Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - Paris Note: The Bells, the Buzz
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Paris Note: The Bells, the Buzz 05/25/2010 - 7:28 AM

534302 Foreign cities, to this visitor, are at their purest in the mornings, before they’ve been plowed over again by rush hour traffic and boiled by the sun. In Paris at 7:00 A.M. you’ll walk up a narrow side street, on a narrow stone sidewalk that’s still wet from the hose, past pale apartment buildings with long windows and wrought-iron balconies. To the eye of a New Yorker, whose city can move from the ancient to the ultramodern to the utterly abandoned and seedy in the course of a block, central Paris looks like it was all planned centuries ago and hasn’t wavered from that plan since.

At the end of this street, you’ll find a café that’s just been opened, maybe two cafés, or four cafes, which eye each other at the corner. With their wide awnings and rows of little tables and chairs that stretch back into the dark at the back of the room, they create an indoor-outdoor space that doesn’t really exist in New York—it’s more voyeuristic than social, or maybe those two things are the same here. At this hour there might be a worker sweeping up in the back while the owner, older and unshaven, is walking into the doorway for the first smoke of the day.

I saw this scene again on Sunday morning while walking down the Boulevard de Montparnasse. I had a vague idea of visiting a few favorite local places before the matches began—the Luxembourg Gardens, Le Rostand, my favorite café in that vicinity, and the area around the Seine, where, on Sunday mornings in the past, I’d walked through fog while church bells rang up and down the river in one long ambient rhythm that seemed to last for hours. It’s a rhythm that’s indelible and elusive—it seems unforgettable while I'm surrounded by it, but I can't bring it back to my mind later.

The Boulevards are also at their best at this hour, before the infernal buzz of the motorbike, the scourge of the scooter, begins. How would Baron Haussmann, who leveled the city with this grand system of interlocking roads two centuries ago, feel if he learned that all he’d really done was create a space for this incessant roar? Now, though, with no bikes or taxis or buses or smart cars in sight, the Boulevard de Montparnasse looks and feels like it might have looked and felt 100 years ago. The street is wide and open, but the apartment buildings are just tall enough to make it feel closed and private as well. Looking down its length, what you notice most are the trees that line either side. Here, at its center, uncut by American-style highways, the metropolis looks like one long pathway through the woods.

At the end of the street I run into the La Closierie des Lilas, a café that Hemingway made famous in A Moveable Feast, and which has been trading on that fame ever since. It’s still a beautiful place, with intricately tinted windows, a garden in front, and the same bright trees and military statue that Hemingway described looking out at as he wrote his first stories in his 20s. A longtime literary tourist, I came to this place on my first visit to Paris, in my 20s, with some vague and now clearly naïve idea that it would house the same kind of life that Hemingway described, the same striving young writers. What an embarrassment to have believed that! I knew when I saw the place and its overpriced menu that everyone has to make their own La Closierie des Lilas scene wherever they are, however they can, while they can. Did I ever do it? When I think of my early 20s now, my most vivid memory is of seeing Pavement and My Bloody Valentine at the Ritz in Manhattan in ’92. Everything else is a blur. Something tells me that's not the stuff of legendary memoirs.

Up the next boulevard from the La Closerie are the immaculate Luxembourg Gardens. On past trips here, I’ve been happy, instead of sightseeing, to spend much of my time sitting on benches in these Gardens, reading a book I would never have time to read at home. This is where the orderliness of central Paris makes its greatest effect. Unlike rambling American parks, everything is carefully geometrical here. The trees radiate out in straight lines from the elliptical amphitheatre at its center and form a canopy of leaves over assorted benches, chairs and jogging paths (yes, there are joggers in Paris, none of whom seem to have cigarettes hanging from the lips while they run). On one of these benches this morning, there’s a young couple locked in a tight embrace. The woman looks straight at me, seemingly daring me to think that it’s odd to find a couple in this pose at 7:30 A.M. on a Sunday morning. I give in; I don’t think it’s odd.

Across the street, with a view of the Gardens' titanic black gates, is Le Rostand, a café that seems to my tourist eyes to be the quintessential example of a Paris hangout (the locals seem to think it’s pretty mediocre, rating it No. 3333 out of  6094 cafes in the city, according to a travel website). It’s long and dignified, with palm plants that partially block the street and a slightly darker interior that recedes from the urban scene outside. I wonder how many mornings I could spend here drinking coffee and reading the Herald Tribune before it became routine and then boring and then irritating? A year’s worth? A month’s? Three days’? Three hours'? Fortunately I’ll never know. If traveling does anything, it reminds you of the power of the subjective view, of your own ability to make the world new. What’s tiresome for the average Parisian is a small invigorating respite and fresh landscape for me.

Even today, it can’t last forever. From Le Rostand I walk through the little streets that wind like concrete streams to the Seine. It’s 9:00 by now, and I can hear the bells in the distance; they sound closer and then farther and then closer, until I’m out on one of the bridges above the river and they’re all around me, a holy surround-sound. It’s early enough that I have the Pont Neuf and much of the Il de la Citie to myself. It’s a strange and awesome feeling to own a world landmark for a few minutes.

