Leaving Paris

August 02, 2020

On a warm summer day in late August 2019, we moved into a third-floor apartment in Paris’s residential 15th arrondissement. Standing on our balcony and looking to the left, we could see the district’s mairie—its town hall—and behind it the Eiffel Tower. Directly across the small park in front of us was a row of apartment buildings and a contemporary office structure. Just up the street was the Vaugirard metro station: our gateway to the rest of Paris.

With a bit more foresight, I might have anticipated that we would lose access to that gateway as one of France’s periodic transit strikes disrupted transportation throughout the nation’s capital, and beyond. No understanding of French political economy, however, could have prepared me for the city’s complete lockdown in March as a pandemic hit Paris with particular ferocity. Even after the country’s reopening in May and June, I experienced Paris as Baron Hausmann had envisioned—as a pedestrian.1

In The Walkable City, Mary Soderstrom posits a conversation between Georges-Eugène Hausmann, who under Emperor Napoleon III transformed Paris from medieval city to modern metropolis, and Jane Jacobs, who fought against a similar effort to clear New York’s “slums” a century later. Baron Hausmann was the Robert Moses of his day: an ambitious planner unencumbered by nostalgia for the city’s past. Jacobs would have hated him. And yet, while American urban planning has turned sharply against Moses’s vision, Paris survives as a model for the walkable city.
The difference, I suspect, has something to do with technology. Not only did Hausmann work in a pre-automobile age, but steel-frame construction had yet to emerge as America’s seminal contribution to modern architecture. The quintessential Parisian neighborhood is thus capped at seven stories. With numerous such buildings, Paris is dense, but it is rarely crowded, and it is always light. Many neighborhoods have the feel of a village.
Parisians did not take to the Eiffel Tower at first, but it proved such a draw for tourists that they learned to like it. (The same cannot be said for the unfortunate Tour Montparnasse.) Today, the Eiffel Tower is the iconic symbol of a city that annually draws tens of millions of sightseers. No living Parisian could remember Paris without either tourists or, for those old enough, foreign troops—until this spring. Sometime in March, the city emptied out. During the height of the confinement, I would go for long runs down deserted streets, jogging in the roadway to avoid the few pedestrians about. Even after restrictions were lifted and well-off Parisians returned to the city, the tourists were absent. We could sit on the Champ de Mars in early July with only a handful of picnicking locals in proximity.
People ask if I feel cheated that my sabbatical coincided with the pandemic. Au contraire! I got to see Paris as few have. We were scared at first, but the fear passed even before the danger did, leaving solidarity in its wake. Every evening at 8:00, we joined our neighbors on the balcony to applaud the city’s healthcare workers—and ourselves. For weeks, this daily ritual was our primary social interaction outside of the home. Elderly couple waving a white scarf, woman on distant balcony with long black hair, man in glasses (Nicolas, we eventually learned) one building over…we shared the confinement with you.
By July, even as infections spiked anew at home, we felt secure enough to travel around France by car. After a whirlwind tour of WWI battlefields and the Normandy beaches, we settled into a comfortable rhythm, staying 2–3 nights in each region. We joined our friends Sergei and Katia in Brittany, and we met up with our friends Mike and Brandi in Fontainebleau and Valery and Sonya in Provence. We ate fresh oysters on the Atlantic shore and fresh trout in the Alps, we visited chateaux in the Loire Valley and hillside villages in Provence, and we drank the local wines wherever we went. It was wonderful.
Memory works in interesting ways. If I fast forward through part an audiobook that I have already heard, I can remember where I was at the precise moment that a particular phrase was spoken. But when I again walk the street where I listened to that book, my mind is elsewhere—no visual cue prompts remembrance of the spoken word.
What will I remember when I can finally visit Paris again? I do not know, but I can guess: the embankment of the Seine during the morning hours when running was allowed, the square in front of the mairie where I played tag with my son as we took a break from online schooling, the view from our balcony and the sound of the city applauding. Paris, j’espère te voir bientôt. Tu me manques déjà.
Place Adolphe Chérioux. Artwork by Mike Duncan.