Wandering in Paris

Awakening to rain my last morning in Paris with my feet still tender from miles logged the previous 36 hours meant rethinking how I would spend the time remaining until my late afternoon train to Lyon. So after packing up and stashing my packed bags, a buzzing boulangerie around the corner lured me in with the promise of a cafe creme and a pain aux raisins, which provided an excuse to sit and people watch while writing in my journal. As I sat, I flashed back, “Proustian” fashion, to pleasant memories of this very activity. Usually, it wasn’t a way to get out of the rain and decide what to do next, but an end in and of itself.

I felt my body relax and settle into the corner I had chosen, simply enjoying the flow of tourists and neighborhood residents which seems to be characteristic of the Marais. There are other neighborhoods in Paris that have this same feel, and 33 years after first visiting Paris, I still search out the corners of the city where I can sink in and feel what its like to be a part of this flow rather than apart from it. Its easy to go to Paris, or other five star travelers hot spots, and be so intent on seeing what is there to see that one misses this element entirely. You arrive somewhere with a list of “must see and dos” and proceed to check it off, feeling like you’ve failed the place if you fail to see its Mona Lisa. On the heels of this trip, I realized that it is this element of feeling the spirit of a place that draws me. It’s connecting with shopkeepers, street vendors, waiters, and other travelers as well as witnessing the ebb and flow of ordinary people’s lives that draws me to new places at home as well as to foreign lands. I’m not sure I could have iterated that previously, but having the two contrasting experiences back to back on this trip brought it home.

I knew before arriving in Paris this time that I would not be visiting any museums, but the rain challenged me, since that is actually something one does in Paris in the rain.  Its what I do in many cities in the rain. But this time I had decided that in only two and a half days, I wanted to reconnect with and re-experience whatever that intangible thing is that repeatedly draws me back to Paris like a moth to a flame and I didn’t think I would find it in the museums which dot the city.

Sticking to my wandering theme, I scanned my memory of the neighborhoods within striking distance and recollected what I thought was a daily morning market at Place Monge – and markets are covered by awnings and umbrellas to protect them from the elements. I actually just got lucky, because its not a daily market! It happens on Wednesday, Fridays and Sundays.

If I had to choose one food item that I miss from living in France it would be Fromage de Chevre…
all kinds, but I’m particularly fond of the various small round “crottins” that appear in the inventory of every cheese merchant in France. While photographing at this stall, the woman behind the table asked me if I wanted to buy something. I told her that sadly, I couldn’t, because I was leaving that afternoon, but did she mind if I photographed her wares. We struck up a conversation while I tried to capture the flavors and textures of favorite cheeses with my camera. She must have known, because between customers, she hacked off chunks of Tomme de Savoie and Comte, followed by oozing wedges of soft-ripened goat cheeses.

From Place Monge I wandered down narrow alleyways of the left bank headed toward the Luxembourg gardens until my footsteps led me to the Pantheon. I decided to pay and go in. Wandering among the tombs of Rousseau, Pierre and Marie Curie, Voltaire, and Victor Hugo, my knowledge of French history lead me back in time and I felt Paris’ past all around me. I wondered why I was photographing the tombs of the these famous men… what am I ever going to do with them? Maybe simply the act of capturing that moment, the feeling of being face to face with history… maybe that’s what those photographs are for.

Leaving the Pantheon, I found a place to buy a sandwich and headed to the Luxembourg gardens to claim a chair under clearing skies. While I could skip every museum and monument, I don’t think I could go to Paris without going to the Luxembourg gardens. I have photographs of my children playing with the sailboats in the pond and riding the carousel here and others taken with a french friend in the 80’s when I’d run off to Paris on a vacation from work. When I was 18 and feeling lonely and homesick, the tall green painted iron gates welcomed and beckoned me to come and sit. There, I wasn’t a lonely young American, but just another human being doing the same thing that those around me were doing. Sitting there and eating my sandwich with the time clock ticking on this visit to Paris, I felt that same ease and welcome.

I finished off my tour of the city by taking the metro to the base of Montmartre and walked up to Sacre Coeur among the throngs of tourists for a quick peek at the view before heading back to grab my bags, make my way to the Gare de Lyon and say “au revoir” to Paris – which translates approximately to “until I see you again”.

Note: Instead of posting a dozen or so photographs here for each post, I’m posting all of them on Flickr with just a few that seem relevant here.

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