Alysa Salzberg

Alysa Salzberg
Location
Paris, France
Birthday
December 31
Title
Writer, copy editor, translator, travel planner. Head servant to my cat.
Company
www.alysasalzberg.com
Bio
A reader, a writer, a fingernail biter, a cat person, a traveller, a cookie inhaler, an immigrant, a dreamer. …And now, self-employed! If you like my blog and if you're looking for sparkling writing, painstaking proofreading, nimble French-English translation, or personalized travel planning, feel free to check out www.alysasalzberg.com.

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MY SHORT STORIES AND OTHER CREATIVE WRITING ON OS
OCTOBER 1, 2010 6:50PM

Walking to Work: Impressions

Rate: 20 Flag

Autumn here brings a wind that creeps down your neck and chills the rest of you. It arrived a few days ago, and this morning it’s in fine form, coiling around my coat’s high collar, pulling at my skirt, tugging me into winter.

The Metro has also undergone its fall transformation. The heat’s been turned on.  But we, the rushing mass of be-at-your-desk-by-9-am workers, warm the place to an almost unbearable degree.  If you can, you take off your coat.  I find myself with that and my sweater bundled in my arms.  In the Metro, it’s summer till I reach my station and exit onto the Boulevard Saint-Michel.

Even this early, the Boulevard is full of bustle, though most of its shops are still closed. Tourists chat and laugh and ask for directions.  Beggars go to great lengths to display their worthiness.  Today, one man has sat down, his back against a lamppost, his legs uncovered and exposed to the wind, two crutches lying beside them, to make a point. 

Across the Boulevard, the facades of the used bookstores, normally dotted with browsers and stalls, are concealed by grey metal curtains -- closed eyelids.  I understand them.  It’s a miserable thing to have to wake up before you really want to.  On this side of the street, though, Starbucks and the cafes have long been open, and seem to regard their neighbors with a bit of an aloof air.  Early risers are often like this. 

I narrow my eyes into slits at the gusts of wind, and try to open them when I can in order to gaze into the shop windows.  I look there to see the clothes I’ll buy in my imagination.  The windows also serve as my mirror. Today I’ve chosen to wear black knee socks. I thought they would be covered by my skirt, but the wind and my quick pace are revealing my secret, along with the snow-white tops of my knees.  Embarrassment.

Crossing the Boulevard Saint-Germain is always a challenge. There’s a traffic light but what’s more efficient is just to wait until a small herd of pedestrians accumulates. Even the trucks and tour buses roaring through won’t be able to argue with our sheer numbers. 

Safely across, the crowd spreads out.  I’m beside the gates of the Musée du Moyen Age.  It’s a beautiful building, one of only two medieval residential structures in the city.  I always like to pass it and think of the marvels inside.  The most wonderful for me, aren’t the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, but a pair of shoes that are more than a thousand years old. 

As I advance down the street, I notice the pigeons. They’re everywhere in Paris, but I never get tired of watching them.  One seems to be limping a little, and I hope he’s all right.  He looks fine, pecking with his friends among the newly fallen leaves that litter the sidewalk.  I think of how at least half the pigeons I’ve seen here, are missing toes. Their existence can be harsh, but they seem content.  They’re survivors and this is the way of their lives, I guess. I just hope tha –

-- I should have paid attention.  This little side street, with a crumbling morsel of the very old city wall, seems to be a place motorcyclists lie in wait for unsuspecting pedestrians.  I believe that in a past life, I was run over by a motorcycle and died.  I don’t want to go through that again.

I hurry past more modern structures.  A gym makes me think of how much I don’t like gyms.  But I do love to walk.  Every good thing I’ve ever read about walking has held true for me.  It helps me clear my head.  It often inspires me. It helps my blood to circulate.  I might even take off my jacket again, though the winter chill is still here. I can smell it, even if my warmed skin has melted its icy fingers.

At the Boulevard Saint-Jacques, I wait for a steady stream of cars, buses, and bicyclists to stop.  The light changes.  We hurry across.  I’m facing a comic book shop with some very elaborate figurines.  Each one costs around a hundred euros. In these hard economic times, I wonder who buys them, and how many. 

Up the street a little further, there are more bookshops.  One offers three paperbacks for 5 euros. That sounds like a better deal. 

