Paris, City of Light, recently under siege.
Three weeks ago I was in Paris, the City of Light. Life was calm, there were musicians on the streets near the numerous Gilbert Jeune bookstores on rue St Michael, on the steps of Sacre Coeur, in front of Notre Dame. Asian couples posed for photographs in the street, with Notre Dame as a backdrop, in wedding attire. The Metro felt safe. The bus felt safe. The Gare de Lyon was patrolled by uniformed, gun-toting police walking in two’s.
I was in Paris on a literary mission—to trace the places in the book All The Light We Cannot See by Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Doerr. Many readers in the past year have been transported from their armchairs to the Jardin des Plantes, where much of Marie-Laure’s Paris-based tale unfolds.
It is gorgeous in the fall. Although leaves and vines are decaying, evidence is present of the richness that grew in the gardens mid-summer. Squash hang from trellises, the ground is being worked in preparation for winter or spring planting, and markers still linger denoting varieties of flowers that must have bloomed profusely.
There is a calm in this place, as the last warmth of summer graces the park-like setting. Multi-generational families walk, often arm in arm, along the gravel pathways, sometimes stopping for a home-made snack on a bench. Others read in the autumnal light.
My days here were packed with adventure, from familiar corners of the city to new ones. A Sunday morning walking tour through the Place Contrescarpe and the rue Mouftard with the great literary detective David Burke exposed nameplates I had never noticed on buildings. Hemingway, Proust, Orwell, Sands—all lived on these streets, densely packed with apartments and cafes and small shops.
We pass the famous winding corner from the movie Midnight in Paris, where Owen Wilson climbs into a taxi and is transported to another dimension. It is a magical city even if no taxi comes for me. I have my own memories here.
Following the 5th arrondissement stroll I take the Metro to the 10th, in search of a Parisian friend who agreed to search with me for a restaurant mentioned in the New Yorker Magazine quite recently. A small place, Les Comptoirs des Carthage, owned by Kate, famous for two things: North African couscous and French writer/illustrator/ graphic artist Riad Sattouf who dines there.
We did not seek out Sattouf, but were content to savor the food and feel his presence. I imagined him dining there, at a small table, tucking into his favorite variety of couscous, laughing with his tablemates, and perhaps– in a very Syrian way—enjoying a cigarette.
Afterward a Metro ride to the Pigalle station seems in order, to gather on the steps of Sacre Couer on a late-afternoon Sunday, as the city begins to grey, before the lights come up.
Will and I take the obligatory cityscape photo before the size of the crowd causes us to retreat, to look for a quieter endroit, and for me to continue my search for a little Paris solitude. I had a need to feel the historic weight of the city, to smell damp stone, to kick my feet in loose gravel, to walk the ankle-turning cobblestones again. To remember the last time I was present in that place.
And then it is behind me, on to the south for solitude. With a train change in Perpignon I arrive in Collioure, nearly the end of the road. Almost Spain. Almost.
Where the French is tinged with Spanish overtones, the men play petanque in the gravel parc, the beds boast ornate Catalan-style headboards and tile— always tile on the bathroom floor— for it cooks here in the summer.
Smells of the sea, salty and cool, flow through open French-door style windows on a brisk breeze. The plane trees still have leaves rattling and tumbling. My view is of outdoor cafés with canal-side seating, boasting of plates of crepes and shrimp and sardines and anchovies, the Mediterranean Sea riches. It is a long way to Paris. Over 500 miles.
Fresh Clementines from Spain, cafes with a sea view, families with children on school holiday–Collioure a jewel shimmering between seasons. We have a 4.3 earthquake, a tremblement de terre in the middle of the night. I make friends with an artist, an expat, and a lady with a dog named Lily.
I recall this now as a prelude to what was to come in Paris. The horror, the uncertainty, the deaths in a concert hall, a stadium filled with soccer fans and cafés busy on a Friday night in Paris. A city stopped in its collective tracks for a day, with much longer international considerings. A city that has weathered revolutions, occupation, liberation, immigrants. A melting pot of religions, nationalities, and ethnicities that bend and shape the look of Paris often.
In the end I had three long-distance train rides within France, noted the fall colors, the harvested fields, the sparkling waters of the Mediterranean, the warmth of the sun.
The kindness of fellow travellers of all ages. The young man who helped me lift my suitcases off the train and said to me, “bon courage” and smiled. I needed those words of encouragement as I completed my pilgrimage.
Now I say to France, Bon Courage. Allons les citoyens and visitors alike. Sing a bit of La Marseillaise, composed in 1792, a song the mayor of Strasbourg requested his guest Rouget de Lisle to compose, designed to “rally our soldiers from all over to defend their homeland that is under threat.” (Wikipedia)
May Paris rise to the challenge and restore tranquility, and play more music in the streets at night under a harvest moon. It’s impossible to take away that magic.
All photos copyright Ann Bodle-Nash 2015
Category: Indie It Travel