After a long time away, the familiarity of Paris was homely. An apartment a stone’s throw from the Seine in one direction and Chatelet in the other was a dream location and the brisk morning air smelled great as I stepped out through the cool shadows of 9am July. Random rambling that would eventually target Chaillot (vague memories of the movie The Mad Woman of Chaillot haunt the recesses at the back of my mind) set me sauntering along the sunny embankment of the Seine. Police vans were pulling up outside a major central angle parking rendezvous perhaps for readiness. They were troop carriers that looked as though they could take 20 gendarmerie and there must have been twenty of them, with more arriving to be ready for an emergency.
A lot of people in Paris. Most obvious, after the people who are selling stuff from their shops or stalls, were the street runners. Girls in their late teens and twenties with shoulder bags were everywhere, charming the next most noticeable group – the visitors from out of town – people just like me – in comfortable walking shoes, eyes everywhere and wielding the inevitable cameras. To start my immersion in the morning I went along with the smiling girl’s appeal for signing a petition. It was for some kind of seeming worthy cause. ‘What’s the catch here?’ I think. Ah. They expect some money. Quelle surprise! I give some change from my little coin purse and she looks a little aghast at my lack of notes and helps herself to a couple of extra coins. What can I say? I’m a tourist. They need to live. They won’t be keeping the money for themselves but have minders. Later I see some interrogation by police that involves searching of bags under the Eiffel Tower. The police are firm but far from being heavy handed. Not dissimilar to the police presence at Penrith Station of an afternoon.
Having taken the plunge into the Parisian ambience and ‘gotten my hair wet,’ I strode on letting the vista glide past me, observing the micro businesses by way of vendors both stationary and mobile selling books, posters and bottled water. The essentials of life.
The Musée D’Orsay was given a choice location along the bank with its spectacular decorative front: elegant solidity that demanded respect, transformed from a railway station to a repository of the choicest selection of the canon of art history. And the breath-taking sculpture accessed only by a telephoto lens from across the street emphasised the depth of artistry and enterprise of the era responsible for this. The once cradle and centre of civilised sensibility was here given testament through carved stone that had, in its time, striven to exceed the Ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans.
Each bridge I passed had its own character and probably its own story of why it was built and when and by whom. Statuary abounded, except for one utilitarian bridge that had a newish acquired character from the mass of padlocks along its chain link railings. It was arresting because of its declared community involvement. It was a notice board for cryptic love stories of promises made and reflected an involvement that was both massive and intimate. So I took a moment to get up close and personal with a padlock or two. Flicked a bit of brass. Saw how it glinted. These weathered timbers had held countless couples who had paused on this bridge, between two banks, above the water and claimed the ephemeral space for their moment.
Tourists colourfully churned past on the decks of spectator craft. I recalled doing the same thing some years ago but in a freezing sunset jealous, a little, of the diners in their sheltered luxury floating restaurants. Very different now under the tourist sun searching for the tourist postcard photo. So many people getting their first extraordinary glimpse of Paris. That only happens once. After that it’s all about getting to know you. On the lower level of the bank, just above water level there were many places to play and/or eat; displays to peruse; photos to pose.
I made my way along leafy streets, navigating towards the big pointy tower. It was time for a bite so I decided to see how easy it was to get vegetarian fare on spec. Ah! A fine looking restaurant was stepping right on that thought. A few moments later I gave a ‘Meh…’ and decided to be fussy. Glancing around I spied a nondescript café and set sail. After some efficient scrutiny of their menu I negotiated a little street table for me, and my camera bag, to enjoy what turned out to be a delightful caprese salad with a crisp white wine. This was one damn nice morning.
Then, before the film of sweat had entirely disappeared, it was time to be moving out. Rawhide. With my favourite lens in hand (17-55mm f2.8 Canon EFS) I moved through a sequence of framing this monument as it gradually appeared through the maze of buildings and then displayed itself in its contexts of lavish garden; buzzing bus terminal; arena for a thousand queueing punters – with the gendarmerie gently chasing down the illegals. Over all this, the astonishing grace of the massive Eiffel Tower gave its enormous shadow. It’s a huge outdoor cavern under there. One could expect some kind of force field to be active. Certainly there was a kind of electricity generated by the proximity of so many people making a kind of western pilgrimage.
I kept walking, now moving away from the crowds to cross the Seine heading northwest towards the golden statues seen in calendars that have Paris themes. Still many people just walking. Families. Life. Smiles. And peppered with poverty and touches of the sinister for the observant. What does that guy do all day? Who is that person waiting for? Dormant elements amongst all this charming activity.
To get to the main concourse that is an extension of the Eiffel Tower I had to make a detour around the buildings, observing the people as I went. Many more locals were here going about their business. After sitting on the grass in the shade to watch traffic I moved on to that vantage point that included the gold statues along with the distant Tower. The plaza was full of office workers and tourists taking their lunch. Why not, indeed?
I’d already had my lunch (I’ve come to think that it pays to be early with lunch when travelling – you get your table, you get your meal and you get short queues when everyone else goes to lunch later) so I made my way to the cemetery across the road. Edouard Manet was the only celebrity I found that I knew, but there were, obviously, many celebrities that I was not aware of. Or at least they were rich. Nothing quite like a Paris cemetery for displaying how lofty a necropolis can be but also how stylish these memorials can be. Writers, inventors, artists, heroes of French history all need their fitting tribute, not so much to them as to the ascendency of La Sensibilite Français.
Much of my time was spent looking for ways to incorporate the tip of the Eiffel Tower with features from the cemetery. Unfortunately there was a dirty great crane that dominated the skyline. Dammit, I didn’t want to see how it was done, just the finished product, please! As much as I told myself to ‘ blossom where I land’, there was still that hankering for that perfect location. What is that innate desire to have the realisation of a dream before one can be satisfied? If the crane was there, why not include it as a faithful record of what was here in front of me? Good question. Now, if I moved to the left a little here I could have the crane come out of a roof top instead of being amongst branches…and I could photoshop it out neatly. No one will know. Unless, I tell them of course, but why would I do that?
Time to carnet back to whence I had come, via Notre Dame. Back in 2001 I saw it for the first time on a rainy night suffused with yellow street lights sparkling in puddles. The next time was 2004 in the late afternoon light, exploding with reflected last rays of the sun. Today, it sat baking in the midday sun with people queuing just like at the tower. I have impatience with queues: I resist stopping in one place for any unreasonable length of time. So I kept moving, climbing a very conveniently located grandstand type building erected right in front. Again the thing I most noticed was the moving multitudes attracted to these places like bees to honey. After some ‘pollinating’ time I buzzed off.
Talk about timing! Just as I got to our apartment there was Nic with friends emerging from the Carrefours supermarket, metres away from our apartment building, bearing bags of provisions. After wrangling the strange names on groceries and finding places for everything, we dolled up and feasted three floors below at the Chinese Restaurant on the corner, our local. The food was cheapish but cheerfully good quality and suitably spicy. Then, after a walk through streets sparkling in the twilight, we were treated to a performance of Moliere’s School for Wives… in French. We had seen Bell Shakespeare’s production of it recently so were confident we could follow it and it was very interesting to see a traditional performance by a company devoted to recreating the way theatre would have been performed in Moliere’s own day…in the very same space. And a distinctive space it is, dominated by gold paint and red velvet. It was a big day and I feel exhausted just recollecting it.