In France, it’s easy to live well.  You can find great books that cost little, and delicious, bright, inexpensive vegetables and fruit to contrast with the muted colors of the pages. 

I cross the rue des Ecoles and the street rises more sharply.  Outside one of the schools, a homeless man has set up camp.  He amazes me with his unabashed boredom; instead of staring out blindly all day or begging, he puts out an old, empty salade méxicain can for change, and opens a book.  The quintessential Latin Quarter bum.  Then, the other day I noticed he had headphones on, white ones that usually go with an Ipod.  That discouraged me a little from giving him money.  But it also brings up some philosophical questions. Being a beggar is hard – you have to withstand the elements, unkind pedestrians, and a lack of nearby clean bathrooms, among other things.  So is it any less of a job than mine?  If now and then I can blow a good portion of my monthly earnings on things that give me pleasure, why can’t this man buy an Ipod?  And anyway, who’s to say he bought it?  Maybe it’s an older model given to him by one of the rich kids of the neighborhood. 

And here are some of those kids now. They linger outside their high school, smoking languidly between classes.  I always think of how at my high school smokers had to hide in the woods around campus.  The girls are dressed perfectly, showing every style currently in the fashion magazines: punk, prep, chic, vintage.  The boys are usually less creative, but both sexes exude such confidence they might as well be taking part in a photo shoot.  When I make my way among them, I feel like the school nerd – even though I don’t go to their school.

At the summit of the Boulevard Saint Jacques, where it intersects with the rue Soufflot, groups of tourists are usually meandering about, bantering and taking pictures of the Pantheon, just to the left, or waiting in line at the public toilet that never seems available.  Another treacherous street to cross, but once again I make it.  I give a darting, appreciative glance to the Eiffel Tower, separated from me by the long street, the Jardin du Luxembourg, and many other streets beyond that, but still clear and brown in the morning’s hazy sunlight.

Up I go, facing the Pantheon.  By day, it’s what it was meant to be, an impressive monument – first a church, then a temple to “great men” (so far, only one woman has been entombed here based on her contributions to society – Marie Curie).  Its walls are massive and angular, precisely cut of stone that seems to shine a warm gold.  But I prefer the Pantheon at night, when its dome is lit a white-green color.  It looks like a skull, the dark windows around its base like teeth.

A quick turn around the Fifth Arrondissement’s Town Hall, confetti on the grey stone sidewalk today – another marriage.  A middle-aged man in a dress shirt is walking quickly in my direction.  He looks put-together and proper.  As he gets closer, I hear him muttering, “C’est bizarre, c’est bizarre.”  (“It’s bizarre, it’s bizarre.”)  As he passes, I wonder what he finds so bizarre, especially so early in the morning. 

And then I’ve arrived at work for the day. I push open the heavy glass doors and leave the wind and the shops and my fellow pedestrians and pigeons behind for the lobby's still air.    

 

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Thanks for inviting us along on your stroll to work
in the City of Light...Paris is an ancient place
fulla history, certainly...but still it is a
living city and YOU are making history in it...

Your descriptions are magnificent as always...
especially regarding the beggars...
Please don't begrudge our friend his ipod...
he needs his music a hell of alot more
than the bustling crowd
who punctuate their busy lives with
art...this guy LIVES it, i would think...he is a work of art
himself, as you no doubt know...and have made him...

Winter coming...time to speed to our comfort zones inside...
and the world outside becomes grand abstract wonder
to be hurried through...

a last jaunt...while jaunts are fun...
Thanks for inviting us along on your stroll to work
in the City of Light...Paris is an ancient place
fulla history, certainly...but still it is a
living city and YOU are making history in it...

Your descriptions are magnificent as always...
especially regarding the beggars...
Please don't begrudge our friend his ipod...
he needs his music a hell of alot more
than the bustling crowd
who punctuate their busy lives with
art...this guy LIVES it, i would think...he is a work of art
himself, as you no doubt know...and have made him...

Winter coming...time to speed to our comfort zones inside...
and the world outside becomes grand abstract wonder
to be hurried through...

a last jaunt...while jaunts are fun...
Thanks for inviting us along on your stroll to work
in the City of Light...Paris is an ancient place
fulla history, certainly...but still it is a
living city and YOU are making history in it...

