Sunday, February 22, 2009

Found it. The term to describe how I have been spending so much of my time is “flanerie”, French for “strolling as an art form.” Found it in A Writer’s Paris, by Eric Maisel. Best read I have had in a very long time. (As an aside, if you have a creative or curious bone in your body —can you be creative without being curious?—, you will lay hand on this little book. It is well-written, thoughtful, provocative, just delicious. To quote, “The flaneur is an observer who wanders the streets of a great city on a mission to notice with childlike enjoyment the smallest events and obscurest sights he encounters.” My days here have often begun with the vague notion that this might be a good time to visit such-and-such. Often I would flesh out that notion: Orsay, Eiffel, Lachaise. Chapelle, Arc. Often I did not. But those destinations, even if and when I did reach them, only took and hour, two or three at the most. With Paris out there, it is hard to stay inside, even in winter, even with the mist and the chill. The flaneur in me could not be arrested. And so I have strolled. Everywhere. Along the Seine, down the Champs-Elysees, through narrow side streets, in and out of patisseries and art galleries, stopping for cafe and vin rouge, taking pictures of people, of dogs, of posters, of window displays, of things that make me laugh.I surely have consumed a thousand pounds of pates and breads and sweets and a thousand gallons of wines and brandies and I have not gained an ounce. Because for every one thousand volumes of intake, I surely have walked two thousand miles. Maisel quotes Baudelaire, whom he describes as a “resident 19th century flaneur,” as having written, “For the flaneur, it is an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite. You’re not at home but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you’re at the center of everything, yet you remain hidden from everybody.” Finally, Maisel writes, “Most places are not designed or equipped to support two or three hours of ambling. It is in Paris that the delicious, dreamy strolling of the flaneur can be perfected.” Voila.
One of the rewards of strolling is coming upon the unexpected pleasure and for me today that was Le Procope. I later learned that it has quite a storied past since its founding in the 1600s (Paris’ oldest coffeehouse, Ben Franklin, Napoleon, Voltaire), but I had only A Writer’s Paris and not a guidebook today, so it was a “find” for me. Over French onion soup, thick slices of smoked Scottish salmon and a small bottle of Cotes du Bourg, I settled in and read my book in this old Left Bank cafe. I was in no hurry.
Lazy Sunday, no agenda. After this long repast, maybe a boat ride on the Seine would be good tonic, I mused. It was. There are all kinds of barges plying this river, and the biggest ones are boarded down by the Eiffel Tower.A better idea (well at least for me as it is nearby) is the boat line which begins and ends its tours at the Ile de la Cite just under the Pont Neuf. Smaller boats, much smaller crowds. Same river, same sights. They also have a French/English guide describing the points of interest, something many of the other boats don’t offer. Can you be a flaneur on a boat? The cruise lasts an hour—that is 60 minutes to the second—and moves first downriver toward the ET before a big U-turn points you upstream, past the splendid palace which houses the Louvre, past the Ile de la Cite and Notre Dame, around Ile St-Louis and back to mooring. I had thought it might be a good thing to do, and it was. It might also be nice on a clear evening to see the City of Lights with night lights on. Were I to take that route I believe I would pick a cruise similar to the one from which I just disembarked rather then one of those dinner cruises which look to be jammed-packed with people trying to eat, drink, make conversation and sightseeing while floating on the river. Too much multitasking. This quiet Sunday moved to night and I moved to a Vietnamese restaurant I had passed earlier. La Muraille de Jade it is called and it turns out wonderful food. I had a prix fixe which came with wine and a Kir aperitif, spring rolls, crusty and caramelized beef ribs, fried rice with garlic, and pistachio ice cream. Beats dining in by several parallels.

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