Saturday, March 2, 2013

Buttes Chaumont et Belleville

I spent a good bit of the last three days walking around Paris, but I did not arrive at a walking pace. My roommate was driving there for a Sigur Rós concert Wednesday night, and I made a quick decision to go with him and save the price of a train ticket. However, what I saved in euros I lost in years of my life, I think, because the speed limit on the autoroute is 130kph (80mph) and we frequently were going 10-15 kilometers per hour faster than the posted limit. A friend of Seb's was in the front seat, and I could see him occasionally clutching the side door handle when we swerved at the last minute, without signaling, to pass a truck. "C'est pourquoi je t'ai laissé le siège avant," I told him. "Je ne veux pas voir." We flashed past ninety percent of the other vehicles on the road, and even at this too-fast (for me) pace there was the occasional car going even faster. Mom and John and I will stay in the far right lane, I think, when we have to take the autoroutes this May in the rented car, and if that means being surrounded by trucks, so be it. There were many trucks on this stretch of the freeway, from Spain and Portugal, Poland and Belgium, and several countries that use a lot of diacritical marks. A line of wind turbines followed the road for a while, arms moving lazily in the hazy fields. We entered Paris from the southwest, and Seb dropped me off at the Boucicaut Métro stop, after we crossed the Pont Mirabeau; there's a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty just upstream there, near the next bridge (Pont de Grenelle). Boucicaut to Opéra to Crimée and a short walk to St. Christopher's Inn, the youth hostel I've been staying at for my Paris trips. I dumped my bag on my bunk and walked back out the door onto the Rue de Crimée and turned right, heading for the Parc de Buttes Chaumont, a place I'd been meaning to visit. It looked a fair walk, but once again the cross-hatched Paris map misled me, and I was at the park gates in less than ten minutes.

I had hoped for clear weather, or even snow, but though it was cold it was dry, except for the occasional mist when the overcast sky got slightly too heavy to overcome gravity. This made for comfortable and far from crowded walking conditions, especially since it was in the middle of the week, but it was less than optimal for photography. I'd left the hostel at about 3pm and had a dinner date with another cheese student, Laure, at a restaurant in the area of the park, at 7:30pm. And I had a plan for my three days, which included finding a used book store with books in English, checking out some of the Mexican restaurants I'd been reading about, going to a few art exhibits, and making a tour of five of the more well-known Paris cheese stores. One of the book stores and one of the cheese shops was nearby, and I was confident I could fit them in after my park walk.

The park was constructed in the 1860s by order of Napoléon III, on the site of an old limestone quarry. It's almost as deep as it is wide, it seems, and though I didn't go down into the grotto with the artificial waterfall I did climb up to the Temple of Sibyl and peer down at the man-made lake. The large standing rock is real, I think, but I discovered that the "branches" forming the railings along the paths are made of formed concrete, and realized that the suspiciously regular patterns on the rock steps meant that they were concrete as well. The trees are genuine, though, and there's a good variety of them, and I expect in the summer there are beds of flowers. I thought I could smell a hint of winter daphne on the breeze, but didn't see it anywhere. The lawns were all fenced off, with the explanation pelouse au repos, but I could see why this is a favorite spot for summer picnics in Paris, because - at least when it isn't hazy - the view of the city is quite lovely.

The buildings surrounding the park are a mixtures of the classic Paris apartments with their high dormers and scrolled balconies and rounded edges, and prosaically modern-ish squares of flats, frequently scribbled with graffiti and garlanded by strollers and bicycles. Some of the ground floors, in both the older and newer buildings, are made up of shops and restaurants, but I was startled to see a gas station tucked under one structure. I don't think I'd like to live above a gas station.

I walked down from the north end of the park to the south and east, down the Avenue Simon Bolivar, and into the Belleville neighborhood. It's a lively area, full of people from all over the world, and the shops and restaurants catering to them. A blind man walked by me carrying a sack of groceries, whapping the walls of the buildings with his cane, shouting "Putain! Merde!" The tall plastic glass recycling units requested that bottle drops not be done between 10pm and 7:30am, rather than the 8pm-8am hours posted here in Tours. Going down the Rue de Belleville most of the businesses are Chinese or Vietnamese, with the occasional Thai restaurant. At the base of the hill, if you turn left onto the Boulevard de Belleville, you're suddenly in Tunisia.

I'd forgotten to bring any shampoo, so I stopped in at a grocery to buy a small bottle, and to ask for directions to the bookstore, because I couldn't find the street on my map. The shampoo and most of the other personal care products were in a locked glass case, which I found odd, especially since all the alcohol was out in the open. While I was waiting to pay, I asked the man behind me if he knew where the Rue de Vaucouleurs was, but he didn't, and neither did the clerk. When I went back outside again, I pulled out the map once again and tried to figure out where the street might be; while I was standing there, the man I'd talked to came up to me and said he'd look the bookstore up on his phone. Which didn't help, actually, since he just got a text display with the address but not a better map than I had. He asked me what area of France I came from, and when I told him I lived in Tours but was from the States, he said that it explained my accent. I have been told on different occasions that I speak French with an American accent, a German accent, and an English accent. The waiter at the restaurant I had dinner at that night had a wide-voweled loopy accent I couldn't place, which turned out to be originally Manchester, England. I wonder what I really sound like, when I speak French.

America is represented here in more than my accent, and familiar franchises are scattered around the city. I haven't been into any of them. I would do my shopping in Paris as I do it here in Tours, I think, in the farmer's markets and the French supermarkets and the crowded ethnic groceries. But I couldn't afford to live here, not when a 175-square-foot studio in the chancy outskirts of the city is selling for $200,000. But I would love to live in Paris, and become familiar enough with the streets that I don't get lost every five minutes. Which I did, quite thoroughly, in trying to find the bookstore. Finally I asked a woman coming out of a school with her three children if she knew where the street was, and she did, so at last I was able to go in and look through the piles of books at Le Lieu Bleu, everything from university English lit studies leftovers to airport-novel spy thrillers, including half a complete set of the "Anne of Green Gables" series and British gothic romances from the 1960s. I picked out a memoir written by a scientist who studied savanna baboons in the Serengeti, and the book "Five Quarters of the Orange" (by the author of "Chocolat") and, in a fit of nostalgia, "Charlotte's Web."

(1) Would you like macarons with that? (2) Way out of my price range (3) Quick service in Belleville (4) La Grisette, a typical working-class girl of Paris, selling roses in the street in 1830 (5) Construction sites are everywhere in Paris (6) Straight down four stories at the Métro Jourdain stop

I got lost on the way to the cheese shop, too, but fortunately almost everything in Paris is open late, and that business was no exception. I had walked to the cheese store from the book store, but by that point after four hours of meandering my feet were sore, so I took the métro back to the Belleville stop (though the Pyrénées one would have been closer) and went to the restaurant to wait for Laure, and put my feet up, and sip a glass of Crémant de Loire while enjoying the rich smell of roasting lamb coming from the kitchen. I'll definitely go back to the colorful neighborhoods at the crossroads of the 11th and 19th arrondissements, but this time with an empty shopping bag for exotic fruits and spices, and a better map.

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