Your descriptions are magnificent as always...
especially regarding the beggars...
Please don't begrudge our friend his ipod...
he needs his music a hell of alot more
than the bustling crowd
who punctuate their busy lives with
art...this guy LIVES it, i would think...he is a work of art
himself, as you no doubt know...and have made him...

Winter coming...time to speed to our comfort zones inside...
and the world outside becomes grand abstract wonder
to be hurried through...

a last jaunt...while jaunts are fun...
god, sorry...delete me twice
I would never delete your beautiful words, mr. sunshine! Thanks for the lovely comment. I'm glad you liked this post.
It was wonderful to take this little walk with you. A delight this evening. You must get off at the Metro station quite near the Île de la Cité and Notre Dame.

As you are crossing the Boulevard Saint-Germain, my headquarters are to the right up that street a way, a brasserie called Le Saint Germain at the intersection of Boulevard Saint-Germain and Boulevard Raspail.

I looooove the Musée du Moyen Age.

(I can just hear others who see this comment say, “What an asshole!” I am. What can I say?)
This is so excellent Alysa. I can't wait to send it to my cousin-sister soul-mate who has a special fascination with all things Parisian. You have illustrated the old-world charm and sophistication of your adopted city very well indeed!

And to boot, you've written a love letter to walking. As an advocate for health, I applaud you for that as well.
I just enjoyed walking right along with you! Your descriptions are alive. This brought me back to the days of living and working in Chicago. Excellent piece.
well ok but my goodness..three comments?
thanks for the complement...

Paris was once the center of the universe.\
Many times, through history....
to live there and incorporate its vibes must be thrilling...

oh, but it's fulla french people...
i don't often see them as having wisdom so much as
having a way of being...french people transported here to
the kingdom of the Vulgar are always a fascinating
anomaly to me...some air of detached degenerate sophistication...
which i enjoy and immediately steal for my self...
they worship cleverness,
i think, and clever is revolutionary...

bones grounded into god's green America,
i find the same thing...it is exhausting to keep up...

i love the idea of old cities but can't get past the feeling
that they are there to intimidate...to show what we have acc=-
omplished rather than what the raw immediacy of now
accomplishes...america is the place for that....

history, to sum up this nonsensical comment , is
important to the keepers of tradition...
but tradition moves like you through
Paris streets, always changing...you are in the Old world..changing
it...in 1208 something happened,
but in 2010 alysa was there...you ARE history now..
Brassawe - They only have to check out your blogs (the one here and your other one, to which a link can be found on the left hand column of this page), to see that you are absolutely not an asshole. I loved your comment, personally - I know exactly where your "headquarters" is - well-chosen. And yes, the Metro station I got out at, at the start of this post, is Saint Michel.

BB - I'm glad you liked this - and that you approve my "healthy" lifestyle. Unfortunately, besides walking, some yoga, and obsessively brushing my teeth and washing (the latter being arguable for health, according to some sources), I don't think you'd find the rest of my lifestyle particularly healthy, I'm sad to say. Especially as far as getting a good amount of vitamin D goes....

heidibeth - Thanks. I love that about cities, that you can walk through and see so much life and energy. I guess some people feel this way about the countryside, but it doesn't move me as much.

kate - thanks so much - what a compliment! I'm glad you enjoyed this...but I don't walk half as stylishly as those high school kids. I really can't belive how cool they look!

mr. sunshine - I'll indeed leave the extra posts, unless you really want me to delete them. I just loved what you wrote. As for this second post, thanks first of all for stopping by again, and your views, as always, are interesting. I do think the general impression we get of the French is sort of an aloof coolness, and they do indeed appreciate cleverness and wit over a lot of things, which is one of the reasons I love them. But I hope you'll get to come to France one day and see that they're not really jerks - some are, of course; we find jerks lurking in every population. But what we consider meanness is really just a lot of insecurity, or a way of carrying themselves that they learn at birth. As for cities being intimidating, I don't know, I think it depends on the city. I love New York and lived there for several years, but that city did intimidate me, and it's not that old compared to Paris. But on the other hand, there are cities like Paris, or Florence, where you feel right at home. No matter who you are or what your background is, I feel these cities seem to welcome you. You just have to find the right spot. And that could be true for all cities. And thanks for the making history comment. I'll think about that one.
Having never been to Paris, this was so enjoyable. I loved walking with you and taking in all that you saw. The only thing that broke my heart was Starbucks. While I know they are everywhere, it just seems wrong to be in Paris. I hope you will write more about the city. R.
I loved this. It made me homesick for Paris -- one of my favourite cities. I've never been to the Musée du Moyen Age. Next time!
I liked this walk with you and how you question your own thoughts and find less judgemental reasons (beggar with the ipod). I like people who question their own assumptions. Rare and wonderful.
I love this kind of stuff! I may never visit Paris but thanks for the vicarious taste of it.

