streets in Paris

La Bastille

I head toward the Place de la Bastille where a tall column stands inside a traffic circle.

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

Cafes and shops today instead of a prison

This is the previous location of the infamous Bastille prison. Stones in the pavement here show the outline of the old fortress. One fateful day, in 1789, the French reached their boiling point–so sick and tired of watching the King pass by in his golden carriage as they were starving to death in the filthy streets. They grabbed their pitchforks, attacked the prison, grabbed the guns and declared a revolution.

Place de la Bastille is a time-honored place to fait le grève (to strike). The CGT (Confederation Generale du Travail) is a French labor union that’s been around for more than a hundred years. People of all ages are walking around the plaza with red stickers on their jackets. A music truck is blaring music. Booths, banners and flyers. Snacks, drinks. It’s a lot more fun to fait le grève today in Paris compared to 1789.

I walk down Boulevard Henri IV, then turn south toward the Seine. Over the Pont Sully, and past the Arab Institute. To my right is the Lambert building where Voltaire once lived. Everything seems much sweeter when I get to Ile St Louis. Beautiful shops, quiet streets, and pleasant cafés. I bet no one is allowed to fait le grève here.

The little bridge called Pont Saint-Louis is a favorite place for les accordéonistes to gather; they play the old  French songs like La Vie en Rose for the tourists. I stand there, breathing in the crisp air, gazing at this gorgeous city built by kings.

Just then at my elbow appears the most weather-beaten, old woman I have ever seen in my life. She is short, bent over, hobbling along, and holding out a tiny, paper espresso cup that’s dirty and wrinkled. She bumps her cane against her bandaged leg as if to show me a good reason to give her money. No problem – I want to give her money just for having lived so long. She was a little girl when electric toasters were mind-boggling, new inventions.

I drop enough coins into her cup so she can buy something in a boulangerie, but when she smiles up at me, there’s something about her that makes me wonder. Is “madame” really just a young man in heavy theatrical makeup?

 

 

Getting lost

This morning, I make a pot of coffee to un-fog my brain. But I don’t leave the apartment. I start writing again. The words are flowing magically. The story is writing itself.

In the late afternoon, I know I want to get a walk in today. I close my laptop and prepare to be seen on the streets of Paris. I look in the mirror, fix my scarf, brush my hair and grab my bag. Yes, I’ve finally gained enough confidence to leave my apartment like a normal person.

Downstairs, as I open the big, wooden door and exit the building, I catch a whiff of the cold air, fragrant with delicious smells—roasting duck, chickens, beef, onions, mushrooms, celery, consommé—cooking in an oven somewhere. Perhaps that’s why Paris is so beloved—it smells so good.

I begin my walk down rue de Rivoli. These old stone pavers feel good under my feet. I walk, turning onto different streets, left and right. I want to just melt into this beautiful city and get lost today.

PARIS near Shakespeare and CoThere are so many people on the sidewalks. I want to disappear into the crowd. I want to be the mysterious woman wearing black, eating confit du canard with a glass of pinot noir in the back of a dark café, writing about a tragic love affair during the Resistance. It’s easy to feel tragic on a cold winter’s day when Paris is like a scene from a Jean-Luc Goddard film.

 

 

 

The butchers’ tower

I know I will never tell anyone I hung out at Starbucks in Paris, but everyone is speaking French here, so this counts as a French café to me. Nibbling on a delicious chicken curry baguette, I check my email. I can’t eat this whole thing so I wrap it up and stash it in my purse. With the coffee coursing through my veins, I’m soon ready to venture out again.

I walk past rue de Sevigne then rue Mahler and it occurs to me—in Europe there are streets named after authors and classical composers, but in America, you never see Ernest Hemingway Boulevard or Leonard Bernstein Avenue. We have names like Hickory Road, Third Street and Jefferson Avenue. Do we respect trees, numbers and presidents more than literature and classical music?

There’s a tall, weird-looking tower far in the distance. It dominates the eastern sky on rue de Rivoli. I decide that’s my goal—to find out what that thing is.

La Tour St Jacques

La Tour St Jacques

Continuing down rue de Rivoli, I walk past a street with an interesting name, rue des Mauvais Garçons. That means Bad Boys Street. Can you imagine saying you live on Bad Boys Street? I read that Les Mauvais Garçons was the name of a tough gang of murderous thieves during the 1500s in Paris. But it’s just not a very frightening name— it sounds like a boy band from Orlando. I glance down the street to see if, in fact, I see any “bad boys.” No, just an old man sweeping off the sidewalk, and a cat staring at me.

