Paris By the Book

Published The Oregonian, August 2004

Photo: Lan Fendors

Photo: Lan Fendors

From the beginning, it was an eccentric idea. 

While browsing at a Portland bookstore, I chanced upon a copy of Time Out's "Book of Paris Walks." Skimming its pages, I found myself fascinated by the idiosyncratic and personal nature of the 23 individual essays by well-known writers who divulged their private obsessions with the city. British literary critic Nicholas Lezard traces Samuel Beckett's five decades in Paris; Vietnamese novelist Linda Le pays a sentimental visit to the sites she once frequented with a lover; film critic Elisabeth Quin tours locations made memorable by director Francois Truffaut.

As I turned the pages, smiling at Lezard's confession about how he first arrived in Paris at age 18 and "skulked" outside Beckett's door, wanting but afraid to ring the doorbell, I wondered how long it would take me to do all 23 of these walks. In distance, they range from one to eight miles; with careful pairing, one could do two each day. Allowing for three free days (arrival, departure and one entire day without a walk), I figured the entire book could be walked in two weeks.

I had never been to Paris, knew no one in Paris and didn't speak French. Also, the dollar was weak against the euro ($1.31 to buy one euro), so two weeks in Paris could be costly, unless, of course, I ate in restaurants no more than once a day and invited some friends to share the rent.

But did I have any friends with the stamina to walk from morning until dark, who would be amused by tracing Simone de Beauvoir's life from christening (Notre-Dame-des-Champs) to grave (shared with Sartre at Cimetiere de Montparnasse)? Or who would willingly forgo so much as a glimpse of the Champs-Elysees for the pleasure of investigating the haunts of cult animator and novelist Roland Topor through the back streets of the city's 10th, 19th, and 20th arrondissements?

It would take a special kind of traveler because these walks were not about the troika of Paris tourism -- the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe -- but about the minutiae of literary lives (read: cheap rent, strong coffee and bars).

I invited three friends: Smita Patel, from San Jose, Calif., with whom I'd traveled most happily for three months in India not long ago; Emily Thayer, from Baltimore, with whom I'd enjoyed adventures in India and Mexico; and Lan Fendors, a Portland friend of nearly three decades, who has a great sense of humor, a marathon runner's stamina and a gift for photography.

All three of these women actually said my plan sounded like a great idea.

And so, six months later, the four of us were standing on a sidewalk in the 6th arrondissement at an intersection where six streets converge, trying to locate Rue du Sabot, a street so tiny that it stretched no longer than an earring's gold post on our map, because here Samuel Beckett (". . . a tall, gaunt figure in a raincoat . . .") turned over the manuscript of his novel "Watt" to his publisher at Editions de Minuit.

But before we ever got to that point, a lot of planning had taken place.

I used to hear it said that planning a trip was half the fun. This was back when planning meant curling up in an armchair in front of the fire with a stack of guidebooks and a cup of tea, or lingering over coffee with friends who knew your destination country well.

Today, with the multiplicity of resources available on the Internet, it means compulsively clicking through site after site, alarmed that it is already 2:15 in the morning, but unable to go to bed.

Paris is so wired, and I got so good at clicking my way around it, that I could "step into" my neighborhood church and take a peek at the organ, while listening to a 17th-century Couperin Chaconne; track any piece of original art to the museum in Paris where it hangs; or "stand in the street" in front of the apartment I'd rented and "turn around" to study the buildings down the block or across the way.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The first chores were to review the language and find a place to stay.

I signed up for a French class downtown and, when Portland Community College cancelled for insufficient enrollment, importuned the teacher to tutor her six would-be students in her home. Anne Cariou-Vega, a French native from the Atlantic seacoast city of Quimper, was a delight. And because all of us were planning trips, we buckled down and studied. Altogether we had 16 weekly lessons.

Online, where I was almost immediately using my crude French, I eliminated as too costly the idea of staying in a hotel. Moreover, French hotel rooms are notoriously small; you wouldn't want to be cooped up in one for a couple of weeks with anyone other than a lover.

I began to sift through apartments offered by companies online (Google: "rent, apartment, Paris") but I was coming up with prices like $3,400 for two weeks for four people in the Marais or just a bit less in Montmartre or Pigalle.

