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Going it alone in Paris

Some go to La Coupole, the 87-year-old art deco brasserie in Montparnasse, to commune with friends; others, to dine with ghosts – Picasso, Piaf, Sartre, all former patrons. I went alone, to live in the present.

I sliced through an oyster with my cocktail fork, loosening it from its shell. I lifted it with a thumb and forefinger, and tilted it to my lips.

It was early spring in Paris. To my left, a white-haired woman with red lipstick disappeared behind a newspaper. To my right, a man and a woman flirted over starters. We were at the center of one of the last sprawling brasseries of the 1920s, where a large basin into which artists’ model Kiki de Montparnasse used to climb has been replaced with a comparatively demure sculpture of a couple forming an orb with their outstretched limbs.

It was easy in Paris to surrender to the moment. But why? What alchemy transmuted ordinary activities, be it a walk across a bridge or the unwrapping of butter, into a pleasure? My default speed in New York is “hurtle,” yet in Paris I dragged the edge of a fork across an oyster with a care better suited to sliding a bow across a violin.

This was not simply because I was in Paris, although it has long held a kind of magic for many Americans. It was because I was there on my own. In a city that has been perfecting beauty since the reign of Napoleon III, there are innumerable sensual details – patterns, textures, colors, sounds – that can be diluted, even missed, when chattering with someone or collaborating on an itinerary. There is a Paris that deeply rewards the solo traveler.

Indeed, the city has a centuries-old tradition of solo exploration, personified by the flâneur, or stroller. Flânerie is, in its purest form, a goal-less pursuit, although for some it evolved into a purposeful art: Walking and observing became a method of understanding a city, an age. Baudelaire described the flâneur as a passionate spectator, one who was fond of “botanizing on the asphalt,” as essayist Walter Benjamin would later put it. Typically, it was a man. No longer.

Those who are not first-time visitors should skip some of the banner attractions to make room for impromptu discoveries. Get lost, drink, snub the “Mona Lisa.” The Salle des États room at the Louvre where the da Vinci painting hangs is so mobbed that any transcendent moment one might hope to have in its presence is snuffed out.

In the spirit of flânerie, everything – not just museum objects – is worth seeing.

Because I believe that, I awoke each morning indecisive about which direction to walk despite having vacationed in Paris several times and knowing enough rudimentary French to wander with confidence. On a Thursday in April, I chose north. The Sacré-Coeur Basilica seemed to rise in the distance like Oz. I took Rue Laffitte toward Rue des Martyrs, an approximately half-mile artery with food shops, vintage boutiques and bistros named for St. Denis, a bishop who during the Roman Empire was decapitated and, according to legend, carried his head the length of the street. I was there browsing for picnic provisions.

This neighborhood south of Montmartre is known nowadays as SoPi (South Pigalle), and its influx of cocktail bars has drawn bourgeois bohemians, along with some comparisons to the Marais. I like it because it retains a whiff of helter-skelter medieval Paris, when the city was truly a flâneur’s wonderland. I walked the wet street past cafes coming to life, fruit stands and open storefronts with sunny awnings like one that said Fromager Chataigner, where a table of cheeses lured me from the sidewalk. A couple of old men were making small talk with the proprietor as I pointed to a block decorated with three sprigs of lavender (now pressed between the pages of my notebook). The shopkeeper wrapped the cheese in a blue-and-white line drawing of a milkmaid, a bow atop her head, a flower underfoot and a pail in each hand. I would have plunked down my euros for just the wrapping.

It seemed that time had slowed. In certain ways, Paris felt like New York after a couple of glasses of wine. Or as Edmund White tells a fellow American in “Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris”: “To me it seems so calm after New York. As if I’d already died and gone to heaven.”

Even so, the Seine is like a reverse mood ring. Whether it is placid and giving, or green-gray and angry, one synchronizes with its whims. And I did as I walked west along its left bank one blustery morning to the Musée du Quai Branly, where a nearly 40-foot glass wall shelters the building, designed by Jean Nouvel, from traffic. The Branly describes its collection as “non-European objects from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas,” although it has been criticized for lacking context (at its opening in 2006 the New York Times called it “a kind of ghetto for the ‘other’ ”).

Outside, long grasses and oak and cherry trees are a welcome change from the city’s formal trimmed gardens. And at the indoor-outdoor cafe (go for tea, not the unremarkable food), most tables come with a view of the Eiffel Tower. I intended to avoid visiting the tower, but some landmarks exert a gravitational pull. Despite being content to admire it from afar, I found myself moving ever closer.

I left the Branly not by following the exit signs toward the Seine but by going out the back, turning right onto Rue de l’Université to approach the tower from a side street rather than the Seine or the Parc du Champ-de-Mars, as most visitors do. From here, its vastness is accentuated by the buildings in its shadow. One feels like Jack looking up at the beanstalk.

But the role of investigator can at times be uncomfortable. As I slipped into a black dress before a performance of Rossini’s “L’Italiana in Algeri,” I told myself that attending an opera at the Palais Garnier alone was no different from attending, say, a Broadway show alone. But the opulence of the ornate 139-year-old space – the frescoes, the chandeliers, the gilded statues, the white marble grand staircase, the Marc Chagall painting on the auditorium ceiling – can feel intimidating. Moreover, I had a seat in a box: a plush crimson closet that one shares with six strangers.

The box is a sensualist’s dream, which I explored when the lights went out. I ran my fingers along the satiny walls, hoping that if there was a phantom of the opera he would materialize and take me to dinner because I was starving.

I didn’t find an opera ghost in the box, although I did find another solo traveler. A woman from Germany was there on her own, as was a woman from England who had a daughter elsewhere in the hall. During intermission the German traveler marveled at the way the box allowed her to observe the orchestra seats below.

“You can watch everybody,” she said to the Englishwoman, who replied with greater precision: “Watch,” she said, “and be watched.”

Still, for me, Paris is about the public spaces. On my last morning there, I pushed through a metal gate into the Jardin des Tuileries. There was dew on the vacant green chairs. Wind was blowing red and purple tulips every which way, and shuttered cafes were only just taking the day’s deliveries from solitary trucks. It was quiet enough to hear the splash of a fountain.

The question that bubbled up was not so much, will I be back?, but rather, could I bring back with me the feeling that I had cultivated here?

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