I know those few minutes are up when a photo-shoot crew pulls up and begins to take over the bridge with monster cameras and lighting equipment. It’s time to get to Roland Garros, to the less-scenic quarters of the press room and my job. Very few stores are open as I weave between tiny side street and epic boulevard back through the Left Bank. The Sunday morning bells, and their addictively ambient rhythm—Brian Eno, and maybe even God, could hardly do better—follow me, fading slowly, street by street. I’ve tried my best to keep their otherworldly melody in my head. By the time I’m back at my hotel, the elusive tune is gone, shattered by the noise of Montparnasse. Sunday morning in Paris is over. The buzz of the motorbikes, which sounds more eternal than the churches' bells, has returned.


Posted by ata08 05/25/2010 at 07:40 AM


Posted by Sofie 05/25/2010 at 07:47 AM

OK .. Now there is no point in booking tickets.. thank you!

Posted by iksius 05/25/2010 at 08:02 AM


Posted by Barry 05/25/2010 at 09:04 AM


Posted by nora 05/25/2010 at 09:34 AM

Oh! makes me want to *go* to Paris. Very nice.

Work with that Pavement memory, too. For a brief moment that was a high dramatic theater, with an unhinged drummer and tunes leaking out of the fuzz, even better than you thought it was at the time.

Posted by susan 05/25/2010 at 10:17 AM

i often read the iht (just the nytimes with an int'l slant) many mornings at my favorite cafe in addition to local english-language publications. it's not boring, not irritating...just routine. just as if i was in any city reading the daily paper (well, not any city). stating the obvious..such a difference between being a tourist and a working resident. no orderly parks in the US? parts of the Mall in DC, especially the straight path lined with trees from the Capitol to the Washington Monument. city plan originally conceived by Frenchman Pierre L'Enfant. this part of the mall is a marvelous jogging path, especially early evening as the sun begins to set behind the monument. i got out quickly then as it wasn't safe after dark. after i left the city, i missed this for so long, until the memory finally began to fade.

Posted by weak40player 05/25/2010 at 10:42 AM

Beautiful writing. We tennis hounds are bound to lose you sooner or later, but I'll enjoy your posts while I can.

Posted by Jeu Nadal 05/25/2010 at 10:56 AM

Merci...this takes me back in time.

Posted by Lynne (Rafalite) 05/25/2010 at 01:27 PM

That is the Paris I know and love ... the best part of the day. Beautiful, Steve, as ever.

Posted by SR 05/25/2010 at 01:34 PM

Lovely observations, Steve - thanks!

Posted by ava 05/25/2010 at 01:35 PM

Just awesome. I really enjoyed it and felt like I was really there.
Enjoying your writing from Paris so far.

Posted by Tallboyslim 05/25/2010 at 02:03 PM

Steve - I have a question to ask you (and I mean it as a compliment). How in the blazes did you end up writing for the sport of Tennis ?
Seems to me you could be a literary columnist with expressionist or romantic overtones as well as you write about Tennis.
Let me just say, I am glad you write for Tennis. I may not agree with your opinions all the time, but the literary quality of your columns do make it worthwhile.

Posted by Paula V. 05/25/2010 at 03:08 PM

Nice to get to know the nuances of Paris...

Posted by noleisthebest 05/25/2010 at 03:15 PM

So did you find the church, and was the sermon good?

Posted by lurkingna 05/25/2010 at 03:35 PM

Ok, I'd love to be able to express myself much better than I do, just to write a comment that could do justice to such a great post, but I'm afraid I can not; so, I´ll just say that you write beautifully. When I read these words, I can see those places and I can hear the sounds. Thank you!

Posted by Nam1 05/25/2010 at 04:28 PM

oooh, I want to go back so bad...Steve, you have a knack for this writing thing..:)

Beautiful! Thx so much for that little trip down nostalgia lane for me.

Posted by Rafur 05/25/2010 at 04:40 PM

Thankyou Steve
I am going to R.G. next year (come hell or high water!) and your wonderful sceneries make me all the more determined. What a magnificent writer you are.

Posted by maedal (vamos rafa!) 05/25/2010 at 08:58 PM

Steve, I love your descriptions of Paris, where I try to spend a month every year, most of it in the 5th and 6th--home of the Luxembourg Gardens and Le get the city, just the way you get Rafa.

Posted by susan 05/25/2010 at 10:03 PM

whoops.. that is, working expat.

Posted by Jess 05/26/2010 at 07:59 AM

Steve - What are you doing here in Tennis! Best piece of yours.

Btw, I enjoy your blogs so far - don't leave us - the tennis fanatics.

Posted by Kit-HKG 05/26/2010 at 08:36 AM

I knew this one would be good, like all the pieces from Paris, when I first saw it posted. I didn't want to read it then, I wanted to save it for when I am bored or when I need something to lift me up. I read it this afternoon. I was right, it's very good. Thanks Steve!

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