notes from a paris garret : 2
from nessa o'mahony
: 25 May 2003
Paris is a walker's city. Right now, it is a city of more than 300,000 walkers pounding the major boulevards in demand of their pension rights. Every other day sees a major 'manifestation' of workers' discontent with current government proposals to increase the length of years that must be worked before they are eligible for a state pension.
By and large these demonstrations are good humoured affairs, with protesters carrying every variety of percussion instrument imaginable as they march along. The police are also out in large numbers, but they aren't a threatening presence. Mostly they seem to watch impassively or chat amongst themselves, occasionally breaking off to talk to a driver who is trying to sneak past the cordon erected to keep the traffic and the marchers separate. French police certainly have their own personality – the other night I saw two of them chatting up three exceptionally pretty girls in a backstreet off the rue de Rivoli whilst a motorcade of dignitaries bustled itself just around the corner – like all the French, the police have their priorities.
So popular is marching as an activity, they have even begun to hold anti-demonstration demonstrations. A small group was gathered outside the Mairie on Sunday afternoon, complaining about being held to ransom by the strikers and protesters, while further down the Seine tens of thousands of their fellow citizens marched past the Bastille, found nothing to storm there and continued on to their meeting point at Place d'Italie.
This is not to say that the protests haven't caused disruption. In mid-May, the transport workers staged a one-day strike, along with other public sector workers, that straggled on for another two to three days. The usually clock-work Metro system ground to a halt, forcing Parisians to come up with innovative and ingenious alternatives for getting to work. Micro-cycles, rollerblades and skateboards were among the modes of transport visible throughout the city. More people took their cars to work – the air was full of the sounds of horns venting their drivers' frustrations as rush-hour extended to most of the day. Some people simply didn't bother to go to work, and turned over in bed without a qualm. And they'll all get to do it again next week, with a further round of strikes promised.
I've had plenty of opportunity to observe these goings on over the past fortnight as I still haven't managed to get a job, and am becoming familiar with phrases such as carte de sejour (a permit which foreigners must apply for if they intend to stay in France for longer than three months), working papers and the smic, or minimum wage. But I am determined to put this involuntary spare time to good use, and go walking for a good three hours a day, discovering neighbourhoods and wandering beyond the beaten track of both sides of the Seine.
Paris is really a gloriously easy city to negotiate as a walker. It is a logical arrangement of streets and boulevards, and is surprisingly compact. It's quite possible to get from one side of the city to the other in little over an hour – although one can find oneself wandering in quite small quartiers for ages, simply following roads and seeing where they lead. Although the architect and planner Haussmann was highly unpopular among contemporaries for his arrogant approach to levelling old medieval Paris and relaying its surface with grand boulevards, he made navigation much, much simpler.
And mostly, Parisians themselves have been reasonably civil to me, if a little formal. I did, however, get one taste of their world-renowned rudeness, when I ventured into a small antiquarian bookshop nestling in a little street running parallel to the right side of the Seine. The proprietess took one look at me and decided I was not worth accommodating. Asking if I could read French, she indicated a sign which stated that browsers were not welcome in her shop. As I turned to leave, she threw a curt "Bye-Bye" after me that would have made Anne Robinson wince. But that has been the exception rather than the rule.
The anglophone literary community is reasonably vibrant here (the ghosts of Hemingway, Miller and Fitzgerald, not to mention Stein and Toklas, linger long), and there are many readings and journal launches to keep people in touch with each other. The French literary scene is less visible. The reading is not a French tradition – they are fonder of discussion and debate – and I have not yet been able to track down any Francophone literary events.
The closest I'd come to a French writer was standing with due solemnity before the cenotaphs of Emile Zola and Victor Hugo, to be found in the crypt of the Pantheon, France's great monument to its great men (and the odd woman – they buried Marie Curie there as well). Then, the other night at the Club des Poètes on the rue de Bourgogne in the chichi 7th arrondisement, the club's founder, poet Jean-Pierre Rosnay, put in a dignified appearance during a reading for the Franco-American poetry journal, Upstairs at Duroc. M. Rosnay, who must be in his seventies, entered with the ceremony of a minor Royal and watched solemnly as a young French woman, heavily pregnant but radiant with grace, recited one of his poems about amour and le destin. The Americans looked a little perplexed at this disruption in their schedule, but it made the evening for me.
As I'm mentioning Americans in Paris, it's worth remarking that they currently lack the confidence Gene Kelly demonstrated when tapping his way along the boulevards all those years ago. Their latest joke is about ways of camoflaging themselves to look more Canadian … things must be bad.
But back, briefly, to the Pantheon, which also provides a vivid demonstration of the French people's adoration of an intellectual principle. At the very heart of the monument, originally intended as a Church to the patron saint of France, St. Genevieve, but quickly appropriated for civic adoration during the Revolution, swings Foucault's Pendulum, a huge golden ball and string, making its daily proof that the world is round and that the earth does rotate around the sun (at least I think that's the point!). A huge area of floor-space is cordoned off to allow a full perspective on this extraordinary scientific instrument, the first icon of the Age of Reason.
It also seems appropriate that as one leaves the Pantheon, one finds oneself heading down towards an icon of a more commercial age, the Boulevard Saint Michel, with its endless line of clothes shops and boutiques. La plus ça change...
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