September 6, 2012

I took the morning off from exploring. I find I need a break from travelling every week or so, in which I get a little more sleep, take time to plan, and rest by sore walking muscles. Cyril and Barbara’s tiny little Parisian apartment is the perfect setting for this and, though I still had to contend with feelings of guilt and laziness, it was good to take a breather. I am clearly not very good at being idle, especially when there are so many things to do.

I spent the morning in the Marias, an old district on the Right Bank that houses many hôtel particuliers (a kind of grand townhouse) and Paris’ Jewish Quarter. You know, many cities have a historic district where you can wander around and imagine life as it was, a place virtually untouched by modern development. Old Town in Portland, Beacon Hill in Boston, parts of Brooklyn and Manhattan in New York, the Mission in San Francisco, Pioneer Square in Seattle. But in Paris, every part is the old part. Sure, the city has been made-over several times in its life with the comings and goings of new monarchs and politicians, but most of the city’s newest buildings are from 1860, with many more buildings dating from earlier centuries. This preservation ensures an undeniable and communal connection to the past, to all of the people who have touched this stone, who have leaned in this doorway, who have lived and worked and breathed in this courtyard.

And then there’s the color of it all: in the 1960s, a law was passed requiring all property owners to clean (and keep clean) building exteriors. Within a few years’ time, Paris was restored to its original splendor, for beneath the soot of pollution, there lay block upon block of honey-colored limestone. The moniker “City of Light” comes more from this, I think, than the electric lights illuminating the city at night. Instead it’s the shining buildings, leaning every which way, slanting to and fro, so many near-vertical lines, so many chimneys, so many windows with the sashes thrown open, window boxes filled with flowers.

Today, on the grass of the Places de Vosges, I watched dozens of children play in the sandbox and fountain, au pairs close by, sitting on benches, chatting with one another, feeding bottles to babies. Children of other cultures have always fascinated me, I think because they are just kids, innocents, romping and wrestling and running around. And hearing their little voices pipe up in their different language delights me. One little boy, carrying a cracked and leaking bucket, stood in the middle of the square, trying to catch the spilling water with his hands and yelling “Assistánce! Assistánce!” A little girl, lying in the grass, seemed to be delivering a monologue to the cookie she was holding; quick and fervent whispers, her mouth barely moving all.

Later, I rode the Metro west to see the Arc de Triomphe. Places like this are so visually iconic, and it is all I can do to not just stare, open-mouthed, smiling and pointing to no one in particular. “Look at that! Look! It’s the Arc de Triomphe!” And then again, after climbing to the top, the entirety of Paris in a circle around me — “Hey! Hey look! The Eiffel Tower! Notre Dame, the Louvre, Sacre Cœur! Look at that! Look! Look!” I caught my reflection in a glass panel and I looked so astounded.

Eventually I came earthward again and walked down the Champs-Élysées for a bit, looking at the upscale shops and cafes, watching the setting sun turn the limestone to gold, periodically turning around to laugh at the Arc de Triomphe (“Hey! It’s right there! There it is!”) And then I hopped on the Metro and made my way east, where I was meeting Cyril, Barbara, and some of their friends.

Three months ago, Cyril was part of a small group that opened a new bar on the Right Bank, and it’s already incredibly popular. Called Dernier Bar avant la Fin du Monde (referencing Douglas’ Adams restaurant at the end of the universe in A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), it is basically nerd heaven, catering to gamers and geeks. In one room, there is a bar like one you might fond on the Enterprise. In another, a pirate ship, In another, a video game. In another a dungeon. It’s not kitschy, though. The furnishings are classy, and there is something authentic and interesting to look at in every corner. So anyway, I met everyone at the Dernier Bar and we sat outside, chatting and enjoying the evening. Cyril and Barbara’s friends were happy to speak English with me, but I actually didn’t mind when the conversation slipped into French. I really just like observing people living their normal lives. Also, off as it may sound, I can sometimes follow the conversation, probably mostly through context, body-language, and words with the same roots as words in English or Spanish… but I like to believe that I am actually learning French through osmosis.

(Side note: in England, I started to notice my inner monologue carrying on in an English accent. This continues in France with a really, really bad French accent. It’s ridiculous.)

At the end of the evening at the Dernier Bar, I got a lesson in French greeting and farewell kisses. It’s always both sides of the cheek, and which cheek you kiss first depends on if you are from Paris or the rest of France. And kissing is gender indiscriminate. I have seen plenty of men kiss their friends. The whole thing is really quite nice. At first it seemed so intimate, but when I thought about hugs, they’re quite intimate as well, and we do it all the time. I mean, that’s ventral-to-ventral contact, man.

Tomorrow: The Latin Quarter!