Because Paris is best experienced on foot and because it was a picture perfect day in August – sunny, warm and balmy – I set out towards Batignolles, an area I had not yet walked. Using my starred places on Google maps as a walking guide, I meandered up Rue Legendre.
In August, Paris shuts down as most residents head to Brittany or southern France. The proprietors of my starred locations were no different. Either their entire facades were barricaded shut or, if they had no such barricades, a white piece of paper handwritten with the words “Fermé…Bonnes Vacances…Septembre…” greeted me at every potential pitstop. My heart sank as I realized I must wait until September to peruse any cool, local places. Although it was not yet 10 am, the only shops opened were the liquor/alcohol shops and the ubiquitous boulangeries. I peered into each bakery, hoping to catch something that would shout “Eat me!”, but none did. Everything looked uninspiring; things I could easily buy at the Monoprix or some other chain shop.
I took a left onto the small Rue Lamandé avoiding the mines of dog shit littered every couple meters. Walking up this street, I was surprised to see “École Polonaise”. What are the odds that I would arrive from Warsaw and then a few days later randomly walk by a Polish school near my Paris flat? Was this a hidden message from my Polish teachers reminding me to return to my Polish studies instead of jumping ship to French lessons? As this thought distracted me for a moment, I almost stepped on another mound of dog shit. Merde! Aside from all the positives of Parisian life, dog shit dropped on every Parisian sidewalk is definitely my top dislike about Paris. Dare I say “hate”.
Dear Madame Hidalgo, as part of your Paris Respire, please please please rid this magnificent city of dog shit. Would you allow your son to take a dump on the sidewalk and leave it there? No, I didn’t think so. Is it better to let him and his friends step in dogshit whenever they leave the home and then track it into their schools or even into your home? Think of all the extra revenue the city could earn by enforcing fantastic fines for dog owners or dog walkers who do not pick up after their pets. You could hire a talented 20-something femme to develop an app so that citizens can take photos of polluters who do not ‘pick up’ and then post them on an online “Wanted” site with a hashtag #sidewalkshitters. Singapore, in its infancy, had a similar problem with chewing gum pestering pedestrians on the sidewalks. The country started imposing fines and now it’s one of the cleanest countries on the planet, not quite as clean as Japan, but definitely cleaner than France.
Back to my walk…As I continued down Rue Truffaut, I saw a man cross over suddenly from the other side of the street. As the street was pretty deserted, I could not help but notice him and when our eyes met, I smiled. He returned my smile, stepped several meters in front of me and continued his journey. I thought to myself, “Oh, how wonderful; the French are so much nicer and friendlier than the Germans. Usually, when I smile at someone in Germany, they just stare at me or seem to narrow their eyes in suspicion. Because I am a relatively petite-framed frau, I do not understand why anyone, especially the Germans, who usually tower over me, would fear me.
Passing more closed storefronts, I took note of a few finds, albeit shut, that I had not marked on my map: an atelier, small hole-in-the-wall restaurants, a few wine bar, all the usual suspects that catch my attention. Trying to register their locations on my mental map, while keeping vigilant of and avoiding the dog shit mines under mes petits pieds, I did not notice the man who kept turning and looking at me. If it had been 10 pm instead of 10 am, I probably would have been more vigilant on a quiet street. But it was the late morning and I had nothing to fear, or so I thought.
Soon I passed Hotel de Police, which I thought was a big, ugly hotel for tour groups. My assumption was based on the HOTEL sign framing the front of the institutional facade. Then I realized that it was followed by “de Police”. While my brain was busy marveling at the strangeness of police hotels in France, I did not notice that the man had slowed down his pace considerably and was now so close to me that if I so wanted, I could have lifted my hands and rested them on his shoulders, which I obviously did not do. In order to create more personal space between us, I slowed down, expecting that we would separate, but he somehow seemed to sense my reaction and he slowed down as well. Suddenly, I started to feel very self-conscious. Uh, what’s going on here? I looked around me but we were the only two on the street except for two security personnel in front of the Police Hotel.
