Tuesday, April 25, 2017

I Become a Flaneur

So, back to Paris, over a week ago now. On the day my husband and son played golf, my husband left our hotel at 9 in the morning. I met him, our son, and our friends at a restaurant at 8 pm. That meant I had 11 hours on my own in the city. I had booked a tour of the catacombs at 1, and I had a pocketful of Metro tickets, and I could do whatever I liked.

Later that day I would spend time inside Shakespeare & Co, the delightful ancient warren-like British bookstore on the left bank, just across the Seine from Notre Dame. I would find (among other treasures) a book called Paris Revealed by Stephen Clarke, a Brit who lives in Paris and writes about it with classic British deadpan humor. According to Clarke, the French have a word, flaneur, (there should be a carrot accent mark above the a) that means an artist who wanders the city streets in search of inspiration.

Ah. It made so much sense. Because while I am content to walk in just about any city, in Paris I actively wander. I have Citymapper on my iPhone and I more or less know how to use it, I understand the Metro, and I have a feel for the major tourist sites and landmarks. And yet, I am quite often not entirely sure where I am going, much less where I am. And I don't care. Because whatever is around me is fascinating.

On that day, I set out walking toward the Place Bastille, where the prison once was, on my way to an open-air market called Aligre. I am fascinated by open-air markets. It was a really, really long walk, and eventually I popped into the Metro for a few stops, and then I realized I was completely out of energy, so I stopped at a cafe and had a coffee, sitting out on the street. Revitalized, I pushed on, past the Place Bastille, which is mostly just a roundabout, and then toward the market. I went under an old train viaduct that had been turned into a city park, high above everyone's heads. At the market I admired the asparagus and the fresh fish. I bought strawberries, and some cheese, and I found a boulangerie and bought a demi-baguette and another coffee,  and sat outside with my picnic lunch.

Then I had to hurry to get to the catacombs--that's a whole nother post--afterward I wandered some more, first figuring out where exactly I was (you ascend from the catacombs several kilometers away from where you descend into them). Then I went to Shakespeare & Co, which I'd found by accident the day before, walking with my husband, but hadn't really investigated, because that takes a whole bunch of time.

The upper floor of the bookstore is two small rooms full of old books, not for sale, and comfortable chairs. They're reading rooms--you're welcome to sit up there and peruse the old books at your leisure. The rest of the store is just absolutely crammed with books, all British editions. I was cheeky enough to hand them my card and ask why they didn't stock The War That Saved My Life (there is a UK edition). The clerk looked me up and told me solemnly that of course they usually carried my book, they were just temporarily sold out. (There's no record of what he muttered once my back was turned.)

After that I wandered back across the Seine and found myself in the area around Les Halles, which was once a huge market but is now an underground shopping center. Seriously. I went down there by accident, looking for the Metro. The side streets around Les Halles are fantastic; I did rather more shopping than I intended to, including buying a 3-pound can of duck legs confit. Between that and the books it's no wonder my luggage weighed so much more coming home.

The sun was still bright and the afternoon seemed endless, but I glanced at my watch and saw to my surprise that it was well past six. I found a Metro and negotiated myself back to my hotel, freshened up, dressed for dinner, and re-Metroed myself to our dinner reservation. Despite all the times I'd taken the Metro, I'd walked more than 10 miles that day. I don't usually go around thinking of myself as an artist, but I am one, and I'm starting to cast around for the idea that will become my next book. It was the perfect time to be in Paris, in search of inspiration.

P.S. I'm pretty sure I found my next book. But it's years away, and I can't talk about it yet.