13.  Perhaps a Stroll

When I finally lugged my travel-weary carcass out of bed the next day, I wandered into the first of what were intended to be two full days in Paris with no set plans. The weather was on the warm side of lovely, so I dressed “light” and set out for “a short walk.”

From Montmartre, after a fling with the idea of taking the Métro to a proper starting point, I simply walked south to the Trinité church area (about a mile away, at most), near which is the bakery that sells the one pastry I love in the form I love it…only there were none to be found when I got there. Oh well. I took the Métro for a short hop to the Musée d’Orsay in hopes of determining whether the museum would be swamped with tourists or if I could visit it for the first time since 1989; the many hundreds of tour-bus disgorgements in countless and unmoving long lines covering the plaza told me all I needed to know: this was a year in which the Orsay was far too popular and included on too many tours’ itineraries, and the scene inside would be just as horrendous if not worse. I love the Orsay; it’ll keep ’til next time.

Unsure where to go next, but happy to take in any part of Paris, I wandered up the Seine; I think I’d intended to visit again Landowski’s 1928 statue of Ste Geneviève (at the end of the Pont de la Tournelle), a lovely long white form which I have long loved and which really is best viewed on a misty cold night, but when I got near that neighborhood the original impetus evaporated: there was Notre Dame.

My attitude toward Notre Dame is generally that of acknowledgment: it’s a major icon of history, architecture, religion, and unfortunately tourism, and it’s worthy of its iconic status in most aspects (although the tourism nearly smothers the other aspects when you’re there in person, especially in peak tourist seasons). I’d visited it in the winter of 1989 and was reasonably impressed but not blown away, probably because of the hordes of Japanese tourists loudly bustling through and taking flash photographs of each other in front of Notre Dame’s various landmarks and treasures (and coincidentally also adjacent to the multilingual signs posted everywhere urging Silence and No Flash Photography, in Japanese as well). They were a horrid cultural atrocity in the Louvre as well, in this way, but within Notre Dame it was especially offensive and bewilderingly inconsiderate.

When I lived in Paris in the Autumn of 1998, Notre Dame was largely obscured by scaffolding as part of an obviously long-overdue cleaning. I largely forgot about it when I was in town in 2003, having other things on my mind, but this time I noticed it. For sure.

That cleaning’s results? Astonishing. Not as astounding as those of the Garnier Opéra’s, contemporaneously, but striking nonetheless. Noting the waves of tourists squeezing into the church in single file, I gauged the rate of flow and determined that there would be ebbs in the tide here and there, and I sat on a stone bench at the eastern edge of the parvis across from the façade to calmly wait for a good moment to slip into the church. I had no reason to hurry: I could have passed a few hours quite happily studying the façade, its newly cleaned details providing endless interest. My priority, per my usual quirk dating back to 1989 and my first time in Paris, was to locate St Denis (easy to spot because he’s decapitated and carrying his head at waist level); he’s there alright, flanked by a pair of slightly embarrassed-looking angels apparently at hand to help steer him.

As for the inside…well, I noticed more this time than just Japanese tourists, although they were there—albeit nearly outnumbered by Italian tourists, some dragging wheeled luggage right past the NO LUGGAGE INSIDE DUE TO SAFETY CONCERNS sign at the entrance (and the smattering of personnel evidently intended to enforce that restriction but who clearly had no means of doing so, even internally…Notre Dame is clearly an easy target for terrorism, but the French authorities apparently don’t think so beyond the level of posting ignored signs). The place was quite lively, really, with people chatting away in German, Italian, French, Japanese…for once I can say, with great relief, that I heard nobody speaking English. Beyond those impressions (and I realize it’s not a good sign to emerge from a church congratulating yourself on having resisted punching anybody), I did notice good things such as the rose windows and the stories within the various “lives of the saints” chapels, as well as less-good things such as the plethora of weak modern/abstract stained-glass windows along the upper part of the nave. But so many flashes…and such a ridiculous flow of undeserving people….

