‘Each man kills the thing he loves
By each let this be heard,
Some do it with a bitter look,
Some with a flattering word’
The Ballad of Reading Gaol
S and I have been to Paris many times; even before we had kids. The horror! That’s a while ago indeed. I can still recall my first visit. We had opted for the budget travel version (in fairness, in a time before cheap flights) and had taken the ferry to England, then the train, then the ferry across La Manche. The last leg was yet another train from Dieppe.
After a tortuous journey, we finally stepped into a milling, humming Paris via St. Lazare station (for an art student like me, a place synonymous with Monet) and were immediately and simultaneously gobbled up and bedazzled. That’s a poor metaphor, but in a way, suggests the dichotomy that probably all great cities present: they are both glorious and grotty in equal measure, and Paris is possibly the most glorious and grottiest of the lot. Or, put another way, even the run-down parts look somewhat elegant and classy. I will put my hand up here and admit we never stray into the banlieue when in Paris, but that’s not any great surprise for a tourist visit, I guess.
Paris is old school. Paris is a living city of about 2.3 million souls. (if you don’t include the other 20 or so million in the outer catchment). I used to think it was huge, but in reality, compared to somewhere like New York or London, it’s quite compact and bijou, if you take the city limits to be within the Périphérique. But Paris doesn’t care. What I like about Paris is that Paris really doesn’t give a fuck what I think about Paris. That is, I suppose, a very Parisienne* outlook on life.
To be fair to our Gallic cousins, I feel their attitude to outsiders has softened a little. These are anecdotal musings from a series of visits stretching back about 25 years, with many gaps in-between. Your mileage may vary of course, and it does help to have a smattering of French. I can pull of one or two rather good attempts at French (and then I flounder), but it never fools the wily locals, who see through my rough bludgeoning of their mother tongue and usually reply in mine. But they always appreciate the effort, so do try.
Ours was a flying visit (yes, in both the literal and more metaphorical sense). We arrived on a Monday morning and left on Friday evening. We had the good fortune to have the use of Saoirse’s niece’s flat for those days, so it saved us a few quid, and also gave us a much more immersive and less ‘touristy’ holiday. Merci, Elodie! We were just north of Le Marais, one of the older districts in the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements, of which there are 20 in Paris. The trip over was uneventful, though there is always a little head-scratching to be done with RER and metro tickets (not least when the machine doesn’t accept your ticket, and there is no way past the barrier… the answer, by the way, is to jump the barrier, or scoot underneath, which is very French, so just work away).
Once settled in to the flat, and after our gracious host had met us and fed us a classic French lunch of baguette and cheese, we wandered down to the city proper to soak up some of the sites. This took us through Le Marais, which is one of the prettier districts. We were drawn magnetically to Notre Dame and the milling crowds, and then we crossed the river to the left bank, or Rive Gauche, if you want to be French about it.
This part of Paris really hasn’t changed much, and that is a good thing. Perhaps the quality of prints, books and other knick-knacks from the pop-up stalls along the quay has slipped over the years, but the traders are still there, plying their wares. And unlike the Greek waiters in the side-streets of nearby St. Michel, these retailers aren’t always that bothered about customers. Indeed, in a wonderfully Parisien* way, they seem to abandon their stores at random to, I don’t know, buy a coffee, perhaps, and leave you standing there with a print of the ‘Eiffel Tower under construction’ in your hands. It is classic French je ne sais quoi. Which is to say, the seller is thinking to themselves ‘what the fuck does that idiot want to buy that crap for?’ Indeed. It will most likely sit on my office desk for the next six months while I consider framing it or spending the money on other similar luxuries like food or clothing.
Even now with our trip only a couple of weeks old, the days blur. Did we go to the Catacombs on Tuesday? Or Wednesday? No, that’s right, we went one morning and the queue was unbelievable. We returned undaunted the next morning, bright and early, and took our spot at the head of the line. With only an hour and forty minutes to wait ’til the doors opened… oh well. It was an interesting visit. I won’t do the place the disservice of a potted history here, suffice to say it’s very interesting from a whole range of angles, including geological, archaeological, historical, anthropological and sociological. That’s a lot of –icals, I know, and perhaps one that needs discussing the most is the ethical one, but you should visit yourself and make your own decisions. Here’s the official website for those too lazy to look it up. (and ‘hi’ to our Canadian friends, by the way; we met two lovely couples whilst waiting in line, and the chances of them reading this are zero, but sure, bonjour all the same!)
We revisited the Jardin de Luxembourg on the way back into the city, not least as it was a place we had taken our two children to when they were very young. They have a wonderful boating pond where you can hire proper little wooden sailing boats, set to tack across the water, regardless of the wind direction. Or, in nautical terms, to be pedantic, whatever way the wind is blowing, these boats find their own natural course and ‘close reach’ over to the other side. It’s all rather lovely and, well, French.
Beside the pond was a gentleman with a rather splendid homemade craft. It was clearly a long-term labour of love, and we got to chatting and discovered he was a grand-father who had made the boat originally for his own children. He had a series of photos of the boat as it grew almost organically over the years. It now sits on a shopping trolley. I guess you could call it a four-masted barque. It was fashioned from plastic bottles, thread, string, bits of fabric and other trinkets. He encourages people to add to the ship with their own artistic creations. There is a film to be made here, and I can see it in the mould of Amélie and other quirky French films. Though perhaps we don’t need to make a film about every interesting story we stumble upon in life. Sometimes to examine them is to destroy the very mystique that makes them attractive.
