Back...and forth

Though we have been back from France for a few days, I have no photos to post because I picked up a virus toward the end, and will take time to recover.

Weeks spent in any locale sets the place upon your bones, and you begin to shift your rhythms: the pace of walking, the scan of a street, the hours of meals.

Our apartment contained a small collection of Paris-themed books; I re-read Adam Gopnik's "Paris to the Moon" and quoted a paragraph in a note to a friend:

"Paris is the site of the most beautiful commonplace civilization there has ever been, cafés, brasseries, parks, lemons on trays, dappled light on bourgeois boulevards, department stores with skylights, and windows like doors everywhere you look."

I wish I'd had those words at hand when someone asked, "Why are you going to Paris again?"

Gopnik, one of my favourite essayists (who grew up in Montréal), also wrote of his inability to ever truly penetrate Paris' inner life, despite his five-year residency, fluent French and access to the city's journalists and academics. But that will happen in any large city, especially in cultures where people do not have the reflexive friendliness of Americans. (I have lost that quality, so was startled when addressed without preamble by a young woman on a bus, who smiled widely and asked, "Where are you from?")

We lived neither as tourists nor residents, but in that in-between world of visitors, which means the local cheesemonger knows you enough to shake your hand, you are received in friends' homes, and might decide to do nothing on a given afternoon but watch the light shift across the park rather than tick off another attraction.

Some sights grew familiar but never routine; every day, we passed the skein of the Seine, running like a satin ribbon around an ample beauty's waist. Le Duc repeated the words of a Parisien friend, who told him when he first came to Paris at twenty: "It is impossible not to look at the river."

On one crisp Sunday, we walked by the Canal St-Martin and came upon the vast tent city at Stalingrad métro. The next day the dense camp would be torn down and many of the 3,000 there bused to "resettlement centers" in the region. There was none of Baudelaire's "luxe, calme and voluptué" at Stalingrad, but the long narrow space under the métro's elevated plaza was orderly. Men played cards, clothes hung from lines, the tents stood in rows.

Now, forty-some years after our first trips, we wonder—not, Will we come again? but, How many more can we make? And as we returned home to Canada, thousands from the camp were still travellng, unlikely to revisit the center of Paris, or their native lands.

There are many Parises: first, the exquisite jewel to which tourists come for the stirring vistas, the celebrated parks, museums, restaurants. Then there is the residents' Paris, long blocks of apartments furnished with bookshelves and (to North Americans) compact kitchens, walled courtyards, schools and offices, all overseen by a monumental civic administration.

The first two Parises intersect, in the markets and grands magasins, the concert halls and métro, in the public spaces claimed for a sprint, a picnic, a meeting under a tree. It's a generously-overlapping Venn diagram, but there will always be a private Paris for residents. (They can tire of so many visitors; a friend's partner stuck his head into a favourite brasserie, and lept out as if scalded, saying: "Trop d'anglais!")

And finally, there is the dim and desperate Paris of camps and squats through which increasing numbers of the displaced pass each month, which few tourists see, and residents watch, compassion competing with wariness. Such a place is hard to imagine, unless you had Depression-era parents who knew Hoovervilles. (The Occupy movement camp in Zuccotti Park was like a three-star hotel compared to the improvised shelters.)

Europe shuffles these masses like a three-card monte game: seen, hidden, moved, with no winning hand in sight.


Janice Riggs said…
Chicago has a community of homeless living under one of the Lake Shore Drive overpasses - it's not as large as that in Paris, but it's a sobering reminder that there are always those among us who need us, and our help, more than we can imagine.

I'm so glad that you're back okay, and planning your next visit! Thanks for sharing your observations and thoughts; you're such an excellent writer...

Duchesse said…
Janice: I've seen encampments of homeless persons here, too, but the camps of displaced persons like those at Stalingrad and Calais adds an additional layer of hardship. The homeless in my city are usually citizens or permanent residents and can, if willing (and in some cases, with assistance), access supports. These are not abundant or there can be long waits, but there are various programs and groups dedicated to their situation.

Migrants fleeing war zones (such as those at Stalingrad), many of whom lack official refugee status, have fewer resources, and are there are incidents of violence by those who are believe they should not be there. The marked disparity in attitudes toward migrants will shape next year's elections in both France and Germany.
Beautifully written. Paris is next on my "bucket list", and your words make me want to hop the next flight out.
They have just dismantled the Tent City of homeless in Dallas. Unsure what will become of all those who live their lives without roots.
materfamilias said…
You can imagine how your words have touched me here. You've articulated so much of what we're living here, although I realise that Bordeaux isn't Paris.
I've just written and deleted too many words about homelessness and poverty and citizenship here in the Sud-Ouest as we've seen it over the past five years of visiting regularly. Deleted because it probably better behooves me just to keep listening and reading and thinking. . . and donating where I can.
I do love the balance you achieve in this post, a lovely piece of writing. I'd love to sit and chat again with you and Le Duc someday about our respective Parises. xo
First and foremost, I hope you are feeling better, and are well enough to take a bit of the wonderful sunshine and almost-warmth we had on a November day. My new little cat Livia kept wanting out, then in again (since she was abandoned for a bit after moving day, she is a bit insecure about being let in again, despite our obvious mutual affection). I was working in the morning but managed to get out in the early afternoon, and everyone seemed so happy to be able to have another coffee, beer or glass of wine outdoors.

I'm a bit concerned about what the authorities are doing with the Stalingrad refugees - they had organised a micro-society, and while they are somewhere warmer, they have much less privacy and autonomy "housed" in a gymnasium. No casual work opportunties there either - those refugees are very enterprising. I do hope they are soon moved to a more dignified abode.

I'd return there tomorrow, if I had the opportunity...
Susan W H said…
I'm glad you went to Paris again. I read earlier that tourism is way down there. The world is changing in ways we cannot control, but that should not be a reason not to confront the difficulties so many face now. Paris is more than a place, it is an ideal, a dream.

Is there any place that doesn't have homeless camps these days? We have many homeless camps here in sunny California. They dismantle them, but then don't tell us where the people go.

I hope you feel better soon. I love to see photos of Paris. I was there last year in June and it was wonderful, but I went as a tourist. In the evenings I saw people putting up makeshift tents and cardboard enclosures in bank doorways and fashion stores as soon as they closed.

Thanks for your beautiful post.
LauraH said…
A beautifully written post. Your love for the city comes through so wonderfully. Hope your virus has receded.

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