Monday, 25 August 2008
Taking the tram
There's a point at which a new place ceases to be strange and foreign without becoming quite familiar. That's particularly true of places I love. There are places in Northumberland which I could explore with confidence. I might even swim in the North Sea off Bamburgh Beach without being particularly aware of the louring castle. I could direct a tourist to Grace Darling's grave or Barter Books in Alnwick, though it's years since I've been there. And, although I couldn't give directions, if I were in Edinburgh I would confidently find my way to the Grassmarket and negotiate the different levels, sloping streets and bridges.
I'm not quite so familiar with Paris, but I no longer feel exactly like a tourist. Going to the boulangerie remains a pleasure but the word "tabac" no longer produces a frisson of excitement. I haven't "done" all the tourist sites but I no longer feel so touristy that I need to do more. Instead of looking at galleries, I want to see exhibitions - Mantegna at the Louvre seems particularly tempting but probably not possible. Instead I want to absorb Parisien life. I may not be able to pass for a Frenchwoman, but I like to think I might become a temporary Parisienne.
I was restless and decided to spend an afternoon wandering. At Porte d'Italie I took the tram with no particular destination in mind. The Indispensible showed that there was an exhibition centre at Porte de Versailles so I decided I would get off there. Then I could walk or get a bus and perhaps head for the centre. One possibility seemed a Metro to Solferino and the Musee d'Orsay, but it was a little late and I wasn't sure I had the patience or concentration for art.
So far as I could tell, there were no tourists on the tram. I was the only passenger consulting a map. I gazed out of the window for places to visit on my return journey. The park at Cité Universitaire seemed a possibility. I admired the shiny exterior of the stade Charléty, with its elegant curves, and briefly wondered whether to stay on the tram till the end of the line.
The tramway, circling central Paris, took me through areas of wealth, student quarters, places where people work hard for low wages and check the prices if everything they buy. I suppose people who ride the tram daily get used to those contrasts. I was being a tourist of everyday Paris and this struck me as much as the patience of people in queues and the tired helpfulness of drivers and shop assistants.
There was no exhibition at the Porte de Versailles. I hadn't expected one and headed in the direction of central Paris. I contemplated the Metro, which would take me quickly to the museums, the Ile de la Cite and the Seine, and decided to walk. I thought I might stop in a cafe for an espresso but many cafes were shut for the holiday season. Instead, I entered a Monoprix and browsed among the household implements before sitting down for a coffee. I lingered a while before walking further and devised plans involving buses towards the centre. Then I saw the bookshop.
I wasn't looking for books - and was trying to avoid stationery, which lures me into extravagance. But I stayed for a long while, buying a postcard, a book bag, a slim anthology of well-known French poems and a copy of Phedre. It took me back to a production by the Glasgow Citizens, some time in the 1980s - the last time I saw Glenda Jackson on the stage. But what I remember most is the voice of Robert Eddison outlining the tragedy and horror in the messenger's speech. That voice seemed to link back to the theatre of the past and conjured a link to the era of greasepaint, footlights and shattering emotion. No other voice in theatre has affected me quite so much, though Ralph Fiennes came close when he played Henry VI for the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I came out of the shop and emerged from my reflections to find it had rained. It was later than I'd intended - time to move on.
Instead of heading to the centre, I cut along another road, then another and bought olive bread in a boulangerie. Then I started to look at bus stops and found a route to connect with the tramway. (I was pleased with myself for remembering that a stop was called "George Brassens.")
Back on the tram, I had to stand. Two minutes after I boarded, the rain fell, torrentially, and I gave up my plan of walking in the park. Perhaps a beer at Porte d'Italie, I thought. But the rain continued and, when I left the tram, I was thankful that tram stops had places to shelter. I stood for a while, coatless, waiting for the rain to lessen, trying to be patient like a real Parisienne.