I love the fact that there’s always new stuff in Paris as well as “new” old stuff (whether new to me or newly available to the city, or renovated). One new thing I checked out that day was the new Solferino pedestrian bridge, which dates from 1996–1999 and incorporates an arch within an arch, linking the shores of the Seine at both street and riverbank level. It’s a quirky addition, but not glaringly wrong for its setting like the Pompidou; I kinda like it.

The Grand Palais’s recent cleaning was another surprise, along the lines of the Opéra Garnier’s restoration (circa 2003): the crustiness time had coated its roofs with is gone, and now its not-quite-elegant, not-quite-inelegant heavy birdcaging of iron and glass massing is much cleaner and sharper, with a French flag flying almost smugly over it. Curiously, there was one definitely off-key note this afternoon, in the form of a series of “art-ified” cow sculptures: I personally only saw them near the Grand Palais, but presumably they would be found here and there throughout the city if Paris were truly (and unoriginally) mimicking the civic gimmick already employed in who knows how many American cities (in Seattle it was pigs, in tribute to the big brass pig at Pike Place Market). Frankly I considered this to be a gauche misstep, quite out of place in Paris: she leads, she doesn’t follow. Besides, in a city so replete with interesting sights, decorated fiberglass bovines are just tacky as well as ho-hum.

My “short walk” continued for a couple miles via the Île St Louis and the Left Bank of the Seine, south up Monparnasse’s very gentle slope and through the Monge quartier as the students from the various universities nearby filled the streets at lunchtime, and back west along the southern edges of the 5th arrondissement before catching a Métro train to have a picnic lunch at the Parc André Citroën (which I’ve decided I do actually enjoy despite its rather austere modern design), near the southwest corner of town. From there I walked another couple of miles, generally heading upstream beside the Seine; I was unhurried but starting to yearn for shade, which I found as I crossed to the Right Bank and meandered through the Passy neighborhood, after passing the big round Radio France building to see what kind of concerts were currently on offer (nothing).

At the parvis of the Palais de Chaillot I was delighted to just sit on the broad row of steps and enjoy the classic view of the lovely Tour Eiffel: it was a day of what is for most people “perfect” weather—sunny and bright, dazzlingly blue sky, all trees rampant with foliage, and a gentle breeze throughout, and many people (not just tourists there to see the tower) were out that afternoon enjoying it—and the view across the Seine was correspondingly magnificent. The treetops flanking the base of the tower and stretching beyond it toward the École Militaire were tossed by light breezes sweeping the Champ de Mars, like Fangorn Forest roused, and the tower stood so solidly yet gracefully amid it all. My fingers itched; I grabbed my pen and scribbled a 13-line verbal snapshot of “ma belle dame,” striving to capture the sense of her intensely vertical command of the scene:

A dry pale mud-colored drawing
Lines and shadows, layered
Sprouting majestically from a field of green froth
Surging up beyond the icing of cityscape
Accelerating up through palest blue and near distance
Leaping up into deep sky-blue sky
She is a shout! A single laugh of triumph
A supreme balance of six directions
The acme of X Y Z
With serene satisfaction at her base
When we come back down
The shimmer of the cymbal clash still lingering
In ears, eyes, and heart.

I smiled and savored the moment a little longer before resuming my stroll.

The rest of the walk was a pleasant 5-mile montage of familiar places—a bit of the Champs-Élysées, the edge of the Étoile, through place des Ternes, Wagram (in search of a misplaced memory of the Salle Cortot), Clichy, and finally my hotel—but it was more like leafing through a scrapbook than like actually being there, at times. This was the kind of experience I prefer to avoid, that of being a ghost superimposed on a reality I can’t seem to interact with…the reason I hesitate at the prospect of being in Paris as a visitor.

