The Last Time I Saw Paris

Only robbers and gypsies say that one must never return where one has once been.
- Kierkegaard

So I got off the train in Paris and walked right into a student demonstration. That was all right; it had been, up to now, a pretty boring day.

The train from Toulouse was a TGV and, as before, the speed made it hard to see much of anything, even though we passed through some wonderfully scenic country. All along the Garonne valley, from Toulouse to Bordeaux, the fields were green and incredibly rich-looking, the river running high - pretty close to flood level, I thought. Bordeaux itself might have been quite an interesting place, but from the train it was just another big French city, though there was one nice view along the river as we pulled out.

Heading north out of Bordeaux, the TGV stretched its legs and did some serious ass-hauling; all along the way were towns with great legendary names - Angoulême, Poitiers - but they were only brief speed-blurred glimpses, gone as quickly as they appeared. It was frustrating, and yet there was no denying the value of such speed; an ordinary train would have taken a long, exhausting time to make the journey, and I'd have gotten into Paris late in the evening.

As it was, we got into the Gare Montparnasse a little after two, leaving me time to enjoy a bit more of Paris before holing up for the night. I walked out of the station, considering where I should go, and found myself in the middle of one of the student demonstrations for which Paris has been famous since medieval times.

It was a pretty good demonstration, very energetic and noisy, but without any feel of danger or imminent violence; these demonstrators were very well-behaved, for all their carrying on, and everybody was being very good-natured about the whole thing. Even the cops; there was none of the head-cracking of days gone by. There was no sign of any sort of riot police at all, merely some traffic-control detachments clearing the way for the marchers.

The mopeds were a stroke of genius. Nobody can feel threatened by a cop on a moped; and no cop can work himself into storm-trooper mode aboard one of those silly little things.

Of course they weren't doing this for my entertainment; as best I could understand, from the signs they waved and the sheets they handed out, they were protesting some cuts in funding for medical training (which explained the white coats, and the generally mature behavior of the marchers) and it sounded as if they had a legitimate bitch.

Anyway it was a fine sunny day and the streets were alive with Parisians - and Parisiennes, oh, yes - out enjoying it; spring, it appeared, had finally come to Paris while I was away.

I strolled down Montparnasse and, feeling dry, went into La Coupole and had a beer - Kronenbourg, ghastly stuff but cold and wet anyway. A well-dressed Frenchman, maybe a little older than me, was sitting at the next stool; he had one of those weathered craggy faces and bushy white eyebrows, sort of a French Norman Mailer or maybe James Whitmore...and whoever he was, he was getting a lot of obvious respect from the bartender and the other customers.

Believe it or not, we got to talking - in French, though I wouldn't have been surprised if his English was better than mine - about the demonstration, and the history of such things in the past, particularly the big student revolt of the sixties and the brutality with which the police had put it down; and the foolishness of the saying, "Plus ça change, plus ça même chose," and how change wasn't always for the worse.... I hadn't impressed myself so much since Cap d'Agde.

Leaving La Coupole at last, feeling distinctly euphoric (La Coupole! In Paris! Where Henry Miller used to hang out! And I had a serious philosophical conversation in French! With a Frenchman! I kill me sometimes) I ambled on down Montparnasse, which eventually turned into Port-Royal, and at Rue Pascal I turned north and worked my way up to Place Halpern and then the Rue Mouffetard.

Rue Mouffetard is a long narrow cobblestone street - not so many of them left now, the authorities having paved over a lot of the old streets after the street fighting of the sixties, cobblestones being too handy as projectiles and barricade materials - that winds up the south side of the big hill of the Latin Quarter. It has become a popular tourist destination and for that reason has gotten a little chintzy, some of the shops now selling Paris-kitsch souvenirs (cast-metal Eiffel towers, stuffed dogs wearing berets, the inevitable T-shirts), but still it has managed, most admirably, to retain a good deal of its original character and purpose.

The produce was mouth-watering, even to a confirmed anti-vegetarian like me. The strawberries in particular were amazing; the rainy spring must have been good for the strawberry crop, because you saw them in the markets and in the patisseries, huge things the size of golf balls, and wonderfully good.

Other necessities of life are also sold along the Mouffetard. (This being Paris, after all.)

After a long steep climb, Rue Mouffetard comes out on the Place de la Contrescarpe, a small and uninteresting little square notable mainly for its associations:

Here, just off the Place de la Contrescarpe, at #74 Cardinal Lemoyne, is where Ernest Hemingway and his first wife lived in the days described in A Moveable Feast. A lot of the narratives in that book, and in the early chapters of The Sun Also Rises, become much more understandable once you've seen and walked over the terrain; you don't fully appreciate the distances and the steep grades. No wonder Hemingway talks so much about food; you can work up a serious appetite walking up and down these streets - and I know, from my homeless days in San Francisco, how cruel can be the combination of steep hills and wonderful food smells and empty pockets.

At the top of the hill sits the great domed bulk of the Pantheon, with its assortment of curiously-chosen heroes.

This group of school children had evidently seen enough of the glorious past for today. I found I felt much the same.

I headed on down the north slope of the hill, pausing to check out a few hotels in the Sorbonne area. Everything I looked at was too high - either in price or physically; I wasn't setting myself up for any more four-flight climbs - but I wasn't really expecting to find anything around here. I walked on down St.-Michel to St.-Germain and caught the Metro up to the Gare de l'Est and found a cheap and thoroughly bad hotel on the Rue Magenta; easily the shabbiest quarters of the whole trip but I told myself it was only for one night.

The area around the two big northern train stations, the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l'Est, is not a good one; the streets are alive with hookers and pimps and dealers and, I have no doubt, thieves. The surrounding neighborhoods are heavily African and Arab, which no doubt is great if you're looking for certain types of food but I didn't know anything about that. Finally I found a brasserie with a special on roast chicken with frites: the same thing I'd had for my first French dinner, back in Amiens. It seemed an appropriate choice for my last evening in Paris.

The food was quite decent, though the racket from the next table was a bit off-putting; a couple of (rather obvious) whores were having dinner and talking in very loud voices, something unusual in France, where people generally hold it down in public places. (After I got back to the US, the first thing that got my attention was how incredibly God-damned LOUD everybody talked.) The service was a little slow, too, because the waiter was hanging around the whores' table, chatting them up. That was unusual too, but understandable; he was a young guy and they were quite pretty in a whorey sort of way.

I went back to the hotel, intending to clean up and change before going out again. My last evening in Paris, and I'd already promised myself that long-delayed look at the City of Light. I knew where I was going, too: Montmartre, where there would be a fantastic view of the lights of Paris. I even knew which Metro to take.

As I was laying out my clothes on the lumpy bed, a deep loud rumble shook the windows. I looked up just as a flash of light came from outside, followed by another rumble.

I believe I said, "Oh, shit." Or words to that effect.

A single glance out the window was sufficient confirmation. It was raining, a full-scale rainstorm with thunder and lightning and great sheets of water blowing across the Rue Magenta and rattling on the window panes.

And so much for that.

I sighed and got out the bottle of wine I'd bought on the way back from dinner. I couldn't really feel ill-used by the weather gods; not after being granted that glorious sunny afternoon...but still, but still.

Next morning I caught the train for Luxembourg.

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