Sunday, January 22, 2012

Walking Man

It's hard to avoid being accosted by "cool" in Paris.  "Cool" in Paris means being about 20 years old, wearing nothing but black, covered in a jacket that would hardly keep out a summer's breeze, never mind a winter's chill.  No hat?  De rigeur.  Such is the price of chic, and les francais do chic very well.  Indeed, one could even say they invented the word.

Of course, I am neither 20, nor do I wear all black, and I hate feeling cold.  The word to describe me is "American", a moniker I am perfectly comfortable being cloaked in.  Much like the comfort I feel in my large, outdoor-approved, works-in-freezing-Massachusetts blue winter coat that I sport -- everywhere.

To offset my chic deficiency, or would Woody Allen call it an imbalance (this is a pleasant jibe at Scott Wachtler and the Cambridge Chronicle, btw), I occupy my mind with other things.  Most recently, I've posed myself this question: Can one understand a city without knowing its people?

It is an interesting question.  A city has a shape.  It has a structure.  It has a history that has impacted both its shape and its structure, and of course visa versa.  One can read about all of this, and in my case, I did do a certain amount of reading before arriving.

But since arriving, I walk everywhere in Paris.  I don't really know why.  The Paris Metro is truly spectacular.  A train every 2 minutes, and that's not an exaggeration.  It's a statement of fact.  But still, the city seems to impel me to walk.  And walk.  And walk.  Indeed, my feets almost fail me now and again, so great is my fatigue after hours and hours of nothing but walking.  But I see the city.

One of the places I've seen is Boulevard Barbes where it intersects with Boulevard de la Chapelle -- a place where Paris and its North African immigrant population meet.  Crowded with men standing around, chatting with each other, hawking their piteous wares, barking out to the swarm of humanity about their fabled merchandise, or just doing nothing in particular.  I have no use for the three hats this man is trying to sell me, or the one pack of cigarettes that man over there so proudly holds aloft.  But this too is Paris.

Boulevard Barbes at Boulevard de la Chapelle

And still, to know a city means knowing more than its street patterns or standing in front of its famous buildings or visiting its undefeated collection of the world's cultural heritage, art and creativity.  It means more than walking past a street corner on a less treaded path.  I always loved the definition that knowing a city happens when one knows its bus routes.  Because to know its bus routes implies a whole patter and pattern of daily existence that would require such a knowledge, a patter and pattern that would have one thinking about how today impacts tomorrow, and not just about how yesterday impacted today.

Ah, the sun has broken through the clouds.  I must go see a museum!