Obtention Perdu 01/12/2009Posted by brendan in La Vie en Paris.
Tags: france, montmartre, paris, urban, walks, wandering
Recovering from a cold I found myself slumped against the window on the 4. Aaron had forwarded me a link to the Criterion website announcing a retrospective on Guy Maddin at Centre Pompidou. That was exciting, but through the magic of links I discovered that tonight was the one night only special screening of Brand Upon the Brain! complete with live orchestra, a castrato and narration by Isabella Rossellini.
This unbelievable event was taking place at Théâtre l’Odéon. When exiting the station I expected to find myself cowering beneath some monumental structure but instead was standing on a multi-laned boulevard lit from one end to the other with cafes and bars and restaurants. There were two multiplexes squaring off from one another but neither promised the majesty anticipated. I walked past both peering at signs written in foreign begging for a familiar name. After a couple blocks in various directions I found a map fixed to the side of a broken public toilet and discovered that the apparent namesake for the district was several blocks removed from its Metro stop.
Physically locating the building took several attempts, wrong turns, narrow streets curving so as to obstruct my view of the next block, and passing the same places two or three times. I stopped in a Tabac and gave someone a light on a corner but I was too timid to ask where I was trying to go. They probably would have directed me to the Metro. After my second or third consultation with a toilet map I did find the Théâtre. It was not the sort of place where you can walk up and buy a ticket.
Finding myself barred entry due to elitist admissions policy wasn’t as frustrating as the inability to locate my destination. Streets do not conform to the urban grid we’re accustomed to in the New World, right angles not having been invented yet when Paris was founded. American chambers of commerce push tourists towards landmarks, hungry to capitalize on people’s curiosities. The French are not above indicating which direction the Tour Eiffel lies, but overwhelmingly signs serve the practical purpose of navigating you towards the post office, hospital or police station.
Time sensitivity requires planning ahead, consulting maps and giving yourself space to get turned around repeatedly. But when you’ve got nothing but time to kill Paris provides its topography for your wandering pleasure. The narrow, crooked streets, the hidden monuments, the random gardens and cobblestone impasses are so numerous that a lifetime could not afford you the hours required to explore each nook and cranny.
Upon arrival my internal clock was unwound. The girls would bed down for the night leaving me wide awake with nowhere to sit except the dark kitchen, so I hit the streets. Orienting to a compass direction proved impossible and I could be absolutely lost within blocks of the front gate, spending half an hour winding my way back. Unperturbed I continued, venturing further afield and trying to memorize the foreign street signs and familiar landmarks. Slowly paths were established, over the butte or around its edges, ingrained until my feet could carry me blind. Still, each deviation, attracted by an odd building or promising vista, resulted in another hour of wandering.
Mornings I would consult maps to try and reconstruct where I had been, where I had taken the wrong turn, where I should have gone. I began consulting maps before heading out, making mental notes of major boulevards to partition the neighborhood. Good idea, but when ever major intersection is the meeting of five streets you’re bound to take the wrong one by mistake, particularly when the street signs are obscured by lights or awnings or are simply missing.
Everything curves, so while you can see one street at one corner you can’t from the next. Some roads run the length of a neighborhood, others a block before terminating suddenly. Trying to find an alternate route to Cimetiere de Montmarte I accidentally followed Avenue de Clichy into the Bantignolles, adding an hour to my trip. Seeking Boulevard Ney as an anchor I unwittingly crossed the Peripherique into Saint Ouen, not realizing I had left Paris until I hit Saint Denis. That was a long night.
But one of the greatest joys of Paris is walking. The sidewalks may narrow at times but it’s so pedestrian oriented that cars expect people walking in the streets. There’s very few hills to challenge the perpetually lazy, there’s always a crowd lounging on the corners and a Metro stop within three blocks should the weather worsen. I’ve managed to make my own discoveries, quiet spots removed from the traffic, cafes and restaurants, hard-won victories snatched from darkness. Unfortunately I’m not sure I could ever retrace the steps to find them again.