° to navigate into the train’s corridors. Essentially, it was a big version of a U.S. car jack. This was belatedly a reminder for me to think through the handicap-accessible aspects of the various train stations I’d seen in this trip; unsurprisingly, the stations closest to Paris had the sharpest and most obvious accommodations for a wider variety of passengers (although when I say “wider” I don’t mean they were catering to the the fat-assed obnoxious piles of flesh the U.S. spawns, some of which are, unfortunately, affluent enough to travel abroad), while the “end of the line” stations’ amenities seemed like echoes of the 1950s.

The trip back to Paris (“pah-hREE,” pop. ~2,100,000) was dreamlike in its pace and detachment. My thoughts were everywhere else, too full of situations which would resume their pointless primacy in my attention when I returned to Seattle. The weather was overcast and stayed that way for the whole trip through Champagne country and into Paris’s suburban ring, and we reached the Gare de l’Est around 13h30.

From the Gare de l’Est I dove into the Métro and on to the Château Rouge station, still in a coda-like disconnection (but on auto-pilot in my home, absolutely at ease), watching impressions take shape and then dissolve into other tableaux. While it was a far cry from the immediacy and clarity of my arrival in Paris just two weeks before, it was equally appropriate (if less “earned”). When I emerged from the Métro and made my way up the tree-shaded, broad, and gently sloping rue Custine, there was a very light drizzle greying the entire scene…my heart swelled as the streets darkened and deepened that extra bit that transforms a photograph into a painting and seems to summon wisps of music out of anything you look at. Granted, I’m a rain-lover, but STILL…Paris slipped me a silver rose and just let me take it without fanfare or promise.

Which was a good thing because I’d gotten to town too early to check in at the hotel and as a result needed to take my time getting there. Near the point where the rue Custine and the rue Caulaincourt fuse (each of these streets arcs northward around the butte from its east/west mid-flanks, and they meet just east of the arcs’ midpoint), I found Café Arrosé comfortably populated by locals and full of a happy neighborhood vibe. I had a salad and a pichet of red wine, with sliced baguette of course, and I was Home. My mind kept murmuring “I’m here…I’m home…” whenever I looked around—at the wet dark street, at the passers-by, at the staff of the café as they worked together or interacted with regulars who were like family, at the other patrons, at the décor…. There was nothing wrong, only perfect contentment—aside from the bags at my side which I still would have to lug a bit further.

I checked in for my fifth stay at Caulaincourt (top floor, room 14) and simply savored the familiar view from the window: the views from the hotel overlook several flights of stairs and face a residential building, with the neighborhood and the square’s trees uphill to the south (to my left) and a view of the city’s northern edge and suburbs unrolling downhill to the north into a warm grey mass. The sounds of the neighborhood collect and rise in the pale canyon of these stairs (alas, there’s not much foliage there to buffer noise)…you can easily kill an hour or two just listening and vaguely watching the life of Montmartre’s northern flank from there (and accidentally looking into a few of the apartments in the facing building fascinated & curious). I took it in for a few minutes but then figured I’d go for a short walk as I re-acclimated to being in Paris.

“A short walk” is of course an arbitrary, almost ironic term in my world: I walk a lot, especially when travelling, as is probably obvious from this tale alone, and in Paris I favor walking around neighborhoods I’ve not previously encountered except on the map. This time was no exception, although it kicked off with a Métro jump to the place Clemenceau, from where I would cross the Seine to see how the American Church was looking and make my pilgrimage to the Eiffel Tower.

Usually when I’m travelling I visit many churches (which I never do in the U.S., except as a “tourist”), going inside whenever possible, to appreciate their architecture as much as their history and overall impressions, and when they’re not overrun by tourists I take a seat and relax into their vast, meditative space, usually in one of the rear right rows. But with the American Church in Paris, I’d only been inside in 1989 and then only to 1. shave and wash up after arriving in Paris too warmly clothed on a hot October day and 2. look for housing/employment notices on the bulletin board just inside. I figured I’d take at look at the old place after all this time and see how it was doing. Well, its bulletin board was now partly outside, in a porch/entry area, and there was an imposing person standing in front of the proper entrance, evidently as a guard. Times have changed…when I think now of how back then I’d stowed my heavy bag under a bench upstairs outside one of the restrooms so I could walk unencumbered and without sweating profusely to have my first look at the Eiffel Tower up close…well, stowing bags under a bench and walking away wouldn’t exactly “fly” these days, would it….

Having more or less satisfied my curiosity there, I continued along the Seine to the Tower (a pilgrimage, and one I’m never blasé about); en route I passed two adjacent buildings that caught my attention, both roughly at what has been labelled on maps of Paris as “Éspace Eiffel-Branly,” and one was under construction while the other was evidently finished, but there was no signage indicating what either was. Only when I was back in the Chew Ass Hay did I get the word from “poor dear sad old” Ian in reply to my query about at least one of them, which is the completed one: it’s the future new home of the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie. What compelled me to write him about these was that the one under construction had a slightly ridiculous and too-modern (almost futurist—or maybe Jetsons-ish) form that doesn’t at all fit with its surroundings (but to be fair it’s no metal-stick-in-your-eye like the Pompidou Centre is, in the Marais), while the completed one had a façade unlike any I’d ever seen before.

The future African/Oceanian art museum’s Seine-facing façade is richly—and vertically—planted with ferns, mosses, and various other ground cover. The effect is just short of mesmerizing but certainly is fascinating in a positive way, at least for me. Ian’s comment on this “dressing” was that it was maybe interesting “as is” but that it would probably dry up in no time and have the funding for its upkeep cut and result in yet another pompously-intended architectural eyesore in Paris; well, Ian rarely pays a compliment without a criticism attached…. As for me, I found the façade oddly charming—it doesn’t fit in with the neighboring buildings, but neither does it clash or especially stand out; I suppose it’s like having the lot next to a series of typical Parisian façades be a park, except in this case it’s vertical rather than horizontal (and presumably no games of boules will be allowed on it).