I walk past more cafés, lots of shops, and past HMG, the huge five-floor department store on rue de Rivoli. A homeless woman is huddled against the wall with her little daughter and when I give her some money, she smiles up at me and whispers “Merci.”

Finally I’m standing at the base of the strange tower. It’s called the Tour St Jacques. There’s a little park around it. I go to the gate, but I don’t know how to open it. It seems to have three sections. I push on the center part. Nothing moves. I push on the left side. Nothing. I push on the right hand side and it swings open. I look around to see if anyone saw me fumbling like this.

I walk around the tower and read in my guidebook that this tower is all that remains from a church built in 1508. The oddly named Eglise St Jacques de la Boucherie (The Church of St James of the butcher shop) was built by the butchers of Paris to be a starting point for Christian pilgrims going to Santiago de Compostello in Spain. I can just imagine the signs: “Start your fun pilgrimage here! Buy beef to enjoy along the way!” Those butchers had it built in the Flamboyant Gothic style that was already passé in 1508; that’s when the Renaissance style was the hot, new thing.

I sit on the green bench looking up at the Tour Saint Jacques, shielding my eyes against the bright sun. Gargoyles stick out on the top, against the brilliant blue sky. It’s amazing to think how many centuries this tower has survived. I dig in my purse, find my baguette wrapped in a paper napkin. It’s a little stale now and hard to chew. I look around the park. I feel lonely and scared and I don’t know why. It’s broad daylight in a nice part of town.

When did I lose so much self-confidence? Did it happen all at once, or little by little?

My heart is beating fast, but it can’t be because I’m alone. I’m OK with being alone because I love to read. When you read, you don’t feel lonely; you’re busy seeing all these characters and places in your head.

A guy in sloppy brown clothes with a long beard is walking toward me, looking right at me. Time to get up and walk away! He might be a harmless old man or he might just be a serial killer loose in Paris.

Probably everyone knows about the killer, but I don’t because I didn’t watch the news last night. Or maybe I did see the news, but I don’t know the French words for “serial killer” (Is it L’assassin encore encore?). Why am I being so paranoid?

 

 

 

 

The amoeba in Paris

I know I don’t look French.

I have a little button nose, a pale, round face from my Welsh ancestry, and it’s impossible for my wrists to fall backwards in that sophisticated gesture like French girls do, usually with a cigarette. My wrists are tight, my legs are solid and I usually hunch my shoulders when I get scared.

how to walk past a sidewalk cafe

how to walk past a sidewalk cafe

Although I’m in a fashion mecca, I don’t carry a designer purse or wear fine jewelry. I want nothing that calls attention to myself. I see no point in it.

Women who walk along in Paris, wearing all their precious baubles are saying, “Hey, I have nice jewelry. You could shove me into this picturesque alleyway, hit me over the head with your empty wallet, and take this bounty for yourself.”

I don’t mean to say there are thieves everywhere in Paris but I don’t want to mislead anyone—I just want to look clean and middle-class.

I pass a café. The sidewalk tables are packed with beautiful people. When I look at them, I see they are staring back at me and smoking in a very existential way—dragging and spewing smoke while squinting, like in the movies. Why are they looking at me? Are they attracted to my cleanliness?

I walk past more cafes. More eyes. More staring. I thought I could disappear into the crowd here. But then, I understand. People-watching is the sole occupation of anyone who sits at a sidewalk café.

Yes, there’s a bit of conversation going on, some drinking, and some smoking, but basically, a street in Paris is the runway; I am the reluctant model. This is the microscope; I am the amoeba.

 

On the street in Paris

 

GETTING OUT

I had to get away from the small town where my ex- lives with the girlfriend, twenty years younger than me. Every time I go anywhere, I scan the crowd for their faces, petrified I’ll see them, arm-in-arm, happy in their gauzy Hallmark kind of love.

I don’t scan the crowd for their faces here.

During my divorce, I was so stressed out that, in the middle of the night, I would toss and turn in bed so much, I counted it as aerobic exercise.

When the divorce was final, I ended up hiding from life until I was practically frozen. I knew I couldn’t stay one more night in my chair, watching television in that empty house.

I had to get out. So I went to Paris.

Men of the 2nd arrondissement

Men of the 2nd arrondissement

Apparently, when I get out of the house, I really get out of the house.