Paris is the one city in the world which is made for watchers. Those people who find fascination in watching others as they go about their daily lives unconscious of the watching. On this day we left Maisons Laffitte around 9:30 and were in the heart of Les Halles by just after ten-o-clock.
Les Halles is becoming more and more a consumer maze with floors and entrances cunningly designed to trap the unwary and force them into further consuming at all costs. The RER brings you in on a lower platform and you first have to find stairs or an escalator to take you higher. But how high? Exits are at different levels so, if you want to head down to the Isle de la Cite then you are seeking niveau -2 but if you want to go towards the wonderful Pompidou Centre then that is niveau -1 but in a totally different direction. The Pompidou Centre is probably the only thing of value that the man left France – in all other respects he was a disaster for the country.
We had in mind a short walk around the Latin Quarter, IV Arrondissement, on a guided tour taken from the Internet and we chose to walk to the starting point, the Place St Michel, rather than take a couple of stops on the Metro. By the time we were there, of course, we were already thirsty so we sat down for a financially significant drink at Le Départ close by.
Now Paris is a city of high fashion the French tell us. That may be so but what we saw as we sat there was high tat masquerading as fashion. What the hell is it about the French woman’s love for cowboy boots?
I began to get the impression that I had seen the same people again and again as we walked through the streets of the Latin Quarter. Could it be my imagination? Were we being stalked? The answer was much more prosaic, I was recognising not individuals by ‘types’. Mentally I had been pigeonholing people into their various caricatures: the chic paris matron with her sharp, tailored but otherworldly air, the grubby students hand in hand giggling over some private and inconsequential joke, the loud tourists, the confused tourists, the aggressive tourists, the self-conscious tourists – in fact the tourist ‘type’ re-categorized into a variety of sub-types all of which were in abundance around the Place St Michel and the Boulevard St Germaine.
In the cafe a contretemps develops. A young well dressed man approaches a couple eating at a table on the front row. He shows them an empty cigarette packet and tries to bum a cigarette. They gesture for him to leave. He moves down the line to the owner who is eating his lunch and being served precisely and obsequiously by the waiters around him. Again, the young man tries to bum a cigarette. This time he is met by verbal abuse and clearly told to be on his way, the owner standing and gesturing to make his point. The young man wanders on, cursing at the owner as he leaves. A few short moments and he is back, this time clutching a lit cigarette. He stands in front of the owner arrogantly and blows cigarette smoke in the man’s face. We are expecting gestures with his prized cigarette and then spits on the ground in front of their table. He moves back to the now re-seated owner and spits on the floor in front of him. Finally, with a flourish he disappears into the crowd crisscrossing the square and is lost from sight.
We wander through the narrow streets, pausing on the Rue de la Huchette to see the smallest street in Paris, the Rue de la Chat qui Peche which is named for the enterprising cat who, when the Seine rose up to flood the cellars of the bars and restaurants of the alley, took it upon himself to catch his food from the floodwater.
Close by is the Rue Galande and looking up on this road I saw a most unusual street sign which took a while to recognize. At first it seemed like a shell made out of iron but coming closer I realized that it appeared to have legs and it finally dawned on me that it was in fact a flea. More curious still, the flea appears to be playing a two pipe flute of some kind. No explanation either here or in any of the books I have read so the flea remains a mystery for the time being at least.
We are becoming a little peckish and so we consider lunch, which we had planned to be a picnic. We had brought cheese, ham, butter and drinks but we had no bread, planning to buy it en route. In France this should be easy because the French exist on bread, they carry it with them everywhere they go, breaking of ends of baguettes (or for the more stylish a ficelle) to give to children or lovers as they walk. Try as we might we searched Rue de Cluny and most of the Boulevarde St Germaine with no success. Not a boulangerie in sight although sandwich shops abounded and we could have eaten lunch comprising food from any part of the world – but no bread.
Finally, behind the Pantheon, we come across a solitary boulangerie. We buy our baguette and settle down for lunch in a little triangle of greenery known as the Place de l’Estrapade. It is filled with office workers with their stylish Chinese takeaways and students chatting with their professeurs while devouring a sandwich americain. In one corner an old woman dozes, her leathery face masks with huge sunglasses turned up to catch every last ray of the sun. In another corner is another couple, well dressed and talking animatedly, their heads close together. I am struck, not by the couple but by the actions of the girl. She has an unpeeled banana and is caressing it with what can unmistakably be described as an erotic motion.
