We take the night train from Zürich to Paris. We arrive at dawn. It is Sunday. The city is silent.
This is the final day of the Tour de France. I had a choice between hiking in the Alps, going to Sicily to watch a Mt. Etna erupt, or coming to Paris for the day. I chose Paris.
We walk through the streets in the general direction of the Seine. A young man approaches us on the street.
“Il s’agit d’une question en français. Je n’ai aucune idée de ce que le jeune homme a demandé?”
“Non,” I reply.
He walks away a bit confused.
About half a block later my companion asks, “What did he say?”
“I have no idea. I don’t speak French.”
Behind the church of L’église Saint-Eustache is the Forum des Halles. We hear men singing there but we do not approach. It’s only seven thirty. We assume they are drunk, but there’s no basis for this other than the fact that their singing sounds a bit rough and it is seven-thirty on a Sunday morning.
We walk along the east side of the Louvre down to the Seine. I could spend a year with this view and never exhaust the possibilities.
Slowly, the world wakes up.
In the courtyard of the Louvre there are two Dutch cycling fans. They wave hello to us and disappear in the direction of the Rue de Rivoli.
People come and sit by the fountain in the Tuileries Garden. They read the newspaper. We look for food and further up find on the Champs-Élysées we find Paul’s.
Paul’s is a wonderful bakery filled with good smells. The lights cast a golden glow over everything and everyone. As I do in places where I do not know the language, I listen to others ordering, the cadence of their speech and then I do exactly the same. I end up with two croissants.
“I thought you didn’t know French?”
“I don’t. I’m just a good mimic.”
While we wait for the race to start, my companion decides to go up to the Arc de Triomphe. Now, why I am not going along is a bit of a mystery but I decide instead to go along to the other side of the street, which is now filling in with race watchers and take a seat at a cafe. I order an espresso and wait. The Moulin Rouge soundtrack is blasting from somewhere down the street.
The race is much longer than I expected. At first, it was exciting but then by the twentieth lap it’s a bit dull and it’s getting hot. We hang around until the end though.
The Metro is sweltering. I love it. I’m sad though because we’re only going a few stops down the line. I’d like to ride longer.
We are sitting in the Centre Georges Pompidou outside the museum of modern art. We are enjoying a beer. We’ve been joined by a friend of my companion and his roommate.
The two friends catch up while the roommate and I try to hold up our end of the table. While he seems terribly literate, I mention that I have just purchased Atomised by Michel Houellebecq and he pretends not to know the same. I try to explain but he retreats into French. It is only later that I find out that one does not mention M. Houellebecq in polite society.
We are in a taxi. I am afraid for my life, then I give myself over to abandon as enjoy the ride.
To quote my Swiss friends, the Montmartre is turistik. I am beyond the moment of accepting everything as it is though I can imagine others being disappointed. We sit on the steps of the Sacré-Cœur Basilica.
We fall into the sleeper berths on the night train back to Zürich. I’m sore from walking and burned to a crisp. We are due to give a presentation at 9AM.
How I Almost Started Writing is a series of brief portraits focused on the times in my life where I found myself on the verge of focusing solely on the writing life.
10 thoughts on “How I Almost Started Writing: Paris”
I liked reading this post. For someone who isn’t speaking French you were doing very well. Till the moment I began reading your article I was very skeptical how one can visit a big city like Paris in one day and still get something out of it. Your story told me the contrary. Thanks for sharing it!
Ulla Hennig’s last blog post..Bavaria Series #8 Bavarian Inns
Hey, Jamie, this was really nice to read. Very smooth and tinged with a fatalistic sense of peace and sadness, somehow. Of course, that’s my subjective perception. It was nice to read.
The funny thing is that what caught my eye was the French. I think it’s a new linkbait theory. “If we write in French, James will come comment.” I’m not sure yet. A conspiracy…
@Ulla Thanks! I think the big thing is not being afraid when you don’t know the language. I’ve found that in most places if you are willing to try people will help you out. 🙂
Covering a big city in one day is doable as long as you go knowing you are just skimming the surface. Sort of like sketching a drawing. Hopefully, I’ll be able to go back some day and shade in the details. Actually, I’d like to go back for a month or more.
@James I appreciate the kind words. That sums up the day pretty well. I guess it ties in with my comment to Ulla. Paris for me has always been about ennui so it comes as no surprise that when I actually went there I drifted in that strange and undefinable emotion.
I like the idea of using French to linkbait. I wonder how many people will go to the trouble of translating the young man’s question… 😉
Does it count that I don’t have to use an online translator? 😉 It was funny as hell, too.
Jamie, I have really enjoyed this series and as I read this one I did feel a touch of existential sadness but in a good way. Perhaps the times you almost started writing were experiences that needed to be savored at the moment, stored and then dusted off later when you had the larger perspective to put them in a novel. It is as though each place was a piece of a puzzle rather than a time to focus on the actual writing. 🙂
Karen Swim’s last blog post..Are you Free?
You’re definitely right about the time needed to age certain memories before they can be used as pieces in a larger puzzle. I have a few I’ve been carrying around for a very long time and I’m looking forward to sharing them in due course.
One thing I’ve learned over time is that when you are knee deep in something that makes you feel like writing you ought to set the writing aside and focus on the observations. The true writing will only come after reflection.
Okay my French idioms are pretty bad but my impression is that it was a sort-of pick-up line. Wrong? Well that’s why I avoid French at all costs.
All that aside, this feels much like a one day excursion I took to Amsterdam. But I won’t write about it in your comments.
@Deb Nope. It wasn’t a pickup line. As James notes, it is something of a joke. 🙂
Looking forward to reading about your single day in Amsterdam on your blog. When will the post be up? 🙂
I told you my French idioms are really bad. The last time I had to fudge my way through a serious French Canadian exchange was 1988 in Montreal; and my kids were watching. But we were determined that they were not going to grow up thinking that everybody should speak only English nor that non-English speakers were morons. But there are more forgiving languages than French.
No time-lines on the Amsterdam essay because there is a back-hand pick-up line. And it was not a joke. It wasn’t exactly a pick-up either.
The first day trip to Zurich might get done sooner as it is actually started.
@Deb Best of luck! By the way, great post about journaling. I also thought Melissa Donovan’s post about the seven journals was very inspiring.