And so on to the Eiffel Tower. I mentioned this as being a pilgrimage, and I want to explain that briefly: I find the Eiffel Tower absolutely enchanting and a fine manifestation of some key aspects of what is French—its startling yet not disagreeable eruption from its surroundings, its magnificently subtle presence in the entire neighborhood, its superb proportions and embodied hyperbole, and above all its seemingly effortless paradox of almost fanciful grace and intense solidity. To pause and look up while walking under its center is to calculate pi to its last digit (and possibly to open yourself up for pickpockets, though I’ve always been untroubled in that regard); to view its exceptional placement in the cityscape is to see da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man smile at you. She’s beautiful and still worth a rhapsody or two off the cuff.

By the way, the experience of shuffling through the dirt/sand under the Tour Eiffel is alas now only a memory, as that area has finally been paved. Personally I consider this regrettable, but then that uneven turf was an anachronism of sorts.

Toward the École Militaire (the historical military school) end of the Champ de Mars there was an installation devoted to Peace, with a large pair of wood-and-metal blocks tightly framing the central vista from the École; these blocks contain a few computer monitors and some kind of data-entry interface which I didn’t see clearly (keyboards?) thanks to the abundance of other visitors to the installation when I was there, the interface serving to allow people to enter their names and home cities to a sort of ongoing petition for Peace. Its position—just across the place Joffre from the military school—was an interesting statement in itself.

From here—and I apologize if anyone reading this is getting the impression that this is a blog, as my detailed account is intended not to recount every piddling bit of this one walk on one day in Paris, nor to record for posterity my every puerile thought, it’s just that I truly do love Paris and want to provide friends and family who have asked for this account with some concrete illustrations of what I love about it (and yes, writing about it is a way for me to relive and enjoy the trip again)—I made my way indirectly toward the Tour Montparnasse…partly because it’s an unmissable (and ugly) landmark, but more because it’s adjacent to a couple of neighborhoods I don’t know at all (those to the west, whereas I’ve prowled around the Vavin and Gaïté quartiers a fair amount over the years).

When I got to the Montparnasse train station, I noted that the time was just at the top of the hour, and I impulsively abandoned my vague intention to check out the park which I’ve read exists above the station’s first stretch of tracks, instead deciding to take a nice straight walk along a major boulevard or two with an eye to clocking roughly how long it takes to walk from Point A to Point B in Paris. I’ve had to provide estimations of this, based on vague recollections and impressions, to people from time to time, and it occurred to me that I could actually establish a definite measurement for future reference. When I reached the Gare de Lyon and its unmissable clock, I found to my complete astonishment that only a half an hour had passed. So if you were wondering how much time to allow for a walk in Paris, there’s a yardstick for ya.

During that stroll I passed a grocery/café with a handwritten-looking sign advertising that they had “HOT & GOLD DRINKS.” I mused on that visual for awhile, figuring they weren’t referring to warmed Goldschlager, but later I saw another such sign elsewhere (and one the next day), and I couldn’t quite decide if there was a flawed sign being distributed by some small-shop syndicate or if Paris needed a vigilante/volunteer proofreader.

I’d had a casual request from Ian to check out the region of the 20th arrondissement where he’d be relocating within a month or two, so I decided my pace and walking stamina were good enough to continue on to that neighborhood via the lovely Promenade Plantée which runs along the old viaduct/railway line above avenue Daumesnil; I descended to the street level near the 12th arrondissement’s handsome town hall and headed northeast toward the 20th arrondissement. This took me through the place de la Nation, where I was solidly reminded that it was the 1st of May (a day known in the U.S. as nothing more than an archaic Spring ritual, in Europe it’s the Workers’ holiday, with far more significance and implied threat than the Americans’ “Labor Day”): for blocks in advance of reaching it, I could hear the drumming of the protest-minded masses already gathered there in anticipation of a big May Day demonstration that later that evening would probably degenerate (to nobody’s surprise) into vandalism, mild rioting, and the implementation of police forces to bring things back to just slightly out of control. (The contemporary Parisian police never seem to be minded to enforce laws or even establish order, wary as they probably are of the PR aspects easily touted by the involved citizenry [regardless of justified claims of either side of the conflict] as well as their own force’s historical excesses and abuses.) The place de la Nation was largely given over to bands of drummers (mostly concentrated on the outer west edge of the roundabout) and various hangers-on, and it had an air of sustained anarchy; the police presence I found quietly settling into place along the little residential streets north of the place with a calm ease.

After meandering around Ian’s soon-to-be quartier (which struck me as being a fairly nice little town on the edge of a much bigger city, a bit like Seattle’s 15th Avenue was to Broadway on Capitol Hill a decade or two ago) as dusk approached, I bought a bottle of Liptonic (my favorite non-alcoholic beverage other than water, and I’ve only ever found it in Paris) and hopped back to the Hôtel Caulaincourt by Métro, my feet having had plenty of use that afternoon. A very light sprinkling of rain graced my generally uneventful evening; I dined on a salad at Chez Francis la Butte just up the road from the hotel around 22h30 (thus returning to my usual dining timeframe) surrounded by a mix of locals and young British tourists. The only real drawback to this evening was that my waiter automatically addressed me in English and usually did so even after I’d clearly demonstrated that I both preferred to speak French there and was also quite capable of doing so.

And thence back to the hotel, just a few blocks west of the restaurant, and to bed.

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