The young man seems oblivious to her actions but she becomes more explicit, sliding her hand down the shaft and back again in a manner which is becoming to make even me feel uncomfortable. I look around and at least three others have noticed her actions and their eyes are fixed on the scene being played out. Finally, she seems to tire of her little game and begins to unwrap her prize. I realize that she is not going to stop there, however, as she begins to do what the erotic novel would describe as ‘go down on’ the now naked banana. At this point the young man appears to realize what her actions are clearly signifying to the rest of us and he stands up hurriedly. He extends his hand, she takes it and rises and they both leave but not before she bites down on the banana in a quick but savage motion. None of us would know the relationship of the couple nor the eventual outcome of their meeting but most of us would be willing to make an educated guess.
St Germaine de Laye
St Germaine en Laye, not to be confused with Boulevard St Germaine, is a beautiful chateau town to the north of Paris. Dominated by a magnificent chateau, it has extensive grounds with avenues line by plane trees and a wonderful collection of wild flowers in small borders or roundabouts throughout the estate. The chateau itself is worth a visit when it is open, housing a museum of architecture, but the environs are even more entrancing because of their unexpectedness.
First, within the moat itself, is what appears to be a number of neolithic burial chambers typified by the vertical slabs of dressed stone supporting roofing slabs of a similar size with a restricted stone entrance. At another corner of the moat is what appears to be a bronze tower where the bronze spiral sheath has been carved to represent various scenes in roman life and conquest. The bronze tower has a very faded plaque at its top on which the only recognizable word is ‘Daces’ and so it is possible that the scenes depict events in the conquering and submission of Dacia by the Romans.
But the greatest attraction of St G. In my mind is the spectacular view from the ramparts overlooking Paris. The chateau stands on a hill and the architect chose to build the lateral avenue along a rampart wall looking down on the town of Le Pecq. The promenade thus formed allows the visitor to look over the Seine with it’s bustling traffic of barges and occasional pleasure craft towards La Defense and the Eiffel Tower. Part way along the promenade is a visitor information spot consisting of a semi circular stone table on which is laid a pottery landscape with various markings to show the sights from various angles. Looking out on a clear day we could see, in addition to those attractions mentioned above, Sacre Coeur, Montmartre, the racecourse at Maisons Laffitte and many more. The landscape is undated but was apparently associated with the Cycling Club de France and was old enough to pre-date the building of La Defense which is not shown despite being the main sight of interest from that point.
Finding a parking place had been difficult, those signposted had either been shut or invisible and we had been forced to trek down the hill to the bottom before rising again to find one right in the heart of the town. This multistorey edifice has painted floors which make tyres squeal like demented bats but transferring between levels works on a single track controlled by traffic lights. Daunting at the best of times but with left hand drive and limited space the challenge assumes epic proportions. I saw the lights were green in my favour and resolved to take the upward ramp rather than wait until someone moved from the few spaces on my level. I edged forward slowly, cautiously and then was met by a blare of horns as a French woman hurtled down the ramp towards me. I backed off and tried to think of the phrase for “it was my turn” or “the light was green for me” but before I could utter a word she swept past imperiously. “Merde” I managed under my breath. Eventually, fearing to try the experiment again I persuaded she who must be obeyed to get out of the car so that I could edge into a gap just big enough for a smart car on a diet.
Lunch beckoned and I looked around for a suitable hostelry which was neither too pricey nor too unwelcoming. The Reveil du Matin seemed about right, we had taken coffee there earlier and the waiter had not sneered at my appalling French accent when I had asked him for the code to the ‘weefee’ earlier. We chose a table out in the road and sat waiting for a menu. Another strange thing about Paris and generally about France is that they charge you more the more uncomfortable they make you. Take a table in the warmth of the main room and prices are simply staggering but go outside ‘en terasse’ and the price rises – especially if you want to sit closest to the road and inhale diesel fumes with your starter.
The menu arrived promptly and we chose simple but very good food. Having chosen it the only thing to do was to sit with a small glass of wine in anticipation and wait. We waited. Next to us on one side were two English women discussing life, love and pension arrangements, loudly in English assuming no one could understand. We smiled to each other and enjoyed the conversation covering marital infidelity and a couple who scandalized them by splitting up and then eventually getting back together again.
France is so wonderfully diverse. Living there again would be a dream but perhaps we are better off enjoying the wonder of frequent if short visits. I hope you enjoy your own visits.