Monday, October 26, 2009

Random Notes on a Recent Visit to Paris

While sitting in a Paris cafe near Gare de Lyon, I noticed for the first time tasteful railings separating pedestrians from traffic along all exposed sidewalk edges. On the streets of Paris, or any other city, walkers want to feel safe from the threatening presence of speeding cars, trucks, and buses. A line of plane trees along the outer edge of the wide boulevard sidewalks in much of Paris add to this needed sense of security. Short blocks, numerous streets meeting at angular intersections, many cafes, and tasteful buildings limited to four or five stories made for an appealing streetscape, one that bustles with people.

Paris has its thorns. The Promenade Plantee is an old viaduct beginning at Place de la Bastille that has been transformed into a wonderful garden walk with a remarkable diversity of vegetation above and a series of expensive, artsy shops beneath. Just off the promenade down a flight of stairs toward Place d'Aligra is a small potentially attractive garden park that has been taken over by homeless Parisians and is now strewn with trash. The Place d’Aligra contains a shuttered, run-down daily market covered with graffiti. Still, the process of renewal seems to be underway as suggested by construction and renovation activity in the surrounding area as well as inside the old market itself. Although seedy, street life and local cafes around the square are busy.

At the other end of the wealth spectrum, hoards of boutiques have invaded the Marais district, one of Paris' last vestiges of medieval scale neighborhoods, kicking out boulangeries, cafes, and other businesses that make for a functional and interesting street life. The local Jewish community appears to be under siege from the inflow of money driving up local real estate prices.

Some would regard Paris as overly compact and crowded--my lovely wife for instance. I beg to differ given the beautiful open areas to which one can escape--Palais Royale, Place des Vosges, Luxembourg Gardens, Bois de Boulogne, and Bois de Vincennes, not to mention walkways along the River Seine. The French have a special facility for designing compact spaces. Yet I have to admit to getting irritated at times myself from the busyness of Paris.

There is the beauty of the bells of Notre Dame unexpectedly ringing out and drawing attention to twilight reflected on its facade. And there is the press of people in rush hour along boulevard St. Germaine causing one to wonder what their lives might be like—what projects (to use a Sartrian term) and passions they might have. The surprises that bring wonder in Paris are common—flowing fountains, statues, iconic faces molded in metal plaques on buildings and fences, small parks and flowering gardens, peaceful squares, and previously undiscovered cafes.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon those who can afford it sun themselves and show off there wealth and good taste at the outdoor tables of the Cafe de Flore, Sartre's wartime hangout--the cafe was able to get coal from the Italian cafe supply mafia and that was a place to get warm in winter and for Sartre to right his philosophical tomb, Being and Nothingness. Today only the pseudo-rich and affluent tourists can afford the place. Bohemian intellectuals who become famous can make a place fashionable and unintentionally transform it into something it originally was not. Artists did the same thing for Montmartre.

Pere Lachaise Cemetary speaks to death and the attempt to evade its permanence through conspicuous monuments. The Bastille Thursday market speaks to life and the enjoyment of its simplest and most enjoyable of pleasures--unadorned, fresh food.

La Défense, Paris' business center just to the west of the city boundary, causes one to take pause. How could the French allow the construction of such a huge collection of nondescript but alienating glass, steel, and concrete towers centered on a huge but artless arch next to the most beautiful city in the world?

St. Quentin-en-Yvelines is a "nouvelle ville” carved out of the countryside around an old pond southwest of Paris. This town is a product of French planning but fortunately La Défense it is not. The architecture is modern but of a human scale and even at times whimsical. The streets in the pedestrian-only commercial area are fairly intimate and reasonably well-stocked with trees and other vegetation. A good portion of the urban area remains devoted to small ponds and forest. The housing appears to be fairly dense although quite a bit less so than Paris proper. All-and-all it looks like a comfortable place to live.

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