Speaking of each man kills the thing he loves (well, you weren’t; I was), we also returned to Père Lachaise. The cemetery is a microcosm of old Paris: glorious decay, where more recently, the hotspots are shielded from the public with sheets of heavy perspex, glass, or fairly crude crash barriers (hello, Jim Morrison). On our last day, we did saunter down to the see the Eiffel Tower. It’s not that you can miss it when in Paris; it’s everywhere. But it’s still part of a trip to Paris that you make the mecca-like pilgrimage to stand under the barmy edifice.
(Yes, you are probably familiar with some of the facts: 2.5 million rivets; Guy de Maupassant ate his lunch there every day as it was the only place he could do so in the city without looking at the damn towner… miserable git! 60 tons of paint every seven years; over 10,000 tons of wrought iron; 25,000 visitors a day, over a quarter of a billion since it was built… the list of stats goes on. A bit like this blog).
Anyway, the tie-in between the boxed-off and rather forlorn tomb of Oscar Wilde and the Eiffel Tower is that both have become victims of their own popularity. Though the reasons for both are in stark contrast. For dear Oscar, the pilgrimage to his final resting place is a do-or-die event for devotees of his work and beliefs. Despite the heavy glass surround, there are enough gaps for little billets-doux to be left at the foot of the monument. But at least it has prevented the kissing mania which was beginning to be something of a problem. See here for a splendid article from The Guardian.
Although the stone angel’s genitalia overlooking Oscar’s grave were removed in the 1960s (now there’s a keepsake), it is nothing to other forms of violence meted out to other parts of the city. I’m referring to acts of terrorism, and in particular, the Bataclan attacks and associated shootings in the area, in 2015. I wrote a short piece about it at the time. One of the consequences for us tourists is the inconvenience of having some of your favourite monuments boxed off, as per the Eiffel Tower, with glass walls, barriers and fencing. (The last time we were there, you could walk underneath the tower). Not to mention the knots of young, heavily armed soldiers at every corner and intersection. For those that lost their lives, or lost loved ones, friends and colleagues, this is an irrelevance, of course. Nor did S and I realise how close our apartment is to the site of the restaurant shootings which took place around the same time as the stadium and Bataclan attacks. On the Wednesday, we joined our host and her wife for a lovely meal beside the Canal Saint-Martin. They were able to point out one of the cafés across the canal. And apparently the Bataclan was just behind that again. It seems the attackers had chosen well; this was a popular area for locals to enjoy nightlife. Packed full of young poeple enjoying themselves, but shy of security forces, unlike the popular hotspots.
Anyway, this is supposed to be a blog about running and associated stuff, like triathlons, ultra marathons, and open water swimming (plus I reserve the right to waffle on about wildlife, the environment and heritage, etcetera.) So we’ll draw a line under all that, and just finish off our holiday reminiscences with a quick mention of the magnificent (if at times confusing) Musée d’Orsay, and its collection of great art. The Louvre is great too, bien sûr, but it gets crowded, and the art there can be a bit fusty. Plus you have to try and get your head around the bloody glass pyramid in the courtyard. Nope, me neither…
(For what it’s worth, my favourite view of Paris is from Sacré-Coeur. It’s possibly my favourite building too. And if you get off in Pigalle, you can feel the seediness of the sex shops slip away as you climb into Montmartre where you can wander past the ghosts of Lautrec, Van Gogh and Picasso, get imbued with the artistic spirit, and then climb La Butte where you can get cleansed of all that ungodly carry-on. And you can still go into the basilica too, free of charge).
The other thing you may wish to avoid whilst in Paris is the Andouillette Sausage. Here’s one account of it. In our case, it was S who made the casual error of believing she had ordered plain old sausage. To be fair, she gamely struggled through the bones of it (or should that be the guts?) before conceding defeat. I had two small mouthfuls. That was two too many. Let’s just say if you are stuffing a pig’s colon with small intestines… well, it’s just not going to work out, really. Sorry. Saoirse’s niece shrieked when we told her the next day. Most French folk don’t really eat it either, I gather. It’s possibly a massive and elaborate gag they play on foreigners.
I had the chicken burger.
I did manage one run along the Seine, just to have it on Garmin, really. Sad, indeed, I know. But it was a nice 10k on a hot day, and I got to see some more of Paris life up-close (not least the lovely plage along the Rive Droite), and discover that French joggers are every bit as aloof and rude as Irish joggers. But of course, they do it in a wonderfully French way, so they are forgiven.
And then our holiday was over, all too soon, and we were heading for the airport again, and another run-in with those new passport control scanner booth thingies that really slow down what was already a painfully tiresome process.
We love you Paris. Don’t ever change. Well, like all living cities, you change every day in many subtle ways, and sometimes, in unwanted ways due to cataclysmic events. But I guess you will always be Paris; full of wide-eyed tourists looking for the next bridge to cover in padlocks, or Jim Morrison’s grave, or an over-priced café on the Champs-Élysées where they can rant about the price of Coke while the waiter looks on in disdain, and all the while, the locals go about their business of looking rather chic outside cafés and bars.
And so there you have it. A blog about running. Sort of.
* Parisien or Parisienne, or indeed, maybe just Parisian? Anybody know which is the correct one to use, and in what circumstances? My friend and fellow blogger Franck may be able to help here…