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From City to Coast 3

June 29, 2017

This is the third and final “Letter from France” written after a recent short stay.

Writing about Paris is in some ways like writing a love song: it has been done so many times that the temptation is to ask: why bother?

The answer to both, of course, is that every relationship is unique, and, on that basis, should be celebrated. It depends what is brought to the partnership by each side, and how the writer choses to portray it.

My relationship with Paris is as a tourist – I can claim no more than that. However, even that relationship matures through time. After the frenetic activities of the first few visits, when every tourist box has to be ticked, every site seen, there comes a time when just being there is enough.

Strangely, the less organised your itinerary, the more you may discover, and the better you are able to appreciate the place.

With just over 24 hours in town and in temperatures forecast to be in the high nineties, there was no way we would be racing about the place, but we are staying on the Ile de St Louis for the first time, a few hundred yards from Notre Dame, and even that gives us a new perspective on the city.

I love the architecture of Paris, Haussmann’s boulevards, the elegant stonework and the myriad side streets all over the city. Most of all, however, I love the people who throng the streets and the Seine as it flows through the centre, drawing the eye with its constant movement: along with its bridges, very much a part of the city itself.

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It performs the same role as the Liffey, the Potomac, the Clyde, and the Thames and other rivers with cities built around them and through which they flow. Though the East and Hudson rivers are crucial to New York, the Charles forever associated with Boston, and the Spree with Berlin –it is possible to spend time in these cities without being overly aware of their rivers;  in Paris, nobody escapes the notice of the Seine. The two are synonymous – and this is not just a tourist thing. What fascinates me is the way in which the Parisiens embrace their river, make it a part of their daily lives, eschew the idea that it is for looking at, or photographing, and incorporate it into so many aspects of their routine.

Basically on this visit we follow the Seine from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries by the Louvre. As it happens, that’s not a bad tourist route, but our eyes are on people rather than buildings, sights rather than sites.

Although since 2002 the Paris-Plages scheme has converted parts of the banks of the Seine into “beaches” every Summer, this scheme has been extended and now large lengths of the banks, formerly expressways for traffic through the city centre, have been closed to cars altogether.

The transformation, which we are experiencing for the first time, is quite stunning in its impact, and we have not been expecting this – nor have we predicted the calm atmosphere in the city overall.

After the terrorist atrocities that Paris has suffered, and the continuing French State of Emergency, I suppose we wondered if that would be manifested  as we moved round the city. We see soldiers twice, I think – once in the gardens by Notre Dame, and once on patrol  in the courtyard at the Louvre. I’m sure there may be signs of increased security in other places, but in general, the people and the police seem much as usual.

To be fair, Paris, and France in general, have always had  a fairly   militarised police structure: officers bearing arms, CRS vans in side streets, a variety of sirens and flashing blue lights are part of the normal streetscape.

As it happens, there is a ‘contained’ terrorist incident while we are in the city. A car rams a police convoy on the Champs Elysée and the driver is shot dead. We are a mile or two away from the scene and vaguely aware of a number of police vehicles speeding by, but nothing which suggests a serious incident. French phlegm, I suspect, is a potent defence.

The car free river banks are a revelation. Pedestrians and cyclists seem to coexist amiably and small open-air cafes have sprung up at intervals. There are fitness machines, a climbing wall, flowers, hammocks,  and benches – everything you might want to attract folk to the riverside.

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We made our way, slowly in the heat from Notre Dame to Les Tuileries, stopping regularly to shelter from the sun and to take in our surroundings. Paris is as impressive as ever – crossing the bridges and going down to the river bank we catch glimpses of familiar sights: the Hotel de Ville, Pont Neuf, Pont des Arts, Musée d’Orsay, the Louvre, and Rue de Rivoli before arriving at Les Tuileries to seek some shade and some rest.

At the side of the pond a heron lands and settles not ten feet away – maybe too hot to be wary, or maybe displaying some Parisien sang-froid. The trees provide the shade for which they were planted and in the quiet of the gardens we can look around at Les Invalides, the Eifel Tower, the Pyramid at the Louvre, but what still holds my attention most is the parade of people we saw on the banks of the Seine.

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Young and old, trendy and business like, relaxing and busy, moving and still. They are a cross section of Paris life – portraits against a busy background of tourist boats and commercial vessels. Some are active – cycling, boarding, or trying out the fitness machines or climbing-wall fitments. Some listen to music and a few play – a guitarist, an accordion, and a distant saxophone blowing jazz over the water. Remarkably, a bagpiper on the bridge above us. What takes the eye – and the ear – most of all –  are the conversations, people talking and listening, facing each other with intent, reflecting and positing, hearing and replying.

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There is something glorious about all this human interaction at the heart of one of the world’s great cities. It something we often miss in the hurry and scurry – this ability of humanity to talk and listen in the midst of bustle and movement, the willingness, even the need, to communicate, exchange views, pass comment and hear our neighbour’s voice.

Despite popular belief, personal music players are quite scarce; drink tends to be soft or a discreet glass of wine, pizza boxes are completely absent, and most rubbish is neatly stacked in litter bins. It is like an assertion of sophisticated behavior, a choice to be the best and not the worst, a celebration of togetherness rather than divisiveness – and all colours and races are represented – when you think of all the Seine has flowed past down the centuries, how could it be otherwise – and why on earth would you want it to be?

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I’m well aware I could seek, and find, a very different Paris, were I  willing to look, but I don’t feel in any way that reduces the impact of these river banks and their city dweller inhabitants

Later on in the evening, the streets still busy, the air still stifling, we take a  walk back to the riverside, and find a quite remarkable number of people sitting in twos and threes, seldom bigger groups, more wine bottles – usually with glasses – on show, musicians, cyclists, skaters, sometimes solitary  thinkers, but mostly talkers and listeners, a coming together of citizens, the babbling conversation of the Seine flowing past, mixing with the interaction between its people.

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It’s a sight which is strangely moving – as if the people are taking over the city from the buildings. It is most obvious, of course, on the parts of the river bank which had been the “Pompidou Expressways”, once  a steady line of hurtling vehicles, now moving to a gentler beat of evening walks, casual chats, and gentle exercise.

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However, as has long been the case, the older parts of the banks, always accessible to the city’s residents, are thronged tonight as well. Benches, steps, ledges hewn out of the river walls, tree stumps, the gunwales of barges and houseboats and smaller craft tied to the quays,– they all serve as a place to sit or lean and contemplate the Seine, Paris, and life in general. The groups of people form patterns, dark against the light stone, disappearing off into the distance, with the occasional movement seeming to fade into the general stillness.

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There are still boats moving on the water, but, generally, the Seine is a quiet river rather than a centre of noise. It means that car horns, police and ambulance sirens, and the music of the buskers all seem to exist individually and distinctively, rather than form a carpet of noise. It gives this bustling city an intimacy – which of course is one of its great attractions, be it by the river, in the gardens, or in the squares and alleyways of Le Marais or Montmartre.

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A setting sun lends drama to the scene, as the water flames and the people become shadows.

It brings our short stay in France to a perfect end, an impressionist message from the Seine and its people.

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Tomorrow we will fly out over those northern green fields and we’ll be thankful for a France that is diverse, thoughtful, vibrant, and very much its own person.

An Auld Alliance indeed.

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