By sunset I’d returned to Montmartre and found myself drawn to the parvis in front of the Sacre-Cœur—along with dozens of other people, of course, it being a fine afternoon in early May and the mood of the city so amply agreeable. I relaxed there for a bit and thought back on other times I’d been there, whereupon I recognized with an amused start that the trees in a row along the southwest edge of the parvis were in fact the “cheerleader trees” I’d noted in October of 1998 in an email to family & friends:

I certainly didn’t mind the wait…I got to just sit and watch the day end as the city I love most turned from that warm sandy color to powder-blue in anticipation of dusk, under the blue & white sky paint-daubed with white & slate grey like some discarded palette. The white wedge of the moon grew brighter, birds flew around high above, and I sat on the marble block along the left edge of the steps, buffeted by chaotic winds from every direction, winds which shook the amazingly perfect trees’ leaves like bright green & yellow-green pompoms in the hands of fidgety cheerleaders in formation. As the sun’s light faded, the bright green trees took on one final surge of brightness, then grew dark and then black, and the city melded a little more in the pale blue light. It was slow, it was simple, and it was absolutely lovely.

And here they were, seven and a half years later, young-adult trees, doing just fine.

For dinner I decided to sniff around the St-Germain-des-Près neighborhood, which I’ve really only seen by day…which is ironic given that my reason for prowling that neighborhood is closely tied with Djuna Barnes’s magically fascinating book Nightwood, where it’s one of the focal locations. There are two churches of note there—the little jewel of St Germain des Près and the clunky, asymmetrical St Sulpice—and a surprisingly discreet web of back streets not seen by most tourists who pass through the zone. Among these is one mentioned in Nightwood, the rue de Furstemberg, which is really more of a courtyard coincidentally bisected by an alley than a street in itself and has long seemed to me to be a lovely place to live if you wanted to be in the city itself while having suburban-quiet nights. (I imagine residents of the street would have a different assessment, but there you are.)

And there I was (or rather on the other side of the St Germain des Près church), in search of an off-the-beaten-path restaurant; it had slim pickings, at least where I started looking (a ways west of the church itself), so when I finally found a place that looked open and fairly lively I dove in and told myself to just have a nice dinner before it was too late for anything but street-vendor fare. I ended up at Claude Sainlouis (near the south end of the subtly crooked old rue du Dragon), which has clearly had its share of celebrities and notables as clients over the years yet still conveys an almost familial air. (I didn’t know this at the time, but according to my copy of Vie et Histoire du VIe Arrondissement the dragon statue for which the street is named was located nearby at 50, rue de Rennes…but it doesn’t say whether it’s still to be found above that address’s porte-cochère….)

I had a very gentle daube de boeuf à l’ancienne (beef stew) and a small bowl of their crème des legumes et céléri (celery-rich vegetable soup), which was nicely peppery but mostly strained so only the flavor of pepper remained, with bread and a demi of their passable house red wine. From time to time someone would get up and play a little something on the restaurant’s discreetly centrally located piano, and I wasn’t able to discern whether the players were patrons or staff…it was so familial and casual. By the time I finished, I was in a happier and more relaxed mood, having thumbnailed my day in my journal, and I decided I wanted to go back to the Eiffel Tower on the way back to Montmarte and see if I couldn’t squeeze out a nighttime counterpart to the sketch I’d done earlier; to get myself primed and sustain my improving mood and impression of the restaurant, I had a coup de Champagne (that’s a single glass) before heading out: the night called for that kind of positive celebration, and as their gin-&-tonics were €10 a pop, Champagne seemed the wiser option.

I made my way to the Palais de Chaillot via Métro and emerged to a still-populous scene full of enjoyment; the night felt young and warm, and nobody was inclined to leave. The Tower itself (Eiffel-Dûr, as Ian calls it) is lit differently these days from how I’ve seen it in past years…the light has a more amber tone to it, instead of the sharper and drier white I’m accustomed to, and the effect of this, in combination with its top being currently “graced” by four sequenced searchlights sweeping the night sky parallel to the ground, gave me a quirky impression on which to base my nocturnal tribute:

Tall amber disco queen
The night’s calm DJ
Solid and smirking at her latest guise
Always new, always old
Always an architectural bijou
Above a smooth unheard beat,
She says “I rule,” and then she laughs at having said that
She’s golden from within tonight; she always is.
It’s late on the Troc’s plaza;
We all wander and party gently in her glow
She rules but does not command:
The compass of pleasure.

And with an irrepressible broad grin on my face, I sat there for a while, soaking it all in and contributing to the scene in my own way, before returning to the hotel.

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