Before I could cross the street and pretend I was heading to the hotel, the man turned and asked “Pardon. Est-ce que vous êtes chinoise?” My immediate response was “Nein, ich bin nicht chinesisch.”. It was out of my mouth before I could swallow it back. Then I started to sputter “Nie, nie jestem…”, before realizing my brain was bringing up the wrong foreign words. Argghhh…I finally found my French words and sputtered “Non. Non, je ne suis pas chinoise.” He seemed surprised by my answer. I added, “Je suis désolé. Je suis américaine.” Now, he looked genuinely disappointed and asked, “Parlez vous chinois?” “Non,” I explained.” Je ne parle pas chinois. Je parle anglais , allemand et aussi un peu japonais…mais…” Now, he looked intrigued but embarrassed. He explained “J’apprends le chinois. J’ai pensais que vous..” I thought about asking him why he was learning Chinese, but then realized I didn’t want to get into a conversation with a stranger on a deserted street in Paris about why he thought I spoke Chinese. I wondered how many people he accosted on the streets of Paris to see if they also spoke Chinese. In hindsight, I should have recommended that he visit Gallerie Lafayette, whose staff all seem to speak perfect Mandarin to the mostly Mandarin-speaking clientele who now shop there. How things have changed since my last visit to Gallerie Lafayette in the ’90’s…But instead, I bit my tongue and remained silent. He walked next to me for a bit and then smiled, wished me a “Bonne journée!” and crossed back over to the other side of the road.
Unsettled by the unexpected encounter, I continued my walk, past the Hotel de Police, which I now realize is a police station and not a hotel for police officers, up rue des Dames, which was filled with cute but closed cafes and storefronts, and up to a walled garden, or so I thought. I looked on my phone and realized I was at Montmartre Cemetery, but not in Montmartre Cemetery. Hoping that an entrance to the cemetery was not too far away, I elected to walk clockwise around the cemetery wall and headed down rue Ganneron. I assumed an entrance would appear just around the bend. Unfortunately, my assumption was wrong; all that awaited me was street construction and blocked sidewalks. Whilst keeping an eye on the sidewalk in front for you know what, I gazed up at the old mansions, many turned into flats, some looking as if they were still occupied by a single family. There were some modern builds but most of the beautiful buildings and interesting architecture were from a different time, a time that has long since been forgotten.
Simone de Beauvoir came to my thoughts then. I wondered if she and Sartre had walked these same streets when they were living in Paris. I wondered if she had called any of the houses home. My thoughts about her and her writings distracted me from the cemetery and soon I was walking up rue Lamarck. My google maps showed a starred location on that street so I kept my fingers crossed and headed in that direction. Sadly, they were also fermé. Merde!
By now I had given up hope that anything worthwhile would be open. I walked away from the main streets and looked for a small restaurant or cafe that might be a good stop for lunch. I did not have to go far to find a tiny pizzeria on a corner that was, surprise, surprise, opened! I ordered a glass of Prosecco and their pizza of the day and opened up a book of Rumi poems.
As soon as I saw my pizza, I knew I should have ordered the pasta. The toppings on my pizza had too much liquid in them and now all that liquid was making my crispy pizza soggy. I dislike soggy pizza. I had ordered the pizza because it included truffle oil. Silly me. Now I realized, too late, that I should have read more carefully the other ingredients on the pizza. But I was not going to let a soggy pizza ruin my lunch or beautiful day. The glass of Prosecco and the friendly Italian service certainly helped ease my disappointment.