Maybe you have some pics to share of the city of light?
Bernadine - I'm glad you enjoyed this walk, and sorry about the Starbucks. I didn't want to add it, but it's true that it's just as busy as the cafes in the morning. It breaks my heart in a way, too, though they do have the best chocolate chip muffins in the city (I only know this because my boyfriend's brother fell in love with their frappacinos and insists we go whenever he visits - otherwise I'm a loyal patron of French cafes).

Emma - Thanks for reading. The Musee du Moyen Age is definitely worth a visit the next time you're here.

Mimetalker - I could have written a whole post about this man, and about the other homeless people and beggars that I see every day. Paris is beautiful but there is this sad side to it, as well. And yet, what I love is that each of these people have kept their personality through hard times. Ever since writing this post, I've been thinking of maybe doing a post specifically about this population of the city. It's easy to judge and we all do, but they intrigue me. As Sara Crewe says in my favorite book, "A Little Princess," "It's just an accident that you are not me, and I am not you."

Harry's - I hope you will visit Paris one day. I do have pictures - lots of pictures - and I'll be posting some soon, thanks to an idea Brassawe had.
The Metro IS unbearably hot sometimes, and taxis are strange in Paris. They never take me exactly where I want to go. Living is cheap there, but then I've never tried. I understand everything has become quite a bit more expensive there recently. Do you find this to be so?

rated.
Dom - I'm glad you enjoyed the walk!

BOKO - Thanks for reading. In answer to your question, the prices of some basic food items have gone up slightly, as well as some more traditional, yet not essential edibles, like the Charentes melon. This latter was due to a bad harvest year. I shop in cheap places, so for me, there hasn't really been that much of a notable change in what I pay for things...though my monthly Metro pass did go up about 4 euros. That wasn't cool.
You make me completely homesick for Paris, Alysa. But I'm so glad Starbucks hadn't yet invaded when I lived there (rue Charles V)....
Les photos? Ou est les photos?!
This was such a well written treat.
The French are impossibly cool. But, you are way cool too,Alysa.
I feel as if I was there every step of the way and it was lots of fun.
I long to go there, and this morning you took me along for a wonderful stroll... thank you for this lovely treat today.
Wow you have so much to see -- Paris must be such a vibrant city. Be careful around the motorcycles! You're right, you don't want to do that again!
Cartouche - Sorry to have made you homesick - I hope you'll be able to come visit Paris soon. Just pretend you don't see the Starbucks.... Et je vais bientot mettre des photos, avec un autre article....

fernsy - Great to see your lovely avatar, and, again, my best wishes to you. Thanks for the cool points - I need them!

rita - Thanks for stopping by. I'm so glad you enjoyed my walk to work. I hope you'll get to come to Paris one day.

Bellwether - Paris really is a very vibrant place, but there are some quiet streets, all the same. That's one of the many things I love about it here. As for the motorcycles, they are the bane of my existence. I am terrified of them!
Do they still roast chestnuts in little sidewalk carts along Saint-Germain? I can almost smell the aroma.

Wonderful tour, Alysa. Took me back several decades and made me wish I could return in person.
Matt - Yes, those chestnut carts are still there - and in a lot of other places around the city. I love the smell, and I can imagine how it would stay in your memory. I hope you'll be able to come back some day.
Wonderful, enchanting! The warmth of your writing seems to chase the chill winds...
“C’est bizarre, c’est bizarre.”
I love this. I lived in Paris for almost two years (first in the 17th, then the 16th, then the 12th) and like you, I really cherished its everyday joys--the historic architecture, the sounds, the smells. I'm also a morning person so your description really hits a nerve. Now I want to duck into a cafe doe a croissaant au veurre and a cafe au lait
!