Pinch Me, I Live in Paris

There are hundreds of postcards I’ve made of Paris in my mind.  I’ll stop, clear my head of whatever I was thinking of, and be truly and appreciatively, in the moment.

A soft sunset on Ile de la Cite seen from the Pont des Arts.

Sunshine down a narrow medieval street in the Marais.

Birdsong in the trees of Buttes-Chaumont.

This is my sixth year in Paris and I’ll still be caught randomly in moments of disbelief: “Do I really live here, here in Paris?”  As humans we have a remarkable ability to adjust to circumstances and take what was once all-consuming and relegate it to background noise.  Part of this is helpful – it can help you change the Metro three times without really looking where you’re going, because you’re avidly listening to an audiobook or occasionally walk-reading with a dead-tree book.  Part of this is harmful – we can fail to look up and see those beautiful moments that are just waiting for us if we aren’t living by our smartphones.

I was waiting for some friends last weekend outside a Senegalese restaurant in the 11th.  A couple friends had arrived early and we chatted and people watched.  I noticed a girl taking a photo of…my eyes followed the trajectory of her phone to a second floor window where a cat, paws imperiously perched on the window sill, calmly surveyed the street below.  The girl snapped the picture, laughingly looking around her to see if anyone else had seen the moment of feline curiosity.  Our eyes met and my smile acknowledged the joint secret.  We then turned back to the window where the cat had briefly retired only to once again emerge, missing only a cigarette dangling from its mouth to mark him (or her?) out as the casual Saturday evening street-watcher in the neighborhood.

Something else which slowly, then suddenly happens is the march of French into your ear.  As my French skills have progressed, what used to be background noise – the French slowly and quickly spoken around me – is now contending with my own thoughts.  The casual confessions in the metro, the heated disagreements in the street, the chatter in cafes.  I never feel like an eavesdropper in my native language, but when I’m in an English-speaking country, I feel like everyone is talking all the time because I don’t have to pay attention in order to understand English.  But as my French gets better, the volume around me is turning up.  Often times I’ll surreptitiously write down a word or expression I haven’t heard in order to look it up later.

For non-EU citizens, immigration occupies such an unreasonable portion of our mental real estate in the early years of living here that we sometimes miss the special elements of the city we are fighting to stay in.  One of the biggest benefits of a four-year card is the disappearance of the immigration question from your mind entirely.  That frees up room for all those moments that you’ll still need to fight to appreciate, not allowing yourself to take this dream city for granted.

Photo taken by me on a not-crowded day at Buttes Chaumont, which will be less and less attainable as the weather warms up. 🙂

walking in paris

Meet Your Paris Greeters

Every now and then my readers tell me about something interesting that I feel needs to be better known and I’ll often ask them to write about it themselves.  Craig Ziegler was actually kind enough to follow through.  Enjoy!

Before my last visit to Paris I learned of the Global Greeters Network, an association of organizations around the world whose mission is to introduce visitors to volunteers who will take them on guided walks, at no charge, through their areas and give them a first-hand look at the places they call home. I was surprised to see how many cities had a Greeters organization and pleased to see that Paris had Paris Greeters.
Paris Greeters works like this: once you register with the website, you can request a walk (they don’t call them tours) with a volunteer. After taking into account your interests, language preference, mobility, the date of your availability, etc., a coordinator will assign you to a volunteer who will take you on a walk through his/her neighborhood in Paris. You don’t get to choose your walk; they choose it for you!
I signed up and received an offer of a guided walk through the Bastille quartier with Francoise. Even though I had walked through this area many times over my 15 years of visiting Paris, I accepted the assignment just for the experience. I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
I met Francoise at the Ledru-Rollin Metro stop at 10h00 on a Thursday. She was a wonderful walking companion and her English was excellent. Over the next 2 1/2 hours of strolling through the eastern Bastille area, she showed me beautiful courtyards that I had never seen, as well as artisan areas that dated back to the Revolution.  She was so knowledgeable about her neighborhood and she had access to all the private properties. We walked past a historic dance hall on rue de Lappe, the Balajo, that was closed that morning, but she unexpectedly talked the custodian into letting us go inside for a look around at this wonderful slice of Parisian life.
We ended our walk at the Marché d’Aligre, an historic, multi-cultural, covered market in the 12th arrondissement with an extensive flea market outside. She ended the walk there by telling me how proud she was that so many cultures lived together in Paris in peace. She believed that the market area demonstrated this better than her words could explain it.  Paris Greeters do not charge for these walks with visitors, but a visitor can make a contribution to the organization if one would like. I donated €20 and received an email receipt from the organization shortly afterward.

My walk with Francoise was a wonderful experience and I will surely arrange another such walk in some quartier of Paris when I return this year.

Postscript: This walk occurred eight days before the attacks of November 13. I wanted to contact Francoise after the attacks to get her perspective; the Bataclan is only 2.5 kilometers from her Marché d’Aligre. I didn’t have the heart to call, but I know she was devastated.
Photo by Jeff Frenette on Unsplash