sites of interest

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?



Kindle me

Back in my apartment, I brew a cup of black tea to warm me up. I get in bed, grab my Kindle and begin to read a new edition of A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway.

A Moveable Feast is the first book I ever read about Paris when I was sixteen years old. Back then, my Scribner’s edition was fresh and new, just like me, ready to taste the love and joy of life. I fell in

Jardin du Luxembourg

Jardin du Luxembourg

love with Paris, and the idea of being a writer, as I read Hemingway’s description of the writers and artists he knew, and his strolls through the Jardin du Luxembourg, and the streets of Montparnasse and St. Germain.

Physical books are like people because they age like we do; they become wrinkled, yellowed, and fragile. They are loved, but one day, the time comes when they are too fragile to be touched and they are put away on a shelf, often forgotten in the stream of time.

But this e-book will never become yellow and musty-smelling. It will just be downloaded from the cloud, fresh and new, onto the next generation e-reader.

If only I could be an e-book.




Notre Dame

Notre Dame

Now I’m on rue de la Cité, a street that runs across this island in the Seine River. I’m walking along, my head down, when I realize there is an open area to my left. I look up and there, about five hundred yards away, stands beautiful Notre Dame, her two massive towers jutting into the sky, and three huge doors set into an intricately carved façade.

It’s Sunday afternoon and the parvis, the broad plaza in front of Notre Dame, is humming with activity. Some people are staring up with mouths open, awestruck. Some are laughing and hugging.

I walk across the parvis carefully because of the rough, irregular stones. I look down and take notice of the street names on the ground in front of Notre Dame; streets that were once here three hundred years ago, like rue de Venise, but the entire area was cleared to create this wide-open plaza. I imagine the barking dogs, noisy children, shouting merchants and the lovers who once lived their lives on rue de Venise, but now all that remains is a line of white stones in the pavement.

I sit down on the concrete bench amid the manicured hedges and I watch the old man who lets the birds perch all over him. Tourists take their photos with him and he asks for a coin.  To my right, a Japanese family is happily jabbering away and taking photos. To my left, a man is kissing a woman.

Just then a girl, with a skinny boyfriend wrapped around her, walks right up to me as if someone sent her to me.

“Bon jewer,” she says.

I look at her in shock. I’m surprised she took notice of me, and I have no idea what she just said to me.

“Oo ehst luh con sear garee?” she reads from her phrasebook. I realize she’s saying “Where is the Conciergerie?” in French and I detect the long vowel sounds of an American. Then it dawns on me that she thinks I’m French, which is even more shocking.

“You speak English?” I ask, standing up.

“Yes,” she says.

“Ok, you go this way, and then turn right at the first street,” I say, pointing with authority and feeling like a tour guide. “You’ll walk a few hundred yards, then it’ll be on your left-hand-side.”

“Is it very far away?” he asks.

“Well, no, not really. Hope you have fun,” I say, wondering if they ever unravel themselves from each other.

“Thanks!” they say, in unison as they turn and walk away in tandem.




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?