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.