Not having any other destinations in mind, I started to walk again and soon came upon a bunch of staircases leading up higher and higher from street level. I had no idea where the stairs would lead to but, figuring that it might offer me a nice view to the other side of Paris, I started climbing. It was an easy climb getting away from the stree noise below. Descending in the opposite direction were joggers, runners and even an enthusiastic bicyclist, who raced as if he were competing in the tour de France. It’s not often that I see a bicyclist charging down a set of stairs. Apparently, I wasn’t alone. Two men, sitting on the stairs, chuckled and shooked their heads as the bicyclist wheezed by them. I assume they must have been thinking, “Crazy f#58ken rider!” That’s what I was thinking as well. I turned to see the bicyclist’s lycra shorts getting smaller and smaller until he reached the street below and cycled out of sight. I returned to my climb.
Near the middle of my ascent, a mother descended carrying her stroller and child. I quickened my pace to see if she needed any help but before I could reach her, she turned into the landing of one of the apartments flanking the sides of the stairs. The pitfalls of living in such a beautiful city center- you can not just pull your car into the garage and wheel your stroller into the house. I continued to climb, past more people, past more intermediary landings, past more joggers sprinting down. Even when I was younger and running and climbing mountains regularly, I hated going downhill. If I could have arranged a helicopter to meet me at the top of the mountain and transport me back down, I would have done it. My enjoyment and thrill still remain in the ascent rather than the descent. Even in Paris and in my old age, I still preferred the same.
Near the top, I looked up and thought (and perhaps exclaimed), “Shit! Large groups of people were milling around rotating postcard stands, scarfs and other sundries were flapping in the breeze and all the storefronts were open for business. “Damn.” I thought. “I must be close to a tourist attraction.” I searched through my bag for my phone, opened up Google maps and then realized where I was nearing. I suppose I could have turned back at this point, but as I mentioned earlier, I dislike going back down. I continued onward, past the hawkers trying to sell me their wares, past the artists who offered to paint my portrait, past the tide of tourists taking a selfie, laughing at a funny t-shirt or looking like they needed to take a bathroom break.
The beautiful sounds of O Mio Babbino Caro called to me and I followed it to a large, gowned woman standing on the steps of Sacré Coeur singing to her adoring fans. Through her voice, I forgot about all the tourists around me, all the litter, all the chaos, all the screaming children, the scolding parents, the shouting vendors. I felt like I was alone on that elevated Basilica mound. But as soon as she stopped singing, the noisy world returned. Admittedly, I could not have chosen a more picture perfect day to stumble upon Sacré Coeur. Clear blue skies contrasting the whiteness of its structural stones would be the envy of anyone suffering in a less picture-perfect place. I made a mental note to return again, perhaps when it’s outside the tourist times.
From there I meandered slowly through the zigzag paths to street level at Place St. Pierre. I took a left and walked away from the crowds, or so I thought.
Not too far from the mayhem of Sacré Coeur, I discovered a small area with back to back fabric shops. And most were open for business! One, in particular, seemed to be having a glorious sale as evidenced by the crowds of shoppers lunging for assorted “coupons” (cuttings) on the enormous display tables. Of course, I had to investigate. And that’s how I chanced upon Tissus Reine.
What I liked immediately about the shop was the open and friendly service. Whenever I happened to make eye contact with a salesperson, they were quick to approach and ask if I needed help. When one saleswoman could not answer my question regarding the type of the fabric I was holding, she announced that she would ask her colleague. We walked over to him together and he quickly identified the fabric for us. Refreshing service! On the first floor, they also had a small selection of Liberty prints, many of which I already knew. But it was nice to discover to such a healthy selection of Liberty prints in Paris. After touching, feeling and oohing over much of the fabric on the ground floor, I climbed the stairs to the first floor, which was mostly notions, decorative household fabrics and a pattern section in the back. Unfortunately, the pattern section was closed for lunch so I was unable to look through the Vogue, Butterick, Burda or Simplicity pattern books. But I made a note of their opening hours and planned another visit. I did not venture up to the 2nd and 3rd floors, but surely more fabrics await there as well.
My next visit to that area yielded more finds in terms of patterns, fabrics, and notions. Previously, I had had no plans to sew, but all those fabulous fabric shops have enticed me to reignite a long lost hobby. The difficulty now is trying to decide what to sew first…