Saturday, 5 September 2009
Arriving at the Gare du Nord, I was equipped with the carnet ticket that would take me to Montreuil. I like to keep fresh carnet tickets in my purse, telling myself that I have the tickets ready and therefore I must be back in Paris soon. I keep old tickets and use them as bookmarks so that every so often, when I pause in my reading, I'm reminded of journeys in the city I love.
This time I was over-confident. I didn't read the sign telling travellers to push their cases ahead of them. Instead I walked through the automatic gates pulling my suitcase behind me. They closed sharply and my case was trapped.
I was, of course, embarrassed. But a fellow-traveller, seeing my hopeless efforts to tug my case free, came to assist and quickly solved the problem. "You need a navigo," she told me (in French) and started asking other travellers whether they could help me by loaning one. Within a couple of minutes a young man realised what would work and laid his navigo on the panel that would recognize him as a legal traveller. The gates sprang open to admit him, the woman pushed my case through and went on when I'd hardly finishe stuttering my thanks.
It's hard to manage on the metro with a heavy case. The lines must have been built separately so the connections between them involve long tunnels, steep staircases and only occasional escalators or lifts. Sometimes I struggled alone but quite often people came to my help - smartly-dressed young people insisted on helping and so did one of the vendors of cheap toys and fluorescent Eiffel towers who left his pitch in the tunnel to run up a flight of stairs and help with my case.
Even with the help, my feet ached from the journey. Somehow they acquired small cuts and blisters which made walking difficult for the first part of the week. Perhaps the pain in my feet combined with my distaste for Versailles to make me less sympathetic than usual to the momuments to the French Republic.
I can't love the Panthéon. It's fine from the outside and when I stook in rue Soufflot under a dark grey sky with thunder crashing and lightning streaking across the sky the building came into its own. But the vast interior with its huge sculptural representation of the Convention doesn't grip me as much as the colourful Gothic delights of the much smaller Sainte Chapelle. Nor do I enjoy the collection of great men in the crypt (one woman is honoured there - Marie Curie was added in 1995). There are aspects to enjoy. I was amused by notices explaining how several people initially honoured at the Panthéon had later been demoted and buried elsewhere - even in death, it seems, the great men and their supporters were jostling for distinction. But it was good to see a memorial to Toussaint l'Ouverture and I could remember watching part of the ceremony in which the elder Alexandre Dumas was finally moved there in 2002. But it's part of the assertion of national greatness on a monumental scale which fails to touch me. In the same way, when I look at the Arc du Triomphe, so vast on its traffic island that it diminishes its visitors into insignificance, I feel regret rather than admiration.
Among all this neo-classical monumentalism, the Eiffel Tower is striking because it's so plainly linked to a people's Paris. It's a work of craft as well as art - whenever I see it I think of the skill with which it was designed and the hard work which created it. I've been to the top of the Eiffel Tower only once, when my son urged me to conquer my fear of heights. (That fear left me a year or so later but I faced my fear and got to the top - I still have the ticket to remind me.) But there's nothing intimidating about the Tower - it doesn't celebrate great men or the power of kings or state but human achievement in a city.
My favourite places aren't the great Haussmann boulevards, so convenient for crowds or armies and tanks. I like the small streets like the rue Mouffetard where people wander and work and shop and worry. I like places where the workers of Paris sit and talk at café tables the moment there's the faintest gleam of sun. I enjoy the everyday life of the city which can be rough as any city but which also has space for casual kindness. I'll remember all the sightseeing from my visit - and there's much I haven't mentioned here. But I'll also remember a comfortable basement cinema where the staff made viewers welcome, a hospitable African shop in Montreuil which serves - for 1 euro - the best espresso I've experienced in Paris, and a friendly Belgian pub near the Panthéon where happy hour starts at 4.00 p.m. so that draught Leffe arrives in double quantities.