A Different Side of Paris

Summer 2013

When talking to people about our summers in Paris, the most frequent question I get is, “So what do you do there?” While last summer I spent a lot of time running support for Melanie as she spent all day at school, this summer has been much different. Since she took the regular course instead of the intensive, Melanie has a lot more free time. As Melanie explained in our previous update, all that extra time has allowed us to visit more shops and get more ideas for our future enterprise.

Yet that still leaves me with large chunks of time without my beautiful wife. So, how exactly do I occupy myself while Melanie is away? Aside from daily chores and errands, my primary activities are writing and running. Currently I am working on my third novel, a spy thriller set mostly in Paris. I try (and sometimes succeed) to write 1,000 words a day, and hope to finish the first draft by the end of September. I could tell you more, but do you really want to read descriptions of me reclined on the couch, staring at the computer, occasionally typing something? My bet is no. It would put you to sleep, and it certainly wouldn’t tell you anything about Paris.

Talking about my running, however, does give insight into what life is really like in this city. When you think of going for a run in Paris, some of you may imagine the peaceful padding of feet down tree-lined avenues, gazing up at beautiful nineteenth century architecture while you get some exercise. I hate to break it to you, but because we always try to convey the truth here, I’ll be blunt: Paris is not the ideal city for running.

First, there’s the air. In a city as old and crowded as Paris, there are certain smells that, no matter how hard you try, are almost impossible to avoid: car exhaust, cigarette smoke, urine and the wretched emanations from ancient sewer systems. Sometimes you will encounter just one of these “stink pockets,” as Melanie calls them. Other times the distinct smells come in rapid-fire succession or even worse, a deadly mélange of more than one. To minimize your experiences with these odors, the trick is to be alert. Look ahead for smokers, sewer grates, and darker patches on the sidewalk. You won’t be able to escape all of them, but holding your breath in the appropriate places helps a great deal. Just make sure to breathe as much fresh air as you can when you get the chance.

But smells aren’t the only obstacles to a nice, long run. Even in our neighborhood, far away from the packed city center, there is lots of traffic. Frequent stops at lights can impede any attempt to build up a rhythm. Plus, on the crowded, narrow sidewalks you have to bob and weave through pedestrians. Despite these challenges, I have found a route that affords me a longer, less congested run, and even some fresh air. The first part takes me west, paralleling the southern border of the old city. The sidewalks are wide and, for the most part, sparsely populated by Parisians carrying out their daily errands. Still, Parisian pedestrians are often so involved in their tasks, and walking so fast (sometimes old ladies with their shopping will pass you if you’re walking too slowly), you have to be able to cut right or left at the last second to avoid bowling someone over.

On my regular running route I pass several corner cafes and boulangeries and auto mechanics, but there are also some unique, favorite places of mine: a tea salon where Middle Eastern men avidly watch their horse races, basketball courts where young and old compete, a small church with a serene garden in its shadow. But my favorite part is where, after weaving through modern office towers of steel and glass, I cross the Seine. There I can look right and see the Eiffel Tower in the distance before turning left to follow the river downstream, watching the river boats and looking off into the wooded hills before reaching my turnaround point and heading home. It is a good run that gives me a window into the real Paris: the mix of old and the modern, the diverse ethnic groups, the frenetic commuting and relaxed cafe conversations.

Over the summer, I built up strength and endurance on my usual run, so toward the end of August I decided to tackle a bigger challenge: run the entire length of the Seine within the old city of Paris. I would start at our apartment, running east along the main boulevard until I hit the river. From there I would turn north, making a half moon as I traversed the entire length of Paris’s famed waterway until I reached the boulevard on the western side of the city, running my usual route back home.

I attempted the run on one of those perfect Parisian summer days, with racks of high, puffy clouds lining the bluest of skies. A slight breeze wound its way through the buildings and trees, cooling the concrete and stone and asphalt. A water bottle in each hand, I headed south, then turned west under the rustling, leafy shade of boulevard trees. Here the city was less crowded, almost quiet. By the time I hit the river, buildings and people had spread out so much I felt I was leaving the chaotic city. I turned left, pounding the pavement along the water as I headed north.

