Returning from a rather pleasant informal brunch yesterday, in the 19th arrondissement, a companion and I were entering the métro on rue de Belleville, heading towards Chatelet. I made the quite unconscious remark that we were “going back into Paris“. Which is a ridiculous statement, because we had never left Paris.
This is one of the paradoxes of a city like Paris: when you live near the centre, a journey of 20 minutes to the 19th arrondissment can feel like you’re heading into the countryside. Every part of town, despite being readily accessible by métro, feels distinct and somehow independent from every other district. Living and working here means that you might traverse several of these parallel universes every day.
As I’ve noted before on this blog, Paris is geographically a very small city, you can walk the length and breadth of the city in around 4 hours. But unless you’re a taxi driver, most Paris residents have never visited the whole of their city.
As a relatively new arrival, I probably know less about Paris than most. But after 18 months, my Paris consists of a number distinct brightly-lit zones centred on metro stations and friends’ apartments, some fuzzy grey bits in between, and some completely dark areas, which remain utterly unexplored and unknowable.
As most guidebooks will tell you, Paris revolves around neighbourhoods – quartiers – of which there are an infinite number, because everyone will have a different sense of their own little neighbourhood. My amateur definition of a quartier is a part of Paris within which you know where all the boulangeries are located: just in case your favourite one is closed, another has run out of baguettes tradition, and your third choice has a queue 20 metres long outside the door.
By this definition, my own quartier stretches along the Left Bank from the Musée d’Orsay in the west to the far end of rue de Buci in the east, and as far south as Boulevard St Germain. South of Boulevard St Germain is also familiar territory, but I wouldn’t know where to buy bread: so it’s not my quartier.
Similarly, there are other parts of Paris I’ve come to know quite well: the eastern section of the 10th arrondissement, from Place de la République to the Canal St Martin; the streets of the Marais around métro St Paul and Place des Vosges; rue Clerc in the western part of the 7th; and a few avenues north of Etoile, heading towards Parc Monceau. In these parts of town, I know where to find shops and certain cafés.
Additionally, I can also get myself to Fnac Montparnasse to buy bandes dessinées and find my way to Leroy-Merlin at Beaubourg to buy screwdrivers, lightbulbs and glue. But this hardly counts as an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city.
Place de Clichy and most of the 17th arrondissement, the métro 3bis, the towers of les Olympiades in the 13th… all these parts of Paris – only 20 minutes from my front door – remain as mysterious to me as Moscow or Seoul.
This sense of compartmentalisation is reflected in the way the city is administered – surely, only the French could take a small city of 2 million people, and divide it among 20 separate mayors . One mayor for each arrondissement. Of course there is a SuperMayor of all of Paris, (our friend Plastic Bertrand), but I wonder whether the arrondissement system – created in the rationalist afterglow of revolution in 1795 – remains truly effective today.
Certainly the arrondissements emphasise the sense of separation between different parts of the city, each with its own “typical” resident profile. The 7th, (where I happen to live), is derided as being bourgeois, expensive, full of government ministries and overall, rather boring. If you have Chinese or Vietnamese ancestry, the stereotype dictates that you must live in the 13th. The 11th is the place to be if you’re a young bobo media entrepreneur. For African groceries, head to the 10th around Gare du Nord and the parts of the 18th around Tati. And the 4th is where you hang out if you’re, well, gay or Jewish.
Somehow all of these little districts fuse together – with varying degrees of success – to create a conglomerate whole which is a city called “Paris”. Figuring out how it all works (or doesn’t) is one of my constant fascinations.
I feel a little sorry for the tourists who jet in for a week of plastic Eiffel Towers, photos on the parvis du Notre Dame, and takeaway portraits sketched by the artists on Place du Tertre. I’m sure they all have a wonderful time, and tick all their boxes, but they haven’t really seen much. If anything, the problem about Paris is that there’s too much to see, and nobody can agree on what it is that you’re supposed to see, or why it looks that particular way.
Please excuse me, I’ve got to leave now. It’s Sunday, and I’m going to visit Paris for the afternoon.