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Wednesday, March 24, 2021


Before I continue telling you about my Paris walks, it occurred to me that I should say something about the geographic layout of Paris for those not familiar with the city. Paris is a roughly circular city with the Seine flowing through it from lower right up to the middle and then down again to lower left. It is divided into 20 administrative units called arrondissements, arranged in a spiral. The first arrondissement includes the Louvre and such in the middle of the city and then the other 19 continue in a spiral that turns right to left, each one growing a little bit larger. The second, third, and fourth are laid out to the east of the first on the north side of the river, which is called the right bank because the water flows from East to West toward the ocean. The fifth, sixth, and seventh, each of which is slightly larger than the preceding, are arranged right to left on the left bank.  Then the spiral crosses over again to the right bank and the eighth through twelfth go left to right until once again they come to the river. Back over to the left bank for the thirteenth through fifteenth and then the last five continue on the right bank across the northern flank of Paris. The lower the number the more interesting the city is and generally speaking the higher the prices for apartments. The Paris slums are called banlieus and lie outside the city itself around the northern flank. My walks took me to the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh arrondissements. My tiny apartment – 330 ft.² – is in the fifth, you will recall.


My second and third walks are just variations of the first. On several occasions what I have done after setting out is to walk over to the right bank past Notre Dame, turn left and walk all the way to the Place de la Concorde bridge on the right bank in front of the Louvre. Then I would cross over to the left bank and walk home. The other variation, which is really quite interesting, is to walk home along Boulevard St. Germain, rather than along the quays. After some time in the seventh (always looking unsuccessfully for Serena Williams, who has an apartment there) I would come to the two cafés made famous by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, the café Flores and the café Deux Magots, on the north side of the Boulevard across the street from Brasserie Lipp.  I have never actually had so much as a coffee at either of those cafés but my heart beats a little bit faster when I see them. Then it is on to Place de L’Odéon, with no fewer than three movie complexes. This part of the walk also takes me past the Cluny – Museum of the Middle Ages.  For a long time there was a small musical group at Cluny that gave mid – day concerts of medieval music, which Susie and I attended as often as we could. The Cluny also has a bookshop where we bought a little reproduction of part of a famous medieval tapestry which for years has served as the tablecloth on our small dining table in our apartment. Then it is back to Place Maubert and home.


This is probably a good time to mention a change that took place in the streets of this part of Paris half a century ago. During the French version of the student uprisings of 1968, protesting students tore up the cobblestones of the old streets and used them to make barricades. The Paris administration responded by paving over all the cobblestones, which made the streets more amenable to scooters and bicycles but deprived them of much of their charm. Real old timers can still recall the cobblestone streets in the fifth and sixth.


These first walks are pretty tame but tomorrow I will talk about some of the more adventurous walks I have taken around old Paris early in the morning.


s. wallerstein said...

It would be interesting to do a genealogy of what makes Paris so fascinating for English-speaking intellectual leftists like the readers of this blog. There's the French Revolution, the Paris commune, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir in the cafés, May 1968, but of course behind our romanticism and idealization it's as capitalist and mercenary a place as Dallas, which none of us romanticize.

Not everyone romanticizes Paris. Rightwing Latin-americans romanticize Miami, more progressive Latin Americans often romanticize New York New York or San Francisco. German writers have always romanticized Rome. Non-intellectual, non leftist North Americans of my parents' generation romanticized London, partially because the Brits, unlike the French, stood up successfully to Hitler.

It seems like everyone needs a city a romanticize.

David Palmeter said...

s. wallerstein

I’ve thought about this on and off for years. My inexpert thesis: Paris became something special in the latter part of the 19th Century, particularly in the visual arts with the Impressionists. Soon artists from all over Europe began working there—writers and composers as well as painters and sculptors. Turgenev spent a lot of time there fawning over the love of his life, the singer Pauline Viardot. Later it attracted people like Diaghilev (Russia) and Picasso (Spain). In the early 20th Century, the New York Armory show did much to make Paris special to Americans. After WWI, American writers, e.g. Fitzgerald and Hemingway, flocked there—not just because it was Paris, but also because it was cheap: the post-war dollar/franc exchange rate was a bonanza for Americans. Joyce and Beckett were there. The favorable exchange rate returned after WWII when George Plimpton and others founded the Paris Review—for English language writers. (Think of it: a leading journal of avant garde English literature is published in France! Can you imagine the reverse: a leading journal of French avant garde literature published in London or New York?)

I get the sense that not much that is important to a large international audience is happening in Paris anymore. It doesn’t seem to be at the cutting edge. But it had a century or so when they were the successor to Athens in the age of Pericles and Florence in the Renaissance. And it probably will join Athens and Florence by becoming another museum while the action is centered somewhere else. I have no idea where that might be.

Tim said...

It's always an interesting fact to me that the French, and the Germans too – and perhaps also other continental Europeans – name the banks of rivers in relation to how they appear from the perspective of river, as it were, flowing from source to sea, rather than in terms of compass directions. Thus in London we have the 'South Bank', but it's the 'Left Bank' in Paris, and the 'Left Bank of the Rhine'. I think I prefer it the European way.

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