The Seine is still very much a working river. Cargo boats carry their hauls into and out of the city, and loading docks dot the banks. Rocks, gravel and sand are piled along the river or stored in huge, cylindrical storage vessels. Older buildings cede space to more modern ones. Yet as I made my way north the crowds, the buildings, the river became more familiar. Then Notre Dame Cathedral’s belfries came into view, towering over the city as they have for centuries. The path along the water became crowded with people strolling, looking at monuments, sunning themselves in patches of parks, or queuing for the tour boats and restaurants that line the shores.

The Seine arched slowly south, and after the Eiffel Tower the crowds thinned. Once again the river returned to its working ways. There were more docks and even a lumber yard, and long stretches of pavement with views of the poorer neighborhoods along the western river. Dilapidated tenements stood in stark contrast to the wealthier architecture just east of them, and graffiti-lined train tracks ran parallel to the river, leading to the western edge of town. When in the distance the familiar office buildings from my usual run emerged, I was grateful for the run, happy to be heading home.

Before coming back to the States, though, I still had one more run to do in Paris. Since I had already traversed the low river valley, I wanted my last run of the summer to reach the highest point at the basilica of Sacre Coeur, where I could watch the sunrise over Paris. So I awoke at 4:45 in the morning, leaving Melanie asleep as I snuck out and snacked on speculoos cookies (a recent, delicious discovery) before sliding on my running shoes and slipping out the door. The city was dark, and though an occasional car and even rarer pedestrian passed, the city was still asleep. Only a few shop doors spilled light onto the streets, and early morning workers stood on the sidewalks, smoking their breakfast cigarettes to steel themselves for the workday.

This route took me straight through the center of the city, through Montparnasse cemetery, north along Boulevard Raspail, crossing the famed Boulevard Saint Germain before going over Pont Royal and entering the gardens of the Tuileries. While I could easily navigate the streets of the Left Bank (southern part of the city), the Right Bank streets are much more maze than grid, and finding a clear route north is difficult.

Though still shrouded in night, the city was starting to stir with more traffic, trucks unloading their cargos, and even the occasional runner. There were the quiet stumblings home of all-night revelers, and the peals of laughter from workers long awake that sounded unnaturally loud at that hour. Though I pulled out my map a couple times, I was reluctant to lose the spirit of adventure and exploration of this run. (That’s my euphemism for not wanting to look like a stupid tourist.) So I simply headed uphill, winding and finding my way north as the relatively gentle slopes closer to the river gave way to steeper inclines. And then through a gap I saw Sacre Coeur’s lighted domes standing sentinel over the entire city. A few more turns and I spied a long set of stairs climbing through the trees.

As I emerged from the trees the street curved around to a view of the lightening sky over Paris. The wide stairs in front the basilica were littered with empty bottles that told their tales of the night not yet ended. I imagined the idylls of youth, the impassioned philosophical conversations, the alcohol-enhanced laughter, the drunken declarations of love. A night seemingly perfect to those who spent it on the steps.

The quiet of the morning was composed of certain sounds: the hum of the funicular, the gentle whoosh of traffic below, the click and clack of a distant train. Occasionally those gentler sounds were shattered by the crashing of a glass bottle rolling down the stone stairs, knocked loose by pigeons picking through the trash for breakfast. The fleeting youth were deep in naive sleep by the time the army of brooms and bags and blowers came to clean up their mess.

I sought the serenity of a hidden staircase behind the church. From there I was afforded the perfect vantage point to see the sun come up. Clouds splotched the sky, and as the circle of sun poked through it chose the most beautiful shade between pink and orange. I watched until it became too bright, then wound my way behind the church, down through the streets of Montmartre, descending into the awakening city and heading for home.

 

Copyright Axel Schwarz

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