By this time, I had downloaded a plan of Paris to my desktop and was spending five minutes a day studying the snail pattern of the arrondissements. I got interested in the immigrant neighborhoods of the 20th, to the east, quickly realizing that leasing agents didn't do much business in this area. So I started watching the classified ads at www.fusac.fr/ (French USA Contacts), where anyone can place an ad.

When our apartment came up, I knew it immediately: spacious, light-filled, with one bedroom and a mezzanine, view of Paris rooftops, in a blue-collar neighborhood of the 11th, north of the Bastille. Sixth-floor walk-up? Not a problem. We would be paying 900 euros for two weeks, that is, $21 a woman a night -- less than I pay in Mexico.

Lodgings arranged, I worked out a schedule for the walks. Day 1: Geoff Dyer's three-mile swing through the 11th (our new neighborhood) followed by Jean-Daniel Breque's two-mile stroll along an elevated rail line, abandoned in 1969, and now planted as a long, narrow park.

Photo: Lan Fendors

Photo: Lan Fendors

Sequencing the walks turned out to be a huge and cumbersome puzzle, by the time I had factored in distance, proximity of afternoon walk to morning walk and the hours and days that sites along the way would be open, should we want to visit, say, the oldest dance hall in the city, an Edith Piaf haunt in days gone by, or La Bague de Kenza, a dazzling bakery said to have the best Arab cakes in Paris. I had already made one version of the schedule when I happened to notice something ominous online: 34,000 runners. At the last minute, I swapped days, whisking us out of the path of the Paris Marathon.

From time to time, I would submit a progress report to my companions and get back monosyllabic e-mails. "Great." "Thanks." "Good job."

Emboldened, I ordered some tickets online: to a ballet at Opera Bastille, to Robert Wilson's production of the Fables de la Fontaine at the Comedie-Francaise, and -- it being Paris, we being women -- to the weekly fashion show at Galeries Lafayette, one of the city's grand department stores.

I continued to gather information right up until we left: the Centre Pompidou was running a monthlong Bollywood festival; Haynes Grill, a landmark for African American in Paris, was only one block off our route; Porfirio Diaz, seven times president of Mexico, was buried at Cimetiere de Montparnasse. Clearly, I had caught the disease.

Photo: Martha Gies

Photo: Martha Gies

Thankfully, even with all this runaway planning, Paris was full of surprises: the weather in spring turns 20 times a day, now showers, now sun; I never climbed those 120 stairs leading to our apartment with anything approaching exuberance, especially after 10 hours on my feet; but nor did I ever fail to gasp at the city's pearlescent light from our aerie, nor at the view of garrets and rooftops and red chimneys stretching for miles.

We learned there are only so many angles from which to explore the Luxembourg Gardens, and toward the end ruthlessly excised it from Michael Palin's Hemingway walk. We learned how difficult it is to follow a set route in a city of curving streets and constant name changes.

But we loved being in a real neighborhood, with old people as neighbors and with nearby shopkeepers who almost imperceptibly turned from gruff to kindly during the two weeks of our stay. And we loved being inducted into immigrant neighborhoods such as La Goutte d'Or, where Zola set "L'Assomoir," now a warren of mosques and cafes with black-eyed men smoking hookahs.

Our favorite walk? Difficult to say.

We were enchanted by the walk designed by Natasha Edwards, which takes in the former villages of Passy and Auteuil as well as the strange and beautiful Art Nouveau architecture of Hector Guimard. And I was particularly partial to the Beckett walk, which begins poignantly at the doorway that so fascinated the young Lezard and ends poignantly, seven miles yonder, where Joyce and Beckett used to stroll along the allee des Cynges.

True, there were days when we'd all rather have been true flaneurs, strolling without destination. But then we would not have found the house where Zola was murdered by asphyxiation after anti-Semites had stuffed his chimney in revenge for his having published "J'Accuse . . .!" that famous letter that got the Dreyfus conviction overturned.

And only by being on the street all day long did we catch some of our favorite moments: a fashion shoot in the Left Bank, an ancient stone lane full of men and boys on their way to synagogue, Venetians come to town in masquerade to promote their carnival.

Still, for my next trip, I mean to do much less planning. I am going to Honduras to follow the path of Hurricane Mitch: When I Google, I